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2016 travel diary 11: Buyeo National Museum and the tombs at Neungsan-ri

Buyeo-eup, Chungcheongnam-do, 17 May 2016 10am.

Buyeo National Museum

Gilt Bronze Incense Burner
Part of the Gilt Bronze Incense Burner (photo: LKL)

Next stop was the Buyeo National Museum. Here, we were totally shameless in our visit. It was to be a precision strike: go and see the the famous Gilt Bronze Incense Burner of Baekje and get out quick: we had an appointment in Sancheong.

But of course it was not that simple.

The incense burner in situ
The incense burner in situ (photo: LKL)

The receptionists were very helpful and pointed us where we wanted to go, and we went straight there. We approached the room in awe. The object is stunning. No replica can do it justice. Probably part of its aura is the way it is displayed – rather like the Pensive Boddisattva in the National Museum in Yongsan, it sits on its own in a darkened room, spot lit, an object of reverence. It is of course protected in a glass display case but nevertheless you can poke your nose up close and see all the microscopic detail.

Some of the detailing in the incense burner
Some of the detailing in the incense burner (photo: LKL)

One of the many things that is so amazing about this object, replicas of which are now routinely given away by the Ministry of Culture to people it wishes to honour for being friends of Korea, is that it was only discovered in 1993, just outside the city wall of ancient Sabi, near the Royal Tombs of Neungsan-ri.

The main body of the incense burner
The main body of the incense burner, with a good view of the zither player at the top and various animals frolicking in the mountain scenery (photo: LKL)

You could easily stay in front of the incense burner for a full half hour. Preferably you would have a magnifying glass with you to appreciate the intricate metalwork (and ideally you would remove the glass display case to get up close). But even without the up-close viewing aids you could still stay for a while. The whole thing is 64cm tall and weighs nearly 12 kilos. The upper half of this amazing egg-shaped object is like an artichoke (though the more poetic would liken it to a lotus flower). Each artichoke leaf / lotus petal is shaped as a mountain – 23 peaks in all, four to five layers deep. The landscape contains trees, boulders, waterfalls and various creatures including tiger and deer, depicting a Daoist paradise inhabited by immortal sages.

The phoenix on top of the incense burner.
The phoenix on top of the incense burner. Photo: Buyeo National Museum

The object is divided into four parts – the main egg-shaped body is in two halves, above which is a phoenix shaped knob with a “dragon orb” known as the yeouiju (여의주) between its beak and neck, and the egg is supported on a base – a dragon which holds the censer in its claw with its mouth pointing upward. The dragon’s thin, twisted body is intertwined with clouds. Cunningly hidden among all the mountain scenery of the top half of the egg are five holes to let out the smell of the incense.

The dragon that supports the incense burner
The dragon that supports the incense burner (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

At the top of the main part of the object, sitting between the highest mountains, are five musicians. People who thought they were familiar with Korean traditional instruments might find a few surprises among the instruments being played – bearing in mind that this treasure can be dated to the 6th century: a lute-like instrument called a 완함 / 阮咸; a geomungo-like zither called a 백제금 / 百濟琴, a small, lightweight drum called a 백제고 / 百濟鼓; a recorder-like flute called 백제적 / 百濟笛; and finally the panpipes: 소 / 簫.

The presence of the lute (완함 / 阮咸) on the object is a puzzle, as it was not an instrument popular in Tang China until the following century. Whether or not the instrument was widely played in Baekje, its presence on the incense burner indicates that Baekje craftsmen were familiar with this instrument that originated further west on the Silk Road, beyond Tang China.

We had to tear ourselves away from the precious object, our legs leading the way but our eyes reluctant to leave. We felt like cartoon characters as the lower halves of our body left the room with our heads still glued to the incense burner.

But there was more to see.

Rock-carved Buddha Triad in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan-si
Rock-carved Buddha Triad in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan-si – as reproduced in Buyeo National Museum (photo: LKL)

In a room nearby was a wonderful rock-carved Buddha triad. It was a cast of a Baekje era carving that was only rediscovered in 1959 on Mt Gaya on the Taean Peninsula, in the northwest of Baekje territory (map). The central Buddha is nearly 3m high, and all three figures have benign smiles between their endearingly chubby cheeks.

