Pilgrimage of the Shamans
When the day comes to an end and the tourists and families slowly gather their picnic baskets and head home, the small stony Bonggil Beach in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, is almost deserted for a short period of time. Only occasionally, some people can be seen praying, bowing toward the open sea to a few rocks. These rocks, about 200 meters off the coast, form a narrow rocky hill. They house the underwater grave of King Munmu the Great.
The Underwater Tomb of King Munmu — Daewangam, Historic Site No. 158 — is, at first glance, an unremarkable formation of rocks.
Appearances can be deceptive.
When night falls, the atmosphere changes; the little tents that line the coast are actually “gutdang,” or commercial Shaman shrines, where nightly Shaman rituals, or “gut,” are held. The sounds of drums and gongs mix with the sounds of the sea and the recitative chant of the people who visit the beach on this night.
In the dark it is hard to see who comes and who goes. Scattered fires and candles reveal the small ceremonies taking place near the water.
This beach is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Korean Shamans — especially during a full moon or on certain days of the lunar calendar — and a popular place of worship for Buddhists. The reasons for that lay in the myths and legends that entwine the death of the famous king.
The legend of Munmu
King Munmu the Great was the 30th king of Silla (57 B.C.-935 A.D.). He was born to King Muyeol and Queen Munmyeong under the name Prince Bubmin, and took the name King Munmu when he ascended the throne in 661.
During King Munmu’s reign, he was able to subdue the neighboring Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms and free the kingdom of Silla from the domination of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. King Munmu is also usually considered the first king of the Unified Silla.
After he had ruled for 21 years, King Munmu felt the approach of death. On his deathbed, he wished to have his body burned and the ashes scattered on a rock in the East Sea. It is said that after his death he wanted his spirit to become a dragon in order to prevent an invasion of Japanese attackers for all eternity. Those last words of the king were a surprise for the people of Silla — because it was customary for kings and nobles to be buried with treasures and other valuables in large tombs, the idea of cremating was deemed unacceptable and inappropriate.
Nevertheless, King Sinmun fulfilled his father’s wish and scattered the ashes in the East Sea. According to historic accounts, a temple called Gameunsa was built by King Sinmun to pay tribute to his father, who had become the mythical guardian dragon.
King Sinmun often visited the underwater grave, which was said to be the first of its kind in the world. One day, a dragon appeared to the king in the sea and gave him a jade belt and a bamboo flute called Manpasikjeok. This legendary bamboo flute had the magic power to repel enemies and heal the sick, bring rain in times of drought and protect against floods. (This episode is handed down in the legend of “The flute that can calm ten thousand waves,” in the Samguk Yusa, or Stories of the Three Kingdoms).
Shamans at Bonggil
For Korean shamans, the grave at Bonggil Beach is the place where they ask the guardian spirit for help and advice and where they contact other water spirits. Yongwang (the dragon god), for example, is an indispensible god to Korean Shamanism. Alongside Sansin (the mountain god), Yongwang is one of the Earthly gods. These Earthly gods are responsible for procuring descendents, national security, health and rain.
Older Shamans visit Bonbggil Beach as a place for religious worship, to perform small ceremonies and to collect “qi.” To cultivate qi, to clean and “recharge” their spiritual powers, is an important activity for all Shamans. During intense ritual periods, they use the rest periods to visit places in Korea that are regarded as spiritually pure or invigorating.
This kind of prayer, however, is not a privilege for Shamans and so visitors and residents from the surrounding villages can very often be seen praying to the gods and spirits to fulfill their wishes and requests.
Younger Shamans, so-called “sindall,” who are preparing their initiation ritual, or “naerim gut,” are very easy to recognize. They pray in this place for strength and help. These often tearful and intense ceremonies, which can last until dawn, are an emotional roller coaster ride that balance lamentation, fear, request and hope.
Occasionally, one can observe praying monks in their grey robes. In Korean Buddhism the Dragon God (Yongwang, the Dragon King) is an important deity of the Pantheon. Temples near the coast often have their own shrine, Yongwang-dang, devoted to this deity. As a Buddhist deity, Yongwang is in charge of rain and water, and controls the storms. He also protects the Dharma.
When the dawn slowly reddens, and the sky and the first birds announce the sunrise, the chanting will, in this last time, become a little louder and the drums more intense. But when the day breaks and early risers get up to enjoy the sun’s rays on the promenade, the spiritual activity comes to an end. The beach belongs again to fishermen, tourists and families.