Monday, June 29, 2015

King (and Queen) Munmu's Watery Graves

Daewangam in Kyeongju

Daewangam, translating as the Great King Rock, is the location of the world's only underwater tomb. Munmu-wang, King Munmu (661 - 681AD), was the king who unified the Three Kingdoms and who became the 30th ruler of the Silla Kingdom (578 - 935 AD). On his deathbed, the king abdicated to his son and gave express instructions for a water burial in the East Sea. "A country should not be without a king at any time. Let the Prince have my crown before he has my coffin. Cremate my remains and scatter the ashes in the sea where the whales live. I will become a dragon and thwart foreign invasion." And so in death King Munmu was to protect the Unified Kingdom that he had created.

The cluster of rocks is about 200 meters off the coast and is divided by a cross-shaped waterway, forming a pool at the center. At the bottom of the pool is a 3.6 meter long, 2.9 meter wide and 0.9 meter thick stone slab, which according to legend, covers the remains of King Munmu's cremated body. Historians debate whether his ashes were actually interred in an urn under the granite or they were spread on the water for according to another legend, King Sinmun, Munmu's son and heir, did as his father asked by cremating his father and scattering his ashes over Daewangam, the Rock of the Great King. King Sinmun also built Geomunsa, Temple of the Appreciated Blessing, and dedicated it to his father. He built a waterway for the sea dragon to approach land from the sea and he built Igyeondae Pavilion, which overlooks the islet, so future kings could pay their respect to the great king Munmu.. The site is known as the place from which King Munmu was seen ascending from his final resting place in the sea to the heavens as a dragon.

After fulfilling his father's death wish, in a dream, King Munmu and the famous general Kim Yu-sin appeared to King Sinmun and said, "Blowing on a bamboo flute will calm the heavens and the earth." King Sinmun awoke and rode to the sea to receive the bamboo flute Monposikjuk. It is said that blowing on the bamboo flute invokes the spirits of King Munmu and General Kim Yu-Sin and pushes back enemy troops, cures illnesses, brings rain during drought and halts rain in floods. The spot is permeated with the guardian spirit of King Munmu.

Whether all of this is true or not, there are many shamans who come to perform their rites, prayers and exorcisms to the East Sea particularly here along the beach line overlooking where King Munmu has his watery burial. Particularly in front of King Munmu's watery tomb and to the south the beach is lined with white boxy tent structures. At first I thought these were storage tents but when a drum tempo and the harsh notes of the timpani clanged, I peaked around to check out what kind of ceremony was going on. Shamans, some dressed as monks! Several of the tents were occupied with different groups of people with simple to quite elaborate food offerings on tables in front of them. As the evening progressed, more and more drum and timpani tempos picked up. The furthest tent had a female shaman in hanbok; she was in trance and was jumping wildly and waving the two long knives that shamans wield in some exorcisms. Too bad she was dancing in the dark; otherwise, I would have attempted some pictures.

The underwater tomb of King Munmu, Daewangam, Historic Site No. 158.
Bongil-li, in Yangbuk-myeon, Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province.
Along the beach after dark many candles were set out in groups as ascending prayers to the sea and the heavens. The next morning, there were pools of candle wax in strange blobs (as shaped by the sand pits or footprints they had melted in) everywhere showing where the candles had melted and documenting a sea that had extinguished the prayers and taken them.
One of the shamans that was backlit. Most were sitting within the white tents
and I didn't want to obviously intrude my camera to get a shot.
Daewangam at Daewangam Park in Ulsan

Then next morning I left Song-il Beach and went to Ulsan to stay at Ilsan Beach where King Munmu's wife similarly is worshipped as a protector in the East Sea.

This Daewangam, again called the Rock of the Great King, is not where King Munmu was interred in his watery grave. This particular Daewangam is located in Ulsan, Ulju-gun at the Ganjeolgot Cape, just to the south of Ilsan Beach. Like the Kyeongju Daewangam, it similarly is a place of mysticism and mystery. According to one legend, the queen of King Munmu in the Unified Silla dynasty wanted to be buried under the rocky island so she could turn into a dragon that would protect her country, a mirror of her husband's noble will. Another legend has her becoming a guardian dragon upon her death and flying to Ulsan, where she submerged herself under the rock now called Daewangam to protect her country and people. It is said that because of the greatness and power of the dragon, even seaweed does not grow around this rock.

Daewangam is located at the tip of Daewangam Park, just south of Ilsan Beach. In 2004 the previously named Ulgi Park (since 1962) became known as Daewangam Park and the park has been cultivated and landscaped as a natural spot of beauty for people to relax in, particularly as Ulsan was getting the reputation as a very polluted city because of its extensive factories and shipping industries. Today, the park is a beautiful and restful place with 15,000 large pine trees that have been growing more than 100 years, an impressive age considering the invasions, wars and need for wood before, during and after the colonial period. The Daewangam Pine forest is one of the 12 scenic beauties of Ulsan and offers superb views of the East Sea from between the trees and from lookout promontory rocks in the jutting finger of land where the park is located. One of the famous sites and is truly mysterious is Seuldo, where two well-known TV dramas "Flame of Desire" and "May Queen" were filmed. What is most unique about this beach, however, is the entire beach is a collection of fist-sized rocks and between the rocks the air and water flow as the waves strike the rock, creating a haunting and at times musical effect likened to the geomungo (six-stringed Korean zither).

A glimpse just to the north of Ilsan Beach with some of the tall Ulsan buildings. To the right is a part of Hyundai Heavy Industries, one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world.
Beyond the trees is Hyundai Heavy Industries. This day was particularly bright and clear with wind from the south to blow the industrial pollution northward or inland.
One of the twin caves. This cave, the cave of the rude blue dragon. 
Again the cave of the rude blue dragon
Legend says that a rude blue dragon lived in this natural cave. The blue dragon was a prince of an underwater kingdom, but who had a bad character and caused many shipwrecks. The fishermen were angry and their furious complaints reached the king of the underwater kingdom. The king commanded his other four sons to kill their brother and since there have been no more shipwrecks. This legend is quite useful, especially as Ulsan is one of the world's ship-building capitols, hence, a potentially propitious legend to have.

At the farthest extension of land in the Daewangam Park is Daewangam, the Rock of the Great King (but actually of his wife). Just before the bridge leading to the rock are two picnic sites for visitors to eat fresh seafood served under the colorful open sea market umbrellas and black awnings. These eating sites are very temporary because if the water kicks up or a storm comes, these little beachy areas quickly get slapped by large powerful waves or become totally submerged. The sellers set up quickly and can as quickly dismantle the sites.

The Daewangam! Take the bridge across and while crossing watch the power of the ocean surge beneath. This is a place of powerful currents and imagining the power of a dragon here is not difficult.

For bus numbers getting here and to some nearby sites, go to Ulsan Tour of Ancient History: Munmu Tombs, Petroglyphs, Whaling.

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