Faces, faces everywhere and one can’t escape from them as we traverse a huge area of nine square kilometres that itself has no walls or moats. This entire landscape is straddled with giant stone faces that are visible from every corner, towering even over giant trees that dot this verdant land. Whose faces are this, nobody is sure. Some say it may be King Jayavarman VII himself or Bodhisattava of compassion or it may be a combination of both. However, as the faces bear strong resemblance to the builder of the temple, the King, our guide said most scholars support this theory. But to me it was immaterial as I was wonder struck at the uniformity and sculptural elegance of the giant faces that smiled at me from every angle and corner wherever I went.
It was early morning when we set out to see Bayon, one of the last state built temples at Angkor Thom. This massive complex was once the capital city of the great King Jayavarman VII during the late 12th and early 13 centuries. Angkor Thom is traversed by a 12-kilometre-long wall that extends all around the city and has an impressive moat and of course, the gigantic Bayon temple. Even the gateway to Angkor Thom has innumerable faces of the guardian king who seems to be standing there for eternity to protect the city from marauders and enemies.
The giant faces of Bayon are the most recognizable images of classical Khmer art and architecture. One can’t believe it as the faces are enormous. There are 37 standing towers today at Bayon out of the original 49 but not all of them bear the four carved, giant smiling faces that is oriented towards the cardinal points.
A three-tiered temple, Bayon was built as an assembly hall for all the gods and has undergone various alterations during its construction. Therefore, the layout of the temple complex is so complicated that it leaves a tourist totally confused and exhausted.
Apart from its stone faces, Bayon is known for its exquisite narrative, bas-reliefs which is considered one of the finest and recognizable examples of Khmer art by all scholars. They incredibly go up to 10 feet up the wall and one has to crane his or her neck to see the variety of themes. Both the exterior and interior walls at both the lower and upper levels abound in real life scenes from the historical battle between the Khmers and the Chams. The panels are anecdotal and easy to understand and less sophisticated than those found at the Angkor Wat. The war scenes are pretty realistic but whether they represent the Cham invasion in 1178 AD or from a later period in which the Khmers emerged victorious, is not clear. The lower level bas-reliefs are well preserved compared to the upper level and therefore, easier to photograph.
The most striking and impressive feature of these carvings dating back 800 years are of the day to day life scenes that includes cock fighting, hunting, cooking, boar fighting, warriors making a kill, picking lice from a friend’s hair, marketing and even childbirth.
Most of the bas reliefs are unfinished compositions and are actually located in two concentric enclosures on the first and second levels of the temple. If the external gallery is all about the conquest of Jayavarman, the VII with its war scenes, then the internal gallery portrays all about Hinduism, its rituals and practices followed by Jayavarman, the VIII.
Located in the centre of Angkor Thom, representing the universe, the Bayon temple is a unique combination of both Buddhist and Hindu themes. As is the case with other temples in Siem Reap where successive kings have left their footprints with the result that Bayon has a confusing mix of history, mythology and traditions.
It is better to visit Bayon early morning as the huge faces looming and towering over everybody with its dark shadows can only be captured for posterity at that time.
A plethora of maze like passages leading from tower to tower is further very difficult to traverse during the fading light and so, plan well and visit this temple as one should not miss either Angkor or Bayon while visiting Siem Reap in Cambodia.