Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world

The strange environs of Seoul's Guksadang Shamanist Shrine

by Lucy Hornberger

The Guksadang shamanist prayer hall, viewed from the Seonbawi rock.

On the western side of central Seoul, on the slopes of sacred Iwang-san (Mt Iwang) just a stone's throw beyond the snaking line of the restored city wall, lies a small tangle of Buddhist temples and Shamanistic sites described thus by my guidebooks:
"Seoul's most famous shamanist shrine and a place where you may witness gut, sacrifices to the spirits made by mudang (shamans) who are usually female."
And by another:
"Shamanistic ceremonies, giving visitors a convenient opportunity to take in this lesser known facet of Korea's religious make-up."
We therefore expected an interesting but fairly standard tourist experience. What we found was much stranger - a ritual landscape and glimpse of Korean folk religion that, although initially underwhelming, was ultimately rather fascinating.
After a steep 300m walk from Dongnimmun Metro Station through a modern high rise development, a colourful temple gate comes into view. We cross the almost impossibly steep parking area and make our way up a long flight of steps, past once colourful Buddhist murals, now faded and sadly peeling. On the right is a bell pavilion and Seonamjeong Temple, but the doors are shuttered and the place looks deserted. Continuing up we reach what we came to see, the Guksadang prayer hall, the most important shamanistic shrine in Korea. Disappointingly the turquoise green latticed doors are firmly closed, although there are signs of life within: the irregular beat of a drum and, for a brief moment, what sounds like a rock band tuning up. A middle aged man wanders over to have a look at us, evidently disapproves and turns abruptly away. It's all slightly unnerving. The smart new information board introducing the history of the site in Korean and English is the only indication that visitors are even permitted to be here.
As we're standing in the courtyard wondering what to do next, a well-dressed young man carrying a briefcase comes bounding up the steps and goes straight into the prayer hall. We hear female voices greeting him warmly, but the door is again firmly closed and there is nothing to see to help us understand what ceremonies or rituals might be going on inside. Past the hall and up to the left is the Seonbawi, a weird outcrop of rock, eroded like an otherworldly Swiss cheese. Reached by a flight of steep steps, it is enclosed by a low wall and surrounded by a clutter of religious paraphernalia - a painted stage area, an incense burner, racks of fat white votive candles. It is deserted save for a host of pigeons drawn by the safety of the rock's hollows and crevices and a bag of rice left as an offering on a ledge. A sign explains the importance this sacred rock has held over many centuries, particularly as a place for women to pray for a child.
From here the path continues upwards along the flank of a small rocky ravine. Among the trees we see several figures sitting on small mats, as still as statues. Are they praying? Meditating? A woman in a yellow hiking jacket sits overlooking the precipice, from time to time waving the small brightly coloured flags she holds in her hands.
An open gate stands just before the end of a short gully, flanked by two shelters constructed from large multi-coloured sun umbrellas draped with thick plastic sheets to make yurt-like circular tents. To one side a collection of small figurines are set up on a rocky ledge, like a divine regiment. At the end of the gully there appears to be a fresh water spring - there are plastic dippers for drinking. We are curious but wary. The entrance gate, although open, is guarded by two elderly women, and protruding feet indicate that someone is resting in one of the shelters. This is clearly not a sightseeing spot, so we pass by and continue upwards. At the top the path turns to the right and a sign points towards the city walls. We encounter more people - a man placing lanterns around a level area and a woman with piles of oranges, then more umbrella shelters and small groups of people gathered a little above the path by a rock face. Most impressive of these tableaus is a woman dressed in a cream hanbok presiding over two kneeling women in front of an altar-like ledge laid with a large shiny brass dish and food offerings.
All this ritual activity was taking place in clear view of the public path, but was obviously private and not intended for prying eyes or sightseers. We felt that our presence was tolerated, but only barely, so we moved, stealing glances where we could, and of course not attempting to take any photos. Clearly things take place on these sacred rocks that are far beyond the ken of the casual visitor.
Following this strange but memorable excursion we felt compelled to do some research to try to discover something about what was occurring in and around those sacred shamanistic gullies and crags. There is little detail about Guksadang and its environs on the internet, in English at least. However I eventually came across a website by David Mason, a long term Seoul resident and expert on Korea's sacred peaks and mountain worship traditions. It is well worth browsing if you are interested in Guksadang. His photos of the gut rituals are particularly interesting. He offers a private tour entitled 'Shrines of Benevolent King Mountain: Exploring Korean Shamanism in downtown Seoul' which, though not cheap, promises to be a rewarding way to visit the area.
Practicalities: Dongnimmun Station is on Line 3 of the Seoul Metro.
Take Exit 1, then the narrow road on the right. Turn right at the end and head up the hill through the apartment blocks. Look for the brown signs for Guksadang - attached to street lamp poles above head height, so easy to miss.
When you reach the temple gate pass through it to the top of the parking area and head to the left up the long staircase.

The temple gate at the entrance to the complex.

Colourful tiger mural on the way up to the temples and shrines

The approach to Seonbawi rock.

Within the Seonbawi rock compound.

The painted stage area in front of the Seonbawi rock.

A devotee prays or meditates in the Guksadang ritual landscape.

This devotee held small flags which she waved in some ritual semaphore.

A ritual shelter, prayer mat and collection of small figurines within the gully.

One of several sacred rocky outcrops above the shrine area.

The view on a misty day with Namsan and the N Seoul Tower in the distance.

Article & photos posted March 30th, 2016

Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.


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