The Bayon (Khmer: ប្រាសាទបាយ័ន, Prasat Bayon) is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple at Angkor in Cambodia. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman's death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences.
The Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes. The current main conservatory body, the Japanese Government team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (the JSA) has described the temple as "the most striking expression of the baroque style" of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat.
Buddhist symbolism in the foundation of the temple by King Jayavarman VII
The Bayon was the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only Angkorian state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha, though a great number of minor and local deities were also encompassed as representatives of the various districts and cities of the realm. It was the centrepiece of Jayavarman VII's massive program of monumental construction and public works, which was also responsible for the walls and naga-bridges of Angkor Thom and the temples of Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei.
The similarity of the 216 gigantic faces on the temple's towers to other statues of the king has led many scholars to the conclusion that the faces are representations of Jayavarman VII himself. Others have said that the faces belong to the bodhisattva of compassion called Avalokitesvara or Lokesvara. The two hypotheses need not be regarded as mutually exclusive. Angkor scholar George Coedès has theorized that Jayavarman stood squarely in the tradition of the Khmer monarchs in thinking of himself as a "devaraja" (god-king), the salient difference being that while his predecessors were Hindus and regarded themselves as consubstantial with Shiva and his symbol the lingam, Jayavarman as a Buddhist identified himself with the Buddha and the bodhisattva.
Alterations following the death of Jayavarman VII
Since the time of Jayavarman VII, the Bayon has suffered numerous additions and alterations at the hands of subsequent monarchs.During the reign of Jayavarman VIII in the mid-13th century, the Khmer empire reverted to Hinduism and its state temple was altered accordingly. In later centuries, Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion, leading to still further changes, 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 parts of the upper terrace.
Modern restoration and scholarship
In the first part of the 20th century, the École Française d'Extrême Orient took the lead in the conservation of the temple, restoring it in accordance with the technique of anastylosis. Since 1995 the Japanese Government team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (the JSA) has been the main conservatory body, and has held annual symposia.
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). All of these elements are crowded against each other with little space between. Unlike Angkor Wat, which impresses with the grand scale of its architecture and open spaces, the Bayon "gives the impression of being compressed within a frame which is too tight for it."
The outer gallery: depictions of historical events and everyday life
The outer wall of the outer gallery features a series of bas-reliefs depicting historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer. Though highly detailed and informative in themselves, the bas-reliefs are not accompanied by any sort of epigraphic text, and for that reason considerable uncertainty remains 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:
- in the southern part of the eastern gallery a marching Khmer army (including some Chinese soldiers), with musicians, horsemen, and officers mounted on elephants, followed by wagons of provisions;
- still in the eastern gallery, on the other side of the doorway leading into the courtyard, another procession followed by domestic scenes depicting Angkorian houses, some of the occupants of which appear to be Chinese merchants;
- in the southeast corner pavilion, an unfinished temple scene with towers, apsaras, and a lingam;
- in the eastern part of the southern gallery, a naval battle on the Tonle Sap between Khmer and Cham forces, underneath which are more scenes from civilian life depicting a market, open-air cooking, hunters, and women tending to children and an invalid;
- still in the southern gallery, past the doorway leading to the courtyard, a scene with boats and fisherman, including a Chinese junk, below which is a depiction of a cockfight; then some palace scenes with princesses, servants, people engaged in conversations and games, wrestlers, and a wild boar fight; then a battle scene with Cham warriors disembarking from boats and engaging Khmer warriors whose bodies are protected by coiled ropes, followed by a scene in which the Khmer dominate the combat, followed by a scene in which the Khmer king celebrates a victory feast with his subjects;
- in the western part of the southern gallery, a military procession including both Khmers and Chams, elephants, war machines such as a large crossbow and a catapult;
- in the southern part of the western gallery, unfinished reliefs show an army marching through the forest, then arguments and fighting between groups of Khmers;
- in the western gallery, past the doorway to the courtyard, a scene depicting a melee between Khmer warriors, then a scene in which warriors pursue others past a pool in which an enormous fish swallows a small deer; then a royal procession, with the king standing on an elephant, preceded by the ark of the sacred flame;
- in the western part of the northern gallery, again unfinished, a scene of royal entertainment including athletes, jugglers and acrobats, a procession of animals, ascetics sitting in a forest, and more battles between Khmer and Cham forces;
- in the northern gallery, past the doorway to the courtyard, a scene in which the Khmer flee from Cham soldiers advancing in tight ranks;
- in the northeast corner pavilion, another marching Khmer army;
- in the eastern gallery, a land battle between Khmer and Cham forces, both of which are supported by elephants: the Khmer appear to be winning.
The outer gallery encloses a courtyard in which there are two libraries (one on either side of the east entrance). Originally the courtyard contained 16 chapels, but these were subsequently demolished by the Hindu restorationist Jayavarman VIII.
The inner gallery: depictions of mythological events
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. Some of the figures depicted are Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma, the members of the trimurti or threefold godhead of Hinduism, Apsaras or celestial dancers, Ravana and Garuda.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, or as an act of iconoclasm by Cham invaders. Another series of panels shows a king fighting a gigantic serpent with his bare hands, then having his hands examined by women, and finally lying ill in bed; these images have been connected with the legend of the Leper King, who contracted leprosy from the venom of a serpent with whom he had done battle. 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 upper terrace: 200 faces of Lokesvara
The inner gallery is nearly filled by the upper terrace, raised one level higher again. The lack of space between the inner gallery and the upper terrace has led scholars to conclude that the upper terrace did not figure in the original plan for the temple, but that it was added shortly thereafter following a change in design. Originally, it is believed, the Bayon had been designed as a single-level structure, similar in that respect to the roughly contemporaneous foundations at Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei.
The upper terrace is home to the famous "face towers" of the Bayon, each of which supports two, three or (most commonly) four gigantic smiling faces. In addition to the mass of the central tower, smaller towers are located along the inner gallery (at the corners and entrances), and on chapels on the upper terrace. "Wherever one wanders," writes Maurice Glaize, the faces of Lokesvara follow and dominate with their multiple presence."
Efforts to read some significance into the numbers of towers and faces have run up against the circumstance that these numbers have not remained constant over time, as towers have been added through construction and lost to attrition. At one point, the temple was host to 49 such towers; now only 37 remain. The number of faces is approximately 200, but since some are only partially preserved there can be no definitive count.
The central tower and sanctuary
Like the inner gallery, the central tower was originally cruciform but was later filled out and made circular. It rises 43 metres above the ground. At the time of the temple's foundation, the principal religious image was a statue of the Buddha, 3.6 m tall, located in the sanctuary at the heart of the central tower. The statue depicted the Buddha seated in meditation, shielded from the elements by the flared hood of the serpent king Mucalinda. During the reign of Hindu restorationist monarch Jayavarman VIII, the figure was removed from the sanctuary and smashed to pieces. After being recovered in 1933 from the bottom of a well, it was pieced back together, and is now on display in a small pavilion at Angkor.