Shefali Singh, New Delhi
South Korea is known worldwide not only for its rapid modern technological advances and urbanization, but also for its historical heritage and treasure. Magnificent and beautiful palaces on the land of the morning calm has always been pleasing for tourists. If you have ever been to South Korea and visited Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, or saw these in any Korean drama or documentary, did you ever notice the little sculptures of different shapes aligned on the edge of the eaves, and wondered what they are and what they mean? These sculptures are known as ‘Japsang’ (잡상) and they symbolize the guardian or protector of the Palace.
The dragon’s head (용두, Yong-du) and Japsang figures are placed on vertical ridges of the roof. Gyeonghoeru Pavilion (경회루) of Gyeongbokgung Palace has 11 Japsang on the edge of its eaves. The number of Japsang on the roof is always an odd number, varying from 3 to 11. Japsang (잡상) are represented by different human and animal figures. The purpose of the roof decorations goes back to the Korean shamanic religion as they aim to drive away evil and demonic spirits, and misfortune.
Apart from various origins, each of these figures has a name. Some of them are named after the characters from one of the great classical Chinese novels, ‘Journey to the West.’ The Buddhist Monk (Daedangsabu, 대당 사부) Xuan Zang befriends three immortals, a monkey named Sun Wukong (손 행자, Son Haeng-ja), a water spirit Sha Seng (사 화상, Sa Hwa-sang), and a pig Zhu Bajie (저팔계, Jeo Pal-gye). They all travel to India in order to retrieve the sacred sutras and together face difficulties along the way.
Due to their bravery and courage, the people behind the installation of the figures decided to name the sculptures because they expected them to be brave and strong like the characters in the story. Rest of the sculptures are Bodhisattva (Samsal Bosal, 삼살 보살), Igwi Bak (이귀 박), Ma Hwa-sang (마 화상), Iguryong (이구룡), Cheonsangap (천산갑), and Nato Du (나토 두). Illustrations of these figures can also be found in the book ‘Sangwa-do’ published in 1920, which is housed in the Academy of Korean Studies.
During the Joseon Dynasty (1392 CE-1897 CE), it was believed that the greatest fear of people of that time was fire since most of the houses and buildings were made out of wood. These figures were used not only as decorative elements to show the dignity and grandeur of a building, but also as shamanic symbols to chase away misfortunes and evil spirits. In this way, these small figures became the guardians of the royal palaces, watching from above.
Myth or reality, Japsang sculptures are a part of the history of Korean culture and architecture. During sunset, you can see their small silhouettes on the horizon. There they are, impassive over the years, vigilantes and guardians of the past and present. You can also see them decorating the roofs of the Blue House (Cheongwadae), the current residence of the President of South Korea.
So whenever you visit these places, remember that even today, someone is protecting these places from above! We hope you learnt something new today, what are your thoughts on this? Tell us in the comments.