|Gyeongju's Nam-san's famous
Three Royal Tombs with many great Buddha-carvings
Continuing up the trail about 15 minutes, you’ll next come to the statue of Mireuk-bul, the Future
Buddha, 1.6m tall and missing both its head and hands. It was found buried nearby in the 20th
century, then erected in its present location. It was carved about 1200 years ago (like all the rest of
the stoneworks in this valley), and you should notice the finely sculpted details of its robes. Nearby,
uphill to the left, you can find a great carving of Gwanseeum-bosal the Boddhisattva of Compassion
on a small cliff. This is 1.5m tall and seems to be floating above-ground; one hand is raised while
the other holds a bottle of holy-water, and he wears a distinct crown.
200 m further up, back on the main trail, you will next find two Intaglio (line-carved) Buddha Triad
images. They are both about four meters tall and the same or more wide, and show central sitting
Buddhas flanked by standing or kneeling Bodhisattvas. They are worn, and you must look carefully
to see the intricate designs, as you imagine the worship-shrine that used to be in front of them.
Another 180 m up the trail is a Seated Stone Buddha statue on an open flat space. This is an image
of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha (Seokgamoni-bul in Korean), shown in the common ‘Touching
the Earth’ mudra (hands-position; su-in) and sitting upon a lotus-flower pedestal. The lower face
was badly damaged but has now been nicely repaired, and the broken nimbus (body-halo) on its
back has been restored.
If you now make your way up 500m of steep stone stairs and trail, hard but occasionally offering
good views, you will arrive at Sangseon-am or Upper-Immortal Hermitage. This is the only active
temple in this valley, and was rebuilt on the ancient Silla foundations. It has little more than one
modest Main Dharma Hall, but it is quite charming and offers a great view of the whole valley below
and dramatic cliffs above. This hall includes an interesting painting of Sanshin, the Daoist-Shamanic
Mountain-spirit, very appropriate in this setting, along with all the usual Buddhist deities.
On the upper cliff is the main attraction: a fantastic 7-m relief-carved image of a seated Mireuk Buddha
above a picturesque hermitage named Sangseon-am. It is a master artwork of Shilla, deliberately
looming over the viewer on the platform in front of it, so as to appear more real and impressive. It is
carved as if manifesting out of the rocky cliff to become a living deity in this world; many people pray
here that it will do-so faster. It faces north, and you get a beautiful view of the whole area out to the
west. This is one of the best sights in Gyeongju, and a favorite with photographers, especially when
viewed from further up the rocky trail, which is the only option now, as the carving-base is "closed").
At the very top of this valley, where the trail meets the main ridge, is a huge boulder-cliff called the
Sangsa-am Crags, about 13m tall and double that across. This is a Shamanic site at which women
have long prayed to be granted a husband or son, or other earthly benefits. On the east side can be
found another small headless Buddha statue beside the stone altar.
You can get to Samneung Valley’s entrance by busses #502 or #504 from the main Bus Terminal stop,
or else take a taxi for about 8,000 won.
The great forest of Red Pine trees at the valley-bottom.
The Samneung-gol [Three Tombs Valley] is the best-known single valley of Gyeongju’s sacred Mt.
Nam-san, within the National Park and part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, runs from the
highway on the west side of the long mountain up towards its northern peak called Geum-o-san
[Golden Crow Mountain, 468m]. It contains a dozen of the nearly 150 historical sites and stone
relics found on those slopes.
At the mouth of the great valley are three large burial-mounds from which it derives its name, the tomb-
mounds of three minor kings: Adalla (r. 154-184 CE), Shindeok (912-17) and Gyeongmyeong (917-24).
The middle mound for King Sindeok is the largest, 5.8m high and 61m in circumference; he and
Gyeongmyeong were near the very end of the once-glorious but by then ill-fated kingdom. These are
also known as the Bae-ri Samneung, "Bae" being the village name here (including Sambul-sa to the south).
The tombs are surrounded by a truly beautiful thick forest of curved-trunk red pine trees, regarded
by Koreans as the kings of all plants, and the rest of the lower valley is filled with them – it’s a forest-
lover’s paradise! Take some time to enjoy this lovely huge grove, beside the tumbling stream of
fresh clean water.