Jongmyo

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

Surrounded by dense woodland, the impressive buildings of World Heritage Jongmyo (www.cha.go.kr) house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings and queens and some of their most loyal government officials. Their spirits are believed to reside in a special hole bored into the wooden tablets.

Near the entrance are two ponds, both square (representing the earth) with a round island (representing the heavens). The shrines are where earth meets the heavens, where the royal spirits come and go. The triple paths were originally built for the king, the crown prince and the spirits.

On the right are buildings which were used to store ritual vessels and incense. They now contain an exhibition about the ceremonies that were conducted here – in fact they still take place once a year when the Yi clan, descendants of the Joseon kings, re-enact the ceremony. They make lavish offerings of food and drink to the spirits of their royal ancestors, who are regaled with solemn music and dance. It takes place on the first Sunday of May and lasts seven hours.

The main shrine, Jeongjeon , constructed in 1395, is a very long, stately and austere building with a large stone-flagged courtyard in front of it. Inside are 49 royal spirit tablets in 19 small windowless rooms which are usually locked. On the right-hand side of the main entrance is Gonsindang , which houses the spirit tablets of 83 meritorious subjects. They served their kings well and were rewarded with their spirit tablets sharing the royal compound – the highest honour they could hope for. On the left side are shrines to Chilsa, the seven gods who aid kings.

The smaller shrine, Yeongnyeongjeon (Hall of Eternal Peace), built in 1421, has 34 spirit tablets of lesser kings in six rooms. These include four ancestors of King Taejo (the founder of the Joseon dynasty) who were made kings posthumously.

From Jongmyo, walk over the footbridge to Changgyeonggung (Palace of Flourishing Gladness). This palace was originally built in the early 15th century by revered King Sejong for his parents. Like the other palaces it was destroyed twice by the Japanese – first in the 1590s and then during the colonial period from 1910 until 1945, when the palace suffered the indignity of being turned into a zoo. Only a fifth of the palace buildings survived or have been rebuilt. The oldest surviving structure is the 15th-century stone bridge over the stream by the main gate.

The main hall, Myeongjeongjeon , with its latticework and ornately carved and decor­ated ceiling, dates back to 1616. The stone markers in the courtyard show where the different ranks of government officials had to stand during major state ceremonies. The smaller buildings behind the main hall were where the kings and queens lived in their separate households.

Further away were rice fields (tended occasionally by the king) and an archery range where the military trained. Behind the ponds is Daeonsil , a botanical glasshouse, which was built in 1909 and is still full of plants. It takes around 25 minutes to walk from here back down to the entrance to Jongmyo.

In the small park at the entrance to Jongmyo, male pensioners often gather to talk about life, read the newspaper, play baduk (go) and janggi (a variation of Chinese chess), picnic, nap and even dance to trot music.