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MEMS and NEMS in Korea in the 7th Century AD

by on October 5, 2011
This post is based on my own pictures from a UNIST Korean Culture Class (Sept 28, 2011) and on Fifty Wonders of Korea Volume 1. Culture and Art 
Edited and Published by Korean Spirit & Culture Promotion Project ( 

In Buddhism sarira are marble-like relics that remain after the cremation of an enlightened being (no they are not just some teeth). A sarira reliquary is a work of art that is made to hold those relics. Since sarira are considered sacred, the greatest artistic skill and most advanced techniques of the day were used in its construction. The sarira reliquary of the Kamunsa Temple is unparalleled in beauty and craftsmanship.

An hour drive from Ulsan in Kyongju city, the ancient capital of Silla, lie the ruins of a 1300 year-old temple (only two pagodas of the original temple survive). The Buddhist King Munmu (AD 626~681) unified the three ancient Korean kingdoms (Koguryo, Paekche and Silla) and his son Sinmun completed a temple in AD 682 in his father’s honor. He named the temple Kamunsa, which means “in gratitude for grace.” The Kamunsa temple overlooks the East Sea (East China Sea), where the tomb of King Munmu lies. In 1996, more than 1300 years later, when the Kamunsa temple’s Eastern Pagoda was taken apart for repairs, the sarira reliquary was discovered.

The reliquary has an inner part held in an outer container. The outer rectangular container, about 30 cm high, is embossed with four guardian deities (Devas) one on each side. The Devas are embossed and look very realistic. They are wearing armor, covered with scales, and they have weapons in their hands. Their faces are animated, they even have mustaches and lines etched on their foreheads. The hair looks as if it has just been combed, and even the creases on their open palms can be seen. The Devas were made by hammering metal plate.


The outer box of the sarira reliquary of the Kamunsa Temple.

The deities are fixed to the surface of the outer container box with small copper nails. The outer walls of the box are made of copper plated with gold (four separate platings). In order to plate the gold onto the copper, small pieces of gold are grounded to tiny granules. These fine granules are mixed with mercury and this mixture is ground even further. This fine mixture is wrapped in paper and compressed to squeeze the mercury out. The remainder of the mixture is then evenly applied to the surface of the metal by hand. When the metal is heated, the remaining traces of mercury evaporate and the gold remains strongly attached to the metal surface. Because of the efforts of the artisans of ancient Korea, who repeated this process four times, the four Devas of the sarira reliquary have been able to retain their splendid appearance for 1300 years (compare that with how long your local McDonalds will last).

Once the outer container is opened, the inner structure, crafted in the image of the Heavens, is revealed. The inner structure, shown below, is decorated with intricate designs and ornamentation. The intention of the artisans was to enshrine Buddha in a palace but also to show a miniature version of the Buddha’s Pure Land. The whole thing is only 18.8cm tall, not more than the span of a palm.

Inner Container of the Kamunsa Temple. Sarira Reliquary 7th century AD, H 18.8cm, Gilt-bronze, Seoul National Museum.

The corners of the base portion are guarded by four lions, each with different facial expressions. The four sides of the base section are decorated with carved images of bodhisattvas and other divinities. Even the background to these images is filled with detail. The upper section of the inner structure is surrounded by fences and a gate, and covered by a lattice roof. In the centre of the enclosure there is an urn in the shape of a lotus flower, with four Devas and four monks standing guard around it. Their faces, each the size of a grain of rice, have again been given distinct expressions. The roof portion that covers the sarira reliquary is decorated with many ornaments, such as goddesses, bells, and the images of Bodhisattvas.

Now here comes the real micro- nanofabrication part. The most notable of all the ornaments is the wind chime. It comes in at about 0.04g in weight, almost undetectable to human senses. The main body of the bell is made of thin gold plate, 100 µm thick. The chime is compared to a rice grain below.

Wind chime compared with a grain of rice.

The chain that connects the bell to the roof of the reliquary is the diameter of a human hair (80-100 µm).

Chain to suspend the wind chime onto the roof of the reliquary.

shine balls

(Top) See solder between balls.

OLd balls

(Bottom) No obvious solder between balls.

Comparison of the original wind chime of the Kamunsa sarira reliquary (top) and a
replica by a modern artisan (bottom).

There were 54 sarira recovered from the Kamunsa Temple reliquary. The container that actually holds the relics is a crystal bottle. It is about 3.65 cm in height, slightly shorter than a match stick. The golden lid that covers this crystal bottle is 1.2cm in diameter, with a dense covering of 300 µm gold granules, all soldered on in the same fashion as those found on the wind chime.

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