SEOUL, South Korea - On August 16, I visited Jongmyo Shrine which was close to my hotel Plaza. The docent, a lady quite fluent in English with education in history and politics, gave explanations about the philosophy behind the establishment of the shrine.
The shrine, founded during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), is where the ancestral tablets of deceased kings and queens are enshrined and sacrificial rites performed for them. The worship rites are accompanied with music and dance performance.
As we were visiting the shrine, which is surrounded by a forest, the songs of birds were reverberating in the air. Groups of tourists were also seen visiting the shrine.
Ceremonial reenactments of the Joseon ancestral memorial rites are conducted on the first Sunday of every May. Until 1971, the ceremonies were conducted five times a year.
The reason that Jongmyo was built is that according to the Confucian philosophy the spirit separates from the body upon death and the spirit goes to heaven while the body returns to earth. For this reason, Koreans built tombs and shrines separately. They kept spirit tablets to house the spirit of the deceased and made offerings to these tablets to worship their ancestors.
In Jeseon ceremonies to deceased ancestors were the most important of all rites. The ceremonies were presided over by the king and served as a model for all sacrificial rites in the dynasty. The king visited regularly to participate in the ancestral rites to wish for the safety and security of the people and state.
The shrine, the oldest and most authentic of the Confucian royal shrines,
is situated on the ridge of Eungbongsan Mountain that runs through the Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung palaces.
The layout and structures of Jongmyo Shrine are very simple.
Changdeokgung itself is a masterful work but particularly noteworthy is the back garden (Huwon), also called the Secret garden (Biwon), which is widely acclaimed for its beautifully landscaped and creative gardens.
Jongmyo was built in 1395 after King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, selected Hanyang (current Seoul) as the capital of the dynasty. About 200 years after the construction of the shrine it was burned down by Japanese invaders in 1592. Today, the shrine dates to 1608 which with the passage of time the facilities were enlarged as more kings and queens were enshrined.
The most important building at Jongmyo are Jeongjeon (the main hall) and Yeongnyeong-jeon (the hall of eternal peace). At present, Jeongjeon contains 19 chambers housing 49 spirit tables of kings and queens, including Taejo. Yeongnyeongjeon contains 16 chambers housing 34 tablets.
Among all the Confucian states in Asia where similar shrines were constructed only Korea has preserved its royal shrine and continues to perform royal ancestral sites known as Jongmyo Jerye and Jongmyo Jeryeak. That is the main reason that Jongmyo was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995 and Jongmyo Jerye (royal ancestral rites) and Jongmyo Jeryeak (royal ancestral ritual music) were designated by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
The walkways stretching from the main gate to inside the shrine are covered with rough stones. The reason is that rough stones forced the ritual attendants, including the king, to walk slowly as is only appropriate for a solemn occasion. And none of the facilities in Jongmyo is lavishly adorned, highlighting the shrine solemnity.
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