They are everywhere on Jeju: roadside sentries leading from the airport, guardians at every entry way of any import, even frolicking on “We love having you here!” billboards and dangling from keychains.
It’s a rare visitor to Jeju who gets away without a t-shirt, jar of honey or hat emblazoned with their stony image.
Jeju’s iconic Dolhareubangs are a unique symbol of the island’s volcanic origins, chiseled from the rough basalt that covers the island. They may be as common as tour buses on Jeju now, but their origins are shrouded in mystery.
Historians tell us the first “stone grandfathers” can be traced back to the 15th century, when three pairs were said to guard the entries to the island’s three administrative districts.
More statues were later set up at the east, west and south gates of what is now Jeju City. Still more guarded the entries to Daejong and Seong-eup villages. The original guardians can still be seen at Seong-eup, the working folk village in the east of Jeju.
There are now 45 of 48 surviving original Dolhareubang from the Joseon Dynasty, with the rest lost to the ravages of time.
While the guardians of each village are unmistakably from the same “mold,” so to speak, they are also unique to each village. Each has bulging, round eyes, a long nose and a peaked cap.
One variation is in the placement of the hands. While they are always resting on the figure’s stomach, different positions are supposed to signify different things. The left arm in an upper position indicates a warrior, while a right hand upper represents a scholar.
They are also said to resemble phallic symbols, and indeed may have originally been fertility symbols. Anyone entering the village would lower their head and say a prayer for their family and their village. It is still a custom for newlyweds seeking a baby to touch the Grandfather’s nose in a bid for luck in conception.
The Dolhareubangs skyrocketed to fame as a touristic icon in 1971, when the Jeju Cultural Property Commission gave them official status as cultural symbols of Jeju.
The Stone Grandfather’s are a link to Jeju’s past that the islanders have a right to feel proud of. They are a symbol of an ancient culture, one which revered the stone that, against all odds, became the verdant island of Jeju.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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