Bayon Temple History
The Bayon is a temple at Angkor, Cambodia. It was built in the 13th century as the state temple of king Jayavarman VII, and stands at the centre of his capital, Angkor Thom. Its most distinctive feature is the multitude of smiling faces on the towers which rise up to its central peak. It also possesses two sets of bas-reliefs, which depict an unusual combination of mythological, historical and mundane events. The main current conservatory body, the JSA, has described the temple as “the most striking expression of the ‘baroque’ style”, compared to the classical style of Angkor Wat.
The Bayon was the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only one to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist temple (although various local deities were also worshipped there). It was the centrepiece of Jayavarman VII’s building program, and the similarity of the faces on the temple’s towers to other statues of the king have led many scholars to the conclusion that the faces are, at least in part, representations of Jayavarman VII (although Avalokitesvara is another possibility). Under the reign of Jayavarman VIII in the mid-13th century the temple was converted to Hinduism. In later centuries Theravada Buddhism became dominant, before the temple was eventually abandoned to the jungle. Current features which were not part of the original plan include the terrace to the east of the temple, the libraries, the square corners of the inner gallery, and the upper terrace.
In the first part of the 20th century conservation work was led by the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, which restored the temple using the anastylosis technique. Since 1995 the Japanese Government team for the Safeguarding of Angkor has been the main conservatory body, holding annual symposia.
Bayon Temple Guidance
The temple is orientated towards the east, and so its buildings are set back to the west inside enclosures elongated along the east-west axis. Because the temple sits at the exact centre of Angkor Thom, roads lead to it directly from the gates at each of the city’s cardinal points. The temple itself has no wall or moats, these being replaced by those of the city itself: the city-temple arrangement, with an area of 9 square kilometres, is much larger than that of Angkor Wat to the south (2 km²). Within the temple itself, there are two galleried enclosures (the third and second enclosures) and an upper terrace (the first enclosure). The outer gallery features a series of historical and everyday scenes on its outer wall, but there is considerable uncertainty as to which historical events are portrayed and how, if at all, the different reliefs are related. From the east gopura clockwise, the subjects are: a marching Khmer army (including some Chinese soldiers), followed by wagons of provisions; domestic scenes; in the southeast corner, a temple scene; on the south wall, a battle on the Tonle Sap between Khmers and Chams, with more domestic scenes underneath; a naval display; palace scenes; Cham boats, followed by a land battle won by the Khmers, then the Khmer victory feast; a military procession (including both Khmers and Chams); on the west gallery, unfinished reliefs show an army marching through the forest, then arguments and battle between groups of Khmers (Freeman and Jacques suggest that this may show a revolt which took place in 1182); a royal procession; on the north gallery, again unfinished, royal entertainments and more battles, one showing Khmers defeated by the Chams; in the northeast corner another marching army; and on the east gallery, a land battle being won by the Khmers.
The outer gallery encloses a courtyard in which there are two libraries (one on either side of the east entrance). 16 chapels formerly in this courtyard were demolished by Jayavarman VIII. The inner gallery is raised above ground level and has doubled corners, with the original redented cross-shape later filled out to a square. Its bas-reliefs, later additions of Jayavarman VIII, are in stark contrast to those of the outer: rather than set-piece battles and processions, the smaller canvases offered by the inner gallery are decorated for the most part with scenes from Hindu mythology. There is however no certainty as to what some of the panels depict, or as to their relationship with one another. One gallery just north of the eastern gopura, for example, shows two linked scenes which have been explained as the freeing of a goddess from inside a mountain (Glaize), or as an act of iconoclasm by Cham invaders (Freeman and Jacques). A nearby series of panels show a king fighting with a serpent and dying, and have been connected with the legend of the leper king. Less obscure are depictions of the construction of a Vishnuite temple (south of the western gopura) and the Churning of the Sea of Milk (north of the western gopura).
The inner gallery is nearly filled by the upper terrace, raised one level higher again. On this level, the visitor is surrounded by face towers, each with two, three or (most commonly) four of the famous smiling faces. Glaize wrote that, “On the upper terrace, mystery reigns. Wherever one wanders, the faces of Lokesvara follow and dominate with their multiple presence, always countered by the overwhelming mass of the central core.” The towers are located along the inner gallery (at the corners and entrances), and on chapels on the upper terrace. Additional faces are carved on the central tower. Despite efforts to find significance in the number of towers and faces, the numbers varied from time to time as more towers were added: at one point there were up to 49 towers, although only 37 now remain. There are around 200 faces, but as some are only partially preserved there can be no definitive count.
Like the inner gallery, the central massif was originally cruciform but was later filled out, this time making it circular. It rises 43 metres above the ground. The original Buddha image from the central shrine was removed and smashed by Jayavarman VIII, but has now been restored and is displayed in a pavilion to the northeast of the temple.