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The Bayon – Temple


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Some of the towers of the Bayon showing faces

Some of the towers of the Bayon showing faces

Constructed by Jayavarman VII, the Bayon was built in the late 12th century or early 13th century at the centre of the new capital Angkor Thom, as the official state temple of the first Mahayana Buddhist King. Situated in the very centre of the Angkor Thom it is close to several other key sites, some built earlier, including the Baphuon and Phimeanakas pyramid temples.

Distinct temple

Although King Jayavarman VII was the first Khymer King to introduce Buddhism as the state religion, it appears that he was keen to continue the tradition of the Khmer monarchs and “devaraja” (god-king) perception that had preceded him.
Therefore it may be no coincidence that the multitudes of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers (one of the most distinctive features of the Bayon), which rise out from the upper terrace have a distinct resemblance to the King himself. These faces also are said to have a strong resemblance to the bodhisattva of compassion: Avalokitesvara.

The Bayon has the unique position that it was the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha. Probably one of the most visually striking things about the Bayon is its carved stone faces. With around 216 of them in various states or repair, they appear across the 37 towers (at one point, up to 49) each of which supports two, three or (most commonly) four gigantic smiling faces.

Layout map of the Bayon

Layout map of the Bayon

Layout

Like most other temples at Angkor, the temple is oriented on an east-west axis with each of Angkor Thom’s main 4 gates leading directly to it. Unlike some other Angkor temples, the temple itself has no wall or moats, however the moat and walls of the city itself replace this.

The layout and architecture of the Bayon is different from previously constructed temples and in many ways is just as impressive as some of the bigger ones. Set out in a square layout and spread over 3 tiers raising to a central distinct round tower, the outer wall and galleries measure around 140 meters in length and open into an inner enclosure, where 2 “libraries” can be found on the eastern side. Within this section, many highly detailed carvings of historical events and everyday life can be found intricately carved into the walls.

On the next level the inner gallery is almost completely filled by the upper tier, which raises one level higher again. This level is approximately 70 meters and highly detailed carvings of depictions of mythological events can be found on its walls. There appears to be a distinct lack of space between the second gallery and upper terrace, which is commonly thought to have been a consequence of a late change in design, outside of the original plan.

View of the Bayon from side

View of the Bayon from side

Upper terrace

The top level is cruciform in shape, and rises steeply out from the second level. It is thought that originally the central tower was also cruciform in shape having been later modified to be round in shape. The central main tower rises 43 metres above the ground and originally, located within the sanctuary within the centre of the tower, had a 3.6 meter tall statue of the Buddha seated in meditation, surrounded by the flared hood of the naga serpent king Mucalinda (protector of Buddha). This however was later removed and thrown down a well by the preceding Hindu monarch Jayavarman VIII who changed the state religion back to Hinduism.

Despite the relatively straight forward layout of the Bayon, the actual arrangement is complicated, with a maze of galleries, passages and steps connected in a way that make the different levels almost indistinguishable with narrow walkways, low ceilings and dim lighting.