It’s all in details – Bayon and it’s magnificent ornaments

My previous post was about Angkor in general, this one aims at showing you the details that caught my attention in one of its temples. In the meantime I will also come back to our story line. We woke up really late, by that time the receptionist from our hotel was trying to get rid of Tony (our tuk-tuk driver) even though we made an appointment with him the previous night. It was around noon when we finally met him and asked him to take us for breakfast to the place he recommends. And this is how we got to an open air restaurant near Bayon temple eating curry for breakfast. At least P did. I wasn’t that hungry. He remembers it being especially tasty…

Bayon Temple
Faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Bayon was our first temple and we spend quite a lot of time there. It’s a Buddhist temple located in the center of  Angkor Thom representing the intersection of heaven and earth. The most characteristic features are huge stone faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, with one facing outward and keeping watch at each compass point. The curious smiling image, thought by many to be a portrait of Jayavarman himself, has been  called the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia.”

Four of the city’s five gates sat on axis with the temple, and the walls of the city substituted for the enclosure walls normally found at Khmer temples. The walls sit at such a distance from the temple that the temple seems to rise abruptly from the ground like an artificial mountain. In fact, the temple was intended to evoke the form of Mt. Meru—the cosmic mountain at the center of the world in Buddhist cosmology. In keeping with this cosmic symbolism, the plan of the temple is based on a ‘yantra’, a symbol used by Tantric Buddhists as the basis of mandala diagrams that represent the layout of the universe.

The Chams on the run
Three-level panorama of Jayavarman VII's victory over the Chams

Long walls covered with collection of  bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events are another reason to visit the temple. The bas-reliefs on the southern wall contain real-life scenes from the historical sea battle between the Khmer and the Cham. It is not clear whether this represents the Cham invasion of 1177AD or a later battle in which the Khmer were victorious.

Bas relief Bayon Temple
Bas relief Bayon Temple

If you enter Bayon by the east gate and view the reliefs in a clockwise direction, here’s what you’ll see:

  1. The Chams on the run. A three-level panorama of Jayavarman VII’s victory over the Chams.
  2. Linga worship. Worshippers bow before a linga (Hindu phallic symbol associated with Shiva). The revered object was probably originally a Buddha, but later altered by a Hindu king.
  3. A naval battle. Some of Bayon’s best-carved images, this section depicts scenes of a naval battle at Tonle Sap Lake and images of everyday life by the lake.
  4. The Chams are vanquished. Scenes of the defeat of the Chams on the shore, coupled with more images of ordinary life, such as a chess game, a cockfight, and women seeling fish.
  5. Military procession. This section, which includes elephants being led in from the mountains, is unfinished.
  6. More military procession.
  7. Civil war? Here groups of people confront each other, leading some scholars to believe it depicts a civil war.
  8. The all-seeing king. This interesting panel shows an antelope being swallowed by a giant fish and a prawn among smaller fish and includes an inscription proclaiming that the king will seek out those in hiding.
  9. Victory parade. A procession with the king carrying a bow.
  10. A Khmer circus at the western corner or the northern wall. A strong man holds three dwarfs; a man on his back spins a wheel with his feet; above is a group of tightrope walkers. The royal court watches from a terrace.
  11. A land of plenty. Rivers teem with fish.
  12. The Chams retreat. This narrative takes up most of the north wall.
  13. The Chams sack Angkor on the east wall. This panel depicts the war of 1177, when Angkor was defeated and pillaged. Above war scenes, despairing Khmers are getting drunk.
  14. The Chams enter Angkor. Another meeting of the two armies before King Jayavarman’s victory depicted in panel






The ground floor of the temple, called also inner gallery, reminded me of a labyrinth full of mystery. The contrast between light and darkness was striking. Narrow passages, mythological reliefs, pillars all made me feel like being on a quest to find a treasure of long forgotten civilization. I know too much Tomb Raider (even though I don’t really like this film). We also came across a few monks who seemed to be sightseeing just like we did. In the sanctuary located in the central tower you can see statue of Buddha where worshipers leave burning incenses and offerings.

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