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Bayon Temple in 360°
Bayon is a fine example of 12th and 13th century Khmer architecture, erected by King Jayavarman VII, (1181- c 1220) who came into power just after the Chams sacked the previous Khmer capital. He got a renewed capital, Angkor Thom built on the ashes of former one with Bayon temple standing exactly at the center of it. Bayon's most distinctive features are the large smiling faces covering its towers and the impressive sets of bas-reliefs. The temple was built with three separate levels, out of which the first and second contain bas-reliefs.
1. What to see
Since the time of Jayavarman VII, Bayon has suffered numerous additions and alterations when it was rebuilt into a Hindu temple during the reign of Jayavarman VIII (1243-1295). Later it was converted according to the needs of Theravada Buddhism. After the 'rediscovery' of Angkor in the 1860s, restoration and conservation of Bayon was carried out by EFEO (École Française d'Extrême Orient ) in the first half of the 20th century in accordance with the technique of anastylosis. Since 1995 the Japanese Government team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (JSA) takes care of Bayon.
1.1. East entrance and gate
As Bayon is aligned at an east-west axis and as its main entrance is now from east, the best time to visit the temple is just after sunrise, early in the morning when sun lights it face after face. A series of guardian lions can be found along the entrance way. It is interesting to note the lack of any surrounding walls that are typical of Khmer temples.
Traces of 16 large chapels where Buddhist and local divinities were venerated can still be seen within the enclosure. These buildings were demolished by King Jayavarman VIII who reverted to Hinduism.
1.3. Inner gallery, upper terrace and devatas
Very little space is left between the inner gallery and the upper terrace indicating that the upper terrace was not originally included in the plan. Thus it is believed that Bayon had been designed originally as a single-level structure.
The upper terrace is famous for more than 200 giant smiling faces occupying of about half hundred towers. Some of the faces can be found over the gopuras (entrance gates), some over the corner angles and there are also free-standing items on the upper terrace. Probably the architectural concept was to create an impression of a forest of towers rising towards the large central tower that – alike in all Khmer temples – symbolizes Mount Meru.
There are Devata sculptures throughout Bayon Temple, but two on the east facade differ from the rest. While standard Devatas wear a uniform expression, these two appear to have different facial expressions. One theory suggests that they were modeled after real person. On the left stands Jayarajadevi, the first wife of Jayavarman VII., while on the right is Indradevi, who was the second wife of the king and also the sister of the first wife.
1.4. Towers and faces
There is an ongoing dispute about the exact number of towers and faces. Older guidebooks mention 54 towers and explain this amount with the 54 provinces of the Khmer empire. Recent studies have revealed that there were only 49 towers, out of which 37 are still standing. Most of the towers are adorned with four faces, but some of them at cardinal points have only three or two faces.
According to some scholars, the faces are of bodhisattvaAvalokiteshvara while others suggest that they can also be the representations of the king. There is also a combination of these two hypotheses: Hindu Khmer kings regarded themselves as representations of Shiva ("devaraja", god-king) , but as Jayavarman VII was Buddhist, he identified himself with Buddha and the bodhisattva.
1.5. Central tower and shrine
The central tower is circular, which is uncommon in Khmer art with a diameter of 25 meters. It reaches a height of 43 meters above ground level and it is connected to a series of chambers to the east. Scholars suggest that the central tower used to be cruciform in shape but was later redesigned and made circular.
The sanctuary was located inside, right at the heart of the central tower. Bayon was the only Angkorian temple built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha, that's why there used to be a statue of Buddha depicting him in seated position inside the shrine. Later in the 13th century when Bayon was modified by King Jayavarman VIII who reverted to Hinduism, the statue was removed from the sanctuary and got smashed to pieces. These fragments were found by an expedition in 1933 in a well. Amazingly, the restorers recovered all the pieces, allowing the statue to be put together to be displayed in Vihear Prampil Loveng.
Bas-reliefs on the walls of the inner and outer gallery depict scenes of historical events (ie. battles) and everyday life. There is some uncertainty regarding the meaning of the historic scenes since they lack any sort of epigraphic text.
Note: maps used in this 360° virtual tour are courtesy of Dr. Olivier Cunin, digital version based on the EFEO's documentations.
2. When to see
Angkor Thom incl. Bayon temple is open daily 5am-6:00pm.
4. Where to stay
There are hotels in nearby Siem Reap for every budget: from backpackers to luxuary 5* hotels.