Ask for an afternoon of heritage and tradition in Seoul, you’ll almost invariably be directed to Gyeongbokgung Palace. And that’s only fair, given that it was the main royal palace for the 600 years of Joseon dynasty. It was the official residence as well as the royal court of kings and queens – while they lived.
Where, then, did monarchs and their wives (without exception, as Joseon had no female monarch) go once they’d entered their eternal rest? Not very far, it turns out. About a mile down to the east from Gyeongbokgung Palace, you find Jongmyo – a shrine to the deceased kings and queens.
If you know Joseon was a Confucian dynasty which valued ancestral lineage and filial duty above most other things, it is perhaps not so surprising that they meant business when it came to doing justice to the memory of royal ancestors. But even then, Jongmyo certainly is an awe-inspiring place.
Enshrined in the elegant serenity of Jongmyo are all but two of Joseon’s 27 kings and their queens; those two, both deposed and demoted to princedom for misrule and tyranny, didn’t make it into Jongmyo. The memorial tablets are housed in two halls, one of which is larger than the other, reserved for those kings who commanded greater respect even in their eternal sleep.
Unlike other royal palaces, buildings in Jongmyo are not adorned with ornate decorations and patterns. Instead, the long stretch of simple columns and roof ridge symbolize the eternal perpetuation of the royal lineage. The solemn dignity about the place inspires reverence even in the most casual modern-day visitor to this place of eternal rest.
It’s little wonder, then, that Jongmyo was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea. That Jongmyo is the oldest royal Confucian shrine in the world (and the only one preserved in its entirety) seems almost irrelevant – for the sense of serenity which surrounds this venerable ground is truly beyond any comparison.
A DARAMJI tip – if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Seoul in early May, you simply must go and watch Jongmyo Jerye – a annual veneration ritual held on the first Sunday of May. The Jeonju Yi Clan Association, the descendants of Joseon’s royal lineage, host the ceremony with wonderful traditional court music.
Explore with DARAMJI – Visit Jongmyo and so many other wonderful places with DARAMJI. You’ll get a personal itinerary tailored to your interests and professional DARAMJI guide service with the option to arrange transport and other activities en-route. Prices start from USD 300 per person/8-hour day.