Angkor Wat – The Bayon

Jayavarman VII built the Bayon in the late 12th century as his state temple. It is located at the physical center of Angkor Thom, the nine square kilometer or (three and a half square) mile city complex, and is the focal point of the building boom Jayavarman VII initiated after he defeated the Chams to reclaim the Khmer Empire. As with his other constructions, the Bayon is a Mahayana Buddhist temple; its primary deity is Avalokitshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Since the Bayon sits in the center of Angkor Thom, his state capital, this monument makes the entire capital a temple complex, with the walls of the city and the moat representing the outer mountain ranges and oceans of the mythical Hindu universe. In various ways the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism is seen here. Just as the Victory Gate was part of a three-dimensional representation of the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk, with Phinemeakas as the central churning stick, the Bayon is a similar representation with the gates at the four cardinal points of Angkor Thom. The naga balustrade of one side of a gate that symbolically extends to the Bayon, wraps around the temple, and then continues to the opposite gate, where the opposing force holds the other side of the snake. The Bayon sits in the center as another metaphorical Mt. Meru. This setup also makes the Bayon look a bit different, since its outer walls are so far removed as to seem nonexistent. From the outside, this gives the Bayon an open feel, but the interior of the temple is actually quite cramped. The temple is organized on three levels, but the specific arrangement has led scholars to believe that the original plan was a flat temple along the lines of Ta Prohm, which is located to the east.

While the bas-reliefs of the Hindu temples often deal with the gods and their epic adventures, those in the outer gallery of the Bayon deal more with historical events and everyday life. Part of the reason for this change in focus may be the different views of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The Hindu religion puts much emphasis on matters of cosmic importance like the battle of gods to maintain good and evil. The Buddhist religion emphasizes that enlightenment is achievable by the actions of the individual. For an example of a Buddhist bas-relief, take a look at the bas-reliefs of the southern gallery. Some of its highlights are the bas-relief that details battles with the rival Cham Empire as well as everyday market scenes, fisherman, and even a cockfight. The inner galleries primarily depict Hindu mythology again. These were added by Jayavarman VIII, a successor who restored Hinduism as the state religion of the Hindu Khmer Empire. He converted the Bayon to a Hindu temple, and these bas-reliefs were added later to reflect this change. Some of these images are vague beyond their connection to certain gods like Shiva and Vishnu, but of course classic stories like the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk appear, too. In addition to adding the more strictly Hindu imagery, Jayavarman VIII took the main statue from the central tower's sanctuary, a 3.6 meter (or 12 foot) tall Buddha, and smashed it, throwing the pieces down a well. The statue was recovered and pieced back together again in 1933. It now sits in a small pavilion on the road from the Victory Gate to the Elephant Terrace to the northeast of here.

The real draw of the Bayon, however, is the top level. As in the other temples, the stairs lead up from each of the four cardinal points to the top level, where over four dozen towers hold giant faces nearly 2 meters (or six feet) in height. Most of the faces are oriented to the cardinal points of each tower, and with so many four-faced towers at different heights, you always have someone looking over your shoulder. It really is interesting to view the towers from different angles to see how the faces line up.

The exact meaning of the faces is still under debate by scholars. One explanation is that the primary deity of the temple is Avalokiteshvara, also known as Lokesvara, or the "lord who gazes down on the world" or "he who hears the cries of people who need help". Avalokiteshvara is a bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be who listens to the prayers of people in need and has postponed his own enlightenment until he has assisted all people in achieving nirvana. To help all of these people and hear all their prayers, he would need many eyes and ears, which may explain the multiple faces. Others have argued that the face is that of Jayavarman VII himself. This is also realistic, since Jayavarman VII considered himself a devaraja, or god-king. George Coedes, a former director of the École Française d'extrème-orient, also known as the EFEO, saw these two interpretations as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Since Jayavarman VII considered himself a god-king, it makes sense that he would use himself as the prototype of Avalokiteshvara. The reason for the huge number of faces remains a mystery. Some have tried to tie some significance to the number of faces, but the state of disrepair of the temple has made accurate counts difficult.

The Bayon is one of the more popular temples. To avoid most of the crowds, you might want to time your visit for dawn or sunset. Most of the crowds flock to Angkor Wat at dawn and the hill Phnom Bakheng at sunset, allowing you to enjoy some solitude at the Bayon. The golden, slanted light at those times of the day make the faces even more magical, as the enigmatic smile of one face will jump out past the shadow of another. It's worth an early morning trip, because those moments are the true magic of the temples of Angkor.