The original Jongmyo was built in 1394. Like everything else in Korea, it was destroyed by the Japanese.
The Jongmyo we see today is a reconstruction from 1601. It serves as a shrine dedicated to performance of the ancestral rites for the kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty.
During the Joseon Dynasty, entrance to Jongmyo was restricted only to those who were there to pay formal homage to the royal ancestry. It was expected that visitors to the shrine, even kings, dismount from their horses before entering. I’ve heard there is a sign from the era reminding visitors to do this but I don’t remember seeing it.
The trail leading to the shrine is known as the “spirit path,” or Samdo (lit: “three paths”). It is paved with stone in such a way that it forms three tiers, or three distinct paths (hence its name). The eastern path (oedo) is for the king to walk, the western path (sejado) is for the prince, and the middle tier (sindo), higher than either of the other two, is for the spirits to walk. Visitors can walk on the eastern or western side but are not permitted to walk on the central path.
The funny thing about that is that there are signs all up and down the path saying visitors cannot walk on the sacred path for the spirits, but we saw the groundskeepers driving golf carts all over it.
The trail wraps around a small pond, called Jungjidang. At the center is a juniper tree. The only explanation we were given for the significance of this was that the tree represents the sky, and the retaining wall represents the earth.
We followed the path through the rest of the beautiful grounds, passing through a series of smaller gates and courtyards, their significance lost on me. I know some of them are storerooms for the incense and food used in the ancestral rituals that are still performed.
One such courtyard contained a cauldron. Our guide said it had some significance but neither of us remember what it was. Google searching for “Jongmyo cauldron” come up empty, so I might have to go digging through the pamphlets and stuff.
Korea was a Confucian nation while under the Joseon Dynasty. Confucianism holds that for common folk, upon one’s death body and soul are separated, with the soul ascending to the heavens and the body returning to the earth. Royalty don’t follow the same rules though– their bodies return to the earth, but their souls are enshrined in Jongmyo.
The shrine itself is the longest traditionally-constructed building in Korea. It appears in the past visitors were allowed to go right up to the doors; not so anymore. You can see the “do not enter” sign at the top of the stairs in the picture above.
Of some confusion to me was that we saw paths that looked like the spirit paths criss-crossing the entire grounds, but technically the only “sacred” one was the one that connects the main entrance to the shrine itself. All the auxiliary paths are fair game for being tread upon.
I went off in search of beautiful things to take pictures of. It didn’t take me long to find one.
Throughout the courtyard (and I noticed this at other sites too) there would be large rings bolted to the ground. I don’t know what these are for but I like to imagine they are for tethering man-eating tigers, weather balloons, and colossi.