Wednesday, April 02, 2014

B is for the Bayon Temple

This post is part of the A2ZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

At the end of the last post, we had just left Angkor Wat, the City that Became a Temple. Next up was Angkor Thom, the Great City. 

Just like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom was also a capital city. It was built in the late twelfth century (about fifty years after Angkor Wat) by Jayavarman VII, who was a prolific builder, and responsible for quite a few of the temples we see in Angkor today. Its four gates and their face-towers have become iconic - one of the things people remember when they hear the word Angkor.

The Southern gate of Angkor Thom

Much larger than Angkor Wat (about 3 kilometers long on each side), Angkor Thom today is home to many temples and other monuments.  Chief of the temples is the Bayon temple, which was the State Temple of Jayavarman VII, and is hence situated at the very center of Angkor Thom.

From far away, Bayon looks almost like a ruin
From far away, Bayon looks almost like a ruin. Why, I wondered, had so many people I know raved about this temple? 

The main approach to the temple is from the east, via a causeway with naga-shaped balustrades (a common feature of Angkor temples, as we would soon discover). 

Bayