Gaya was a confederacy of chiefdoms in the Nakdong River valley of southern Korea, growing out of the Byeonhan confederacy of the Samhan period. It was ultimately absorbed into Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.
Although most commonly referred to as Gaya (가야; 加耶, 伽耶, 伽倻), due to the imprecision of transcribing Korean words into hanja, historical sources use a variety of names, including Garak (가락; 駕洛, 迦落), Gara (가라; 加羅, 伽羅, 迦羅, 柯羅), Garyang (가량;加良), and Guya (구야; 狗耶).
This iron helmet illustrates the skill of iron-working and importance of iron from the Nakdong River valley.
According to a legend recorded in the Samguk Yusa, in the year 42 CE, six eggs descended from the heaven with message that they would be kings. Six boys were born, and within 12 days they grew mature. One of them, named Suro, became the king of Geumgwan Gaya, and the other five founded the other five Gayas, namely Daegaya, Seongsan Gaya, Ara Gaya, Goryeong Gaya, and Sogaya.
Gaya arose from the twelve tribes of the ancient Byeonhan, one of the Samhan confederacies. The loosely organized chiefdoms resolved into six Gaya groups, centered around Geumgwan Gaya. On the basis of archeological sources as well as limited written records, scholars such as Cheol (2000) have identified the late 3rd century as a period of transition from Byeonhan to Gaya, with increasing military activity and changing funerary customs. Cheol (2000) further argues that this was associated with the replacement of the previous elite in some principalities (including Daegaya) by elements from Buyeo, who brought a more militaristic style of rule.
Horn-shaped cup from Gaya that may illustrate connection of Persian culture through the Silk Road to Korea.
Situated around the mouth of the Nakdong River, an area with fertile plains, access to the sea, and rich iron deposits, Gaya had an economy based on agriculture and fishing as well as trade. It was particularly known for its ironworking, as Byeonhan had been before it. Gaya exported abundant quantities of iron armor and weaponry to Baekje and the kingdom of Wa in Yamato period Japan. In contrast to the largely commercial and non-political ties of Byeonhan, Gaya seems to have attempted to maintain strong political ties with these kingdoms as well.
Different records list different chiefdoms of Gaya. Goryeo Saryak (고려사략; 高麗史略) lists five: Geumgwan Gaya, Goryeong Gaya, Bihwa Gaya, Ara Gaya, and Seongsan Gaya.
The various Gaya mini-states formed a confederacy in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, centered around Geumgwan Gaya in modern Gimhae. After a period of decline, the confederacy was revived around the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, this time centred around Daegaya of modern Goryeong, but it was unable to defend itself for long against Silla and Baekje. Daegaya was the last to fall, conquered by Silla in 562.
Gaya had close relations with the Wa of northern Kyushu in Japan, during that nation's formative years. The nature of the relationship between the Wa and Gaya has been a matter of extensive controversy, mostly fueled by Japanese revisionist historians. The Nihonshoki claims that Gaya (named "Mimana" in Japanese) was a colony or tributary of Wa. In World War II, the Japanese used this supposed historic link between Kyushu and Gaya as justification for colonization; this is known as the 임나일본부설 (任那日本府說.)
Some Korean scholars believe that Wa may have been a colony or tributary of Baekje. Archaeological evidence suggests that Gaya was the main exporter of technology and culture to Kyushu at this time.
Today, most scholars regardless of nationality believe that the relationship between Gaya and Wa was close, but not colonial. The argument that "Japan conquered the southern tip of the peninsula where it established a 'colony' called Mimana have since been largely discounted by historians in both Japan and Korea."
Gaya pottery at the National Museum of Korea.
Cheol, S.K. (2000). Relations between Kaya and Wa in the third to fourth centuries AD. Journal of East Asian Archeology 2(3-4), 112-122.