Bayon

Bayon is a mysterious Buddhist temple constructed at the exact center of Angkor Thom. Whereas Angkor Wat gives an impression of a grandeur edifice with harmonious design and open spaces, Bayon appears like a jumble of disproportionate structures crammed in a small place, and yet it is one of the most visited sites in Siem Reap. Unlike Angkor Wat, the Bayon has neither the moat nor temple prakara (a protective wall surrounding the temple). Numerous towers with carved giant smiling faces pop up everywhere inside the temple.

Location

The Bayon Temple is located exactly at the center of Angkor Thom.

History

The temple was commissioned by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century to be built as his state temple inside the capital city of Angkor Thom which he founded. As mentioned earlier, it was initially built as a Buddhist temple. However, it was converted to a Hindu temple by Jayavarman VIII and it appears many Buddha statues were destroyed and replaced with statues Shiva and Vishnu.

The original name of the Bayon was Vijayagiri (victory hill in Sanskrit). It was likely named after Khmer’s victory over the Champs, who ransacked Angkor Wat after the death of Suryavarman VII, the builder of Angkor Wat. The name Bayon is recent; It is a vernacular version of Banyan, the name given by the French because of the Banyan tree in the complex.

Temple Complex

The temple complex is small compared to the Angkor Wat and it does not have a moat or a prakara, but it does have three concentric enclosures with inner enclosures rising to a higher level. The enclosure has galleries with bas-reliefs on the walls. The bas-reliefs here are not as organized or theme-oriented as in Angkor Wat.

Lower Level

The lower level has three concentric square galleries close to each other.

Galleries

The image below shows a view of the temple with the south-side gallery on the right.

A view of the Bayon temple from the south side
A view of the Bayon temple from the south side

Bas-reliefs

The bas-relief depicts the actual events rather than the scenes from the epics as in Angkor Wat.

The image below shows the bas-relief depicting the naval battle in the Tonle Sap Lake between the Khmer and the Champs. This battle was fought in the 13th century ending in Khmer’s victory.

A section of the bas-relief on the lower level gallery of the Bayon temple depicting Khmer vs. Champs naval war
A section of the bas-relief on the lower level gallery of the Bayon temple depicting Khmer vs. Champs naval war

The images of the bas-reliefs below provide a glimpse of how the ordinary people lived in the 12th and 13 century under the Khmer rule.

Bas-relief depicting daily life in Khmer Empire

Upper Terrace

The upper terrace dominates with the towers carved with the giant smiling faces. Some of the towers have four faces, each in a cardinal direction leading some experts to believe that the statues represent the Hindu god Brahma. However, it was later established that the Bayon was a Buddhist monument.

These towers are close to each other and in no apparent order. The purpose of these towers is still a big mystery. There are many theories floating around to explain why they were constructed and whom they represent.

According to one theory, the faces represent Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva who embodies the values of Buddha. Another theory suggests the faces represent King Jayavarman VII himself who attained the title of Avalokitesvara. Note: It is not unusual to refer a king as Avalokitesvara in the Indian subcontinent during the period when Buddhism was dominant. 

The images below show the towers with four heads, each in a cardinal direction.

Copyright © 2018 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.

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