Exploring South Korea's cultural treasures would be incomplete without any visits to its historic Buddhist temples, often nestled among mountains.
Several ancient temples have rich collections of historic artifacts, including stupas (budos), bells, ritual objects and paintings. Some of these objects carry motifs and texts written using non-Hangul characters that have their origins in Sanskrit.
Sanskrit, a classical language of India, made its way to China, Korea and Japan via Central Asia. The process of transmission started in early centuries of A.D. along the continental trade routes, called Silk Roads, and later through maritime trade routes.
In particular, the spread of Buddhism from ancient India played an important role in the transmission of Sanskrit language to various parts of Asia.
In East Asia, a number of scripts such as Siddham, Ranjana and Uchen were historically used to write Sanskrit seed syllables, dharanis and mantras since the 4th or 5th century.
In a Hindu-Buddhist religious context, a Sanskrit seed syllable (bija), often a single syllable sound, can be a basic mantra representing the visible form of a deity. Om (in Siddham), is a supreme seed syllable revered by Hindus as well as Buddhists.
Prior to the invention of Hangul in the 15th century, Chinese texts translated from Sanskrit texts had been used in Korea. Chinese called Sanskrit fanyin (Brahma sound).
In spite of massive translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese, nearly 7,000 volumes by mid-Tang period, Sanskrit found a special place in Buddhism because mantras could not be pronounced accurately using Chinese.
|Painted ceiling of Mihwang Temple showing mantra written in Sanskrit. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration|
In secular context, Chinese were fascinated by the phonetics of Sanskrit language and the arrangement of its alphabet. In 291 A.D., Indian monk Moksala introduced 42 Siddham syllables to China. Various estimates tell us that Chinese lexicon has thousands of Buddhist and secular Sanskrit loan words.
Because of greater emphasis on writing and calligraphy in Chinese culture, Siddham syllables were also written using calligraphy which enhanced their visual appeal like Indian calligraphy of Ranjana alphabets.
Sanskrit is believed to have reached Korea in the 4th century when Buddhism was introduced to the kingdom of Baekje by acharya Marananta of Gandhara region of ancient India.
The renowned Korean monk Hyecho visited India around 700. Subsequently, in 727, he visited China and studied under Indian acharyas Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra.
Under their direction, Hyecho worked on the translation of Sutra of Thousand Bowl Manjushri from Sanskrit to Chinese at Mount Wutai in China.
On the Korean Peninsula, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts written in Siddham script was found in a stone pagoda of Galhang Temple constructed during the United Silla period in 758.
The text is a Cund mantra written in circular pattern. Various research works suggest that until early 20thcentury, Korean monks used Sanskrit in prayers and spoke Sanskrit mixed with Korean.
Even today, the tradition of using calligraphy to write sacred seed syllable Om and mantras is alive in S. Korea. One of the popular mantras for decorating ritual objects is Om mani padme hum (may the jewel in the lotus purify us and lead us to salvation).
In my conversation with Dr. Lokesh Chandra, a distinguished scholar of Buddhist iconography and former president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, I learned that a Buddhist monk gifted him a two-meter-tall Om calligraphed by an expert during his visit to S. Korea. He also noted 300-year-old roof tiles decorated with the Om seed syllable.
In Goryeo period copper alloy incense burners, Sanskrit syllables were typically inlaid with silver. It is believed that mantras written using Siddham script found in sutras of second edition of Tripitaka Koreana inspired such work.
Sanskrit letters were also found on bronze bells. A 900kg bronze bell at the Neungga Temple in South Jeolla Province cast in 17th century, is a good example.
Outside Seoul, the Hoeam Temple museum in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province, displays several late-Goryeo period roof tiles with Sanskrit motifs. Gyeongju's Golgul Temple also has many functioning roof tiles with an Om motif over beautiful dancheong paintings.
Alongside 1,000 Buddha images, painted Sanskrit seed syllables can be seen in the ceiling of main hall (Daewoongbojeon) of Mihwang Temple of South Jeolla Province, founded in the 8th century. It enshrines wooden Sakyamuni (Seokgamuni Bul) at the center and either side by Amitabha (Amita Bul) and Bhaisajyaguru (Yaksa Yeorae Bul). The interior decor, in particular woodwork and paintings, reflects the best of Korean craftsmanship.
Japan got its Buddhism from Korea. Interestingly, a greater usage of Sanskrit for religious purpose is seen in Japan. In addition to its usage in mantras and mandals for prayers, Sanskrit seed letters written in Siddham scripts are seen in stone pillars of religious sites, memorial tombs, pilgrim attire and talismans. Because of their auspicious nature, Sanskrit letters were also used in helmets and swords used by warriors.
Although 50 Sanskrit syllables being used in the Korean Peninsula have been identified, often reading mantras written in varied scripts is not as straightforward as in case of China and Japan where Siddham script enjoyed much popularity. Look for such undeciphered sacred Sanskrit mantras among colorful dancheong paintings of Korean temples. See if you can decode their meanings!
Jaydeep Sarkar is an Engineering Consultant based in New York.