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Situated in the small Korean town of Seongju, some 130 kilometers outside of Daegu, is an unusual shrine that houses the placentas and umbilical cords of the children of King Sejong, one of the country’s most beloved rulers. As unusual as the attraction may seem to be, the shrine reflects the Korean people’s respect for life and holds a special place in South Korea’s cultural history.
In ancient Korea, tae, the umbilical cord and placenta, of a child was considered to be most sacred, as it was not only a symbol of life, but also signified one’s destiny. After giving birth, tae was not disposed of. Instead, it was washed and buried in a ritual called taejang.
In order to bring luck into the lives of their children, Koreans stored tae in special pottery, which varied in quality and form based on their social status. Commoners used clay pots as storage vessels, while the royal family used special ceramic ware.
The location of the burial chamber was just as important as the storage vessel itself and was selected according to pungsujiriseol, the Korean practice of placing or arranging sites auspiciously. The best place for tae burial, it was believed, was domed land which was higher than its nearby surroundings, but not any higher than the top of a mountain.
If tae were properly buried, it was accepted, the baby would go on to live a healthy, successful and long life. Likewise, if tae were buried in good earth, the baby would receive the good energies of that land.
The first record of taejang dates back to 595 and refers to the wife of Manogun governor Kim Soehyeon who reportedly gave birth to a son after a 20 month pregnancy. The son was Kim Yushin, who would go on to become a famous general. The practice continued on throughout the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties.
The royal families of the Joseon Dynasty, in particular, attached great importance to tae and began to keep them in designated holy sites called called taeshil or taebong. Special stone monuments called taebi were also erected at these sites. The monuments boasted dragon-shaped headstones and turtle-shaped pedestals to further nurture health and longevity.
Perhaps the most well known of these sites is the Sejong Taesil shrine in the small town of Seongju.
King Sejong, also known as Sejong the Great, was the fourth king of Joseon-era Korea and reigned from 1418 to 1450. Sejong is, without a doubt, the country’s most beloved leader for his numerous accomplishments. In addition to reinforcing Confucian policies, he also created hangul, the Korean alphabet that is still used today. He also encouraged advancements of scientific technology.
Like other royal rulers, King Sejong collected the tae of his children, which numbered 19 in total and for some time, kept them at Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, where he ruled. In the 1430s, the king appointed officials to find an auspicious site.
King Sejong was so pleased with their suggestion of present-day Seongju, just outside of Daegu, that he had all of the taesil of his children transported there over a period of five years.
In 1455, when Sejong’s son Prince Suyang became King Sejo, he proceeded to destroy the shrines of five of his brothers while elevating his own at the site. While these changes are still evident today, the other 14 are essentially identical.
Although the ritual of taejang is no longer carried out in modern-day Korea, reenactments bring to light the once important practice that was unique to the country and reflected its people’s respect for life.