Bulguk Temple pagoda-repair

GYEONGJU, South Korea, April 2 (Yonhap) -- An essential inner section of an ancient Buddhist pagoda at the Bulguk Temple was exposed to sunlight for the first time in 47 years Tuesday as part of an ongoing government project to fully disassemble the pagoda for repairs.

A compartment for storing sariras inside the main structure of the Seokga Pagoda was uncovered when a team of experts at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage carefully removed the second-floor stone roof with the use of a crane.

Sariras are crystals that are sometimes found among cremated remains of Buddhist monks and are regarded as sacred relics.

Inside the square compartment was the sarira container packed in a traditional Korean wrapping cloth, called bojagi, which was put there during its last round of repairs in 1966. This is the first time that the compartment has been opened since then.

The research institute affiliated with the Cultural Heritage Administration decided to repair the three-story pagoda in December 2010 as it showed a progression of damage, with fissures developing in the foundation stone. The authorities began disassembling the Seokga pagoda in September and, after completely removing the upper decorative section in December, they have been working on the middle part containing the sariras.

After a Buddhist ritual, the container with sariras will be safely preserved at a building of the temple until the stupa is fully repaired, according to officials.

Seokga Pagoda is believed to have been completed in the mid-8th century, about 200 years after the construction of the Buddhist temple in 535 in Gyeongju, about 370 kilometers southeast of Seoul. The city was the millennium-old capital of the Silla Dynasty that emerged from Korea's southeast and later unified much of the Korean Peninsula. The Bulguk Temple has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The pagoda stands 8.2 meters high and is revered for its unadorned beauty and elegant equilibrium. Directly across from it stands Dabo Pagoda, a more elaborately designed treasure constructed at about the same time as Seokga. Dabo Pagoda also recently underwent repair work.

Seokga Pagoda has undergone two previous rounds of repairs. The most recent repairs were done in 1966 when it was partly damaged by robbers in their unsuccessful attempt to steal the sarira container. In the repair process, lots of cultural assets, including "Mugujeonggwang Great Dharani Sutra," known as the world's oldest existing print done with wood-blocks, were found in the compartment inside the tower.

The heritage agency believes the latest damage has occurred gradually due to weathering effects.

Officials say the pagoda will be completely taken apart by the end of the first half of the year and be reassembled in March next year, with the restoration process set to be finished three months later.

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