Korean flavour

A traditional sailboat and a motorboat on the Han-gang river
A traditional sailboat and a motorboat on the Han-gang river

A view of Seoul by night
A view of Seoul by night

Darshan Singh Maini gives a taste of Seoul or the soul of South Korea

......simplicity and times slow passing
five thousand years of history in a face
(A Korean text)

In a recent travel series on TV, the itinerant traveller reaches South Korea, "The land of the morning calm." That reminded me of my week-long stay in that country, more particularly in Seoul, its ancient capital, now transformed into a modern, bustling, metropolitan city. Korea had always fascinated me.

Undoubtedly, the troubled saga of the Korean people who trace their origin to the Mongoloid tribes of remote antiquity stretching back to Siberia, is a long story of oppression and occupation by the two dominant hegemonic empires of China and Japan down the centuries. Few people in the world have had to suffer such long spells of serfdom or vassalage, and such sustained assaults upon their culture as the Koreans. Even in those centuries of darkness, the heroic people of that land never lost their identity. The imperialist, occupying powers, thus, left, despite the Korean resistance, visible traces of their own art, language and culture. Such was the inner strength of that nation that it was able to resist and appropriate those features of the conquering invaders which suited its own genius.

The Korean peninsula which is garlanded by some 3000 small inlands around its irregular shore-line is about 1000 km from north to south, and is roughly the size of England and Scotland combined. The 63 million people (1988 figures) — 42 millions in South Korea and 21 millions in North Korea, are ethnically and linguistically a homogenious country, though now divided for over half a century. South Korea has since then come up, like a phoenix from the ashes, and shown a spirit of resurgence. The Koreans are now ahead of nearly all their neighbours in the quality of their scientific and technological manpower, and their leap into the post-modern society is even the envy of the Japanese people.

The drive for modernity and affluence is no where better seen than in Seoul which housed 11 million people, making it, at that time, the fourth largest, expanding city in the world. Seoul is rightly considered "the soul" of the country, with its own signs and signatures. Situated in a wide, green, undulating valley with low, luscious mountains around, it has become, like Rome, another "eternal city", with its own aura.

Seoul which enjoys the bounty of a big, generous river, Han, has been the state capital since the late 14th century when the chosen kingdom came to be established. Situated at one of the peaks is the 236.7 metre Seoul Tower, the second highest in the world, affording a panoramic view of the city spread and its striking skyline. Seoul also means "capital" in the Korean language, and in its 600 years of existence, it has not been shifted, despite assault and plunder for centuries.

Of the old, imperial Seoul, hardly anything of real interest survives save some terraced houses and the Kyongbok-Kung Palance, and a few other pagodas and pavilions. Though mauled by the Japanese invaders, the great palace, originally built in 1392, and situated in the heart of modern Seoul, it offers a strange stretch of serenity in the midst of so much traffic and bustle around. As a place of architecture, it still has its regal presence, but being simple in design, and built almost entirely with wood and bamboo, it lacks the grandeur we generally associate with Oriental extravagance in stone and marble.

The Korean dynasty style and the white porcelains of the Yi dynasty with their "profound smile" do suggest various metaphors of life, nature and society. All this would show that how the traditional Korean society with a strong confucian accent on ceremony, propriety, protocol, harmony, hierarchy and ancestral worship is now under severe strain, and how the accommodations are being sought to strike a balance between tradition and modernity.

And now to the Indian "connection". India has not entered the Korean consciousness in any direct manner and, on the whole, it remains a submerged metaphor. But the origin of Buddhism in India and its passage to Korea via China is widely recognised. The Buddhist urge for nirvana finds its Indian aspects well reflected in its life and culture.

Professor Shin of the Seoul University (whom I had met earlier at NYU) had become a close friend. She showed me round the university campus and the city’s big tourist attractions. Again, my NYU student, Kim (1989 graduate class) and now a university teacher introduced me to her friends and her parents, among dinners and drinks. And this kind of hospitality and warmth were enough to make my Korean visit nostalgic and memorable.