And somewhere among the small gilt-bronze objects was national treasure #293, the 21 cm tall Gilt-bronze Standing Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from Gyuam-ri, just across the Geumgang river from Buyeo. Presumably too the Stone Reliquary from the temple site in Neungsan-ri was nearby.

The museum is a pleasant airy space and deserves at least an hour to look around it. Reluctantly we only had ten minutes to spend, and even then we were on borrowed time. We climb back into the car and head off to Neungsan-ri where the incense burner was discovered.

The Great Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje is National Treasure #287; the Stone Reliquary from Temple Site in Neungsan-ri is National Treasure #288; the Gilt-bronze Standing Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva from Gyuam-ri, Buyeo is National Treasure #293; and the Rock-carved Buddha Triad in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan is National Treasure #84. LKL went to Seosan to see the real thing in 2018.

The ancient tombs at Neungsan-ri

The seven tombs at Neunsan-ri
The seven tombs at Neunsan-ri

Not far outside Sabi’s city wall is the set of aristocratic / royal tombs in Neungsan-ri. If you’ve seen the tombs in Gongju, you don’t really need to pay your 1,000 Won to walk up to the tombs. We did, and we wondered if there was anything else to see. There wasn’t.  So if you’re in a rush (as we were) you can safely skip these tombs or simply look at them from the road.

The first of the tombs, called the Donghachong, has the same symbolic decoration as tomb number 6 in Songsan-ri, Gongju: each wall has a mythical animal appropriate to the direction of the compass: White Tiger, Blue Dragon, Red Phoenix and Black Tortoise-snake. The paintings were executed in pine resin ink and other pigments on plaster. The ceiling (which is flat, unlike the arched roof in Gongju) has a lovely design of lotus flowers and wispy, wind-blown clouds, which has been reproduced in the Buyeo National Museum outside the room that houses the incense burner.

The painting of lotus flowers and clouds on the ceiling of the first tomb
The painting of lotus flowers and clouds on the ceiling of the first tomb, as reproduced in the Buyeo National Museum

Not open to the public, sandwiched between the city wall and the royal tombs is the site of a temple – as reconstructed at Baekje Cultural Land. It is here that the Incense Burner and the stone sarira reliquary were found, dating the temple to 567.

The Stone Reliquary from Temple Site in Neungsan-ri
The Stone Reliquary from Temple Site in Neungsan-ri (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

The temple has been re-imagined, at full scale, across town at Lotte’s Baekje Cultural Land, including an impressive 5-storey wooden pagoda.

The Ancient Tombs in Neungsan-ri are Historic Site No 14; the Temple Site in Neungsan-ri is Historic Site No 434

Journey to Sancheong

The road from Buyeo to Sancheong
The road from Buyeo to Sancheong

We left Buyeo half an hour later than anticipated. No matter how lucky we were going to be with the traffic, we would not make it to our 12 o’clock rendezvous at the other side of Jirisan if we obeyed the speed limits. I rang Kyung-sook to apologise and try to reschedule things. We changed restaurant to one somewhat more northerly than originally planned, and moved the time back by 15 minutes. We met at the Sancheong interchange at midday after a pleasant drive which still probably involved a bit of speeding.

Maisan from the road to Sancheong-gun
Maisan from the road to Sancheong-gun

The road on the way had been stress free, with some interesting mountain scenery. As we passed through Jeollabuk-do I took a blurry picture of Maisan, Jinan-gun (map) which definitely merits a closer, more leisurely visit at some stage in the future.

We had lunch with the deputy mayor and the head of the county tourism department at a new restaurant in Sancheong Town named after Dae Jang Geum. Chris, Kyung-sook, the deputy mayor’s driver and myself made six. The dish is what I had as my introduction to Sancheong cuisine six years previously – the Great Restorative Duck Soup with Ten Perfect Ingredients. And very fine it was too.


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