While it is unclear exactly when Tapgol Park (탑골공원) was first established in Jongno-gu, it’s relevance in the history of the city is unquestioned. The site originally housed Weongaksa Temple and remnants from that time are still visible on the grounds, but the park, established at some point in the late 1800′s, is more widely known as an important location during the fight for independence from Japanese colonization in the early 1900′s. Now, the park is an open and welcoming area where people young and old sit reading newspapers, having conversations and taking a rest from the busy city streets just meters beyond the front gate.
Weongaksa Temple, known as Heungboksa Temple during the Goryeo Dynasty and renamed to Weongaksa during renovations during the Joseon Dynasty was destroyed during the time of Buddhist repression during the reign of Yeongsangun and Jungjon, however, some relics can still be seen on the site. One relic is a tablet. A tortoise stone prop with lotus leaves carved on its back to hold up the tablet was erected under the direction of King Sejo, a devout believer in Buddhism. After a thirteen story pagoda was completed in 1467, King Sejo held a dedication ceremony at the same time as Yeongdeunghoe, the Buddhist Lantern Festival that celebrates the birth of the Buddha, and had this tablet erected to record the history. The statue is made of granite and marble and is one of only two relics that still exist on site from the temple.
The other relic from the time that Weongaksa sat on these grounds is a 10 story stone pagoda. This pagoda, National Treasure No. 2, was completed in 1467. King Sejo had this pagoda erected “after he experienced the wonder of the sarira incarnation” the sign in front explains. According to historical records, and as the tablet previously mentioned details, the pagoda was once 13 stories, but currently sits at 10. Carvings of dragons, lotus flowers, monks and other tales of the Buddha surround the pagoda that is made from marble that was rarely used at the time. It is now protected by a large glass enclosure as it is one of the finest examples of a Joseon Period pagoda to still exist in the country.
Though these two relics are important artifacts from the history of the area, the park’s most important role in history came years later in 1919 during the March 1st Movement, a fight for Korean independence from Japanese colonialism. On this spot in 1919 on March 1st, college student Chung Jae-yong read Korea’s Declaration of Independence and it set off proclamations of Korean independence around the country which resulted in a year of 1500 protests. The protests were not welcomed by the Japanese leaders and thousands of people were killed or wounded and even more were rounded up and arrested and many of them taken to the infamous Seodaemun Prison. Inside the park, statues of notable Korean patriots and stone carved depictions of the movement can be seen as well as a large stone carving of the Korean Declaration of Independence.
To learn more about the park and its history, visit Independence in Tapgol Park on The Soul of Seoul.
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