On a warm Sunday afternoon, there were few tourists queuing to see Jongmyo Shrine. Entry was allowed on the condition: you must join a guided tour group. It was mildly annoying, especially, after a half day hike along the fortress wall at Bugaksan and a walk in Gwangjang Market. The tour (in the afternoon) was free — but in Korean. Fortunately, we had Basil’s Korean ex-colleague, YJ (and her husband, Vito) with us. After paying the entrance fee, we followed a small group of Korean tourists along with our guide.
I’m never good with guided tours. My mind wanders and prefers to admire something — the guide isn’t showing. Our guide, a young girl in her twenties, continued her descriptions with an unusual chirpiness. Whilst YJ tried to make sense of it, the three of us (Vito, Basil, & I) looked around aimlessly. As a reward, a gush of wind blew, and the cherry blossom tree showered petals below. It’s one of those scenes, you’d probably see, only in a movie. The lucky young couple, standing below, tried to make the most of this rare moment.
Jongmyo Shrine is steeped in ancient Korean royal history. The Kings of the Joeseon Dynasty used the shrine as a place of worship, enshrine deceased royals in the form of spirit tablets, and perform sacred rites in their honour. Most of the rituals adhere to the principles of Confucianism, probably, explaining the bare simplicity of the structures. The ancient memorial rites (held in the month of May), are a reenactment of the actual service — performed through the ages. Jongmyo Shrine was included as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1995. We were lucky enough to attend the ceremony, last Sunday, but could only view a portion of the service — standing outside.
As we walked through narrow pathways, our guide stopped at regular intervals, to continue her discourse on history. By then, I had stopped asking YJ to interpret. The wooded environs around the ancient wooden houses were soothing and peaceful. Magpies flew in pairs, often breaking the silence with their loud calls. My legs were tired (screaming for a chair) and if allowed, I could’ve have chosen a quiet spot to sleep.
There were times, I tried to pay attention. Every chamber had been built for a specific purpose. The chambers leading to Jeongjeon Hall, the main ceremonial hall, were built for the Kings to prepare themselves — before attending the memorial service.
Jeongjeon Hall wore a deserted look. With few people around and noisy magpies in the background; it was hard to imagine, how this hall might have looked like, centuries ago. 19 spirit chambers hold the memory of Joseon royals. Normally, places like these, spook me. There’s a strange silence and eeriness with these memorials. Fortunately, I was too tired to let it sink in.
Yeongnyeongjeon (Hall of Eternal Peace) looked very similar to the principle hall. Probably because, this hall was built after Jeongjeon Hall. Yeongnyeongjeon holds 16 spirit chambers in all.
The narrow stone path, running through the spirit chambers, and the rest of the shrine are believed to be the path (samdo) on which the spirits travel. As a mark of respect, tourists aren’t allowed to walk on this path. While our tour group continued their journey within the shrine, we wandered for a bit, before walking parallel to the spirit path. This time, I had read a signboard, and it felt very strange to avoid walking on this path. As if — we secretly believed — we were walking with spirits alongside.
The pond near the main gate looked stunning with petals of blossoms scattered all over. After one last look — we finally called it a day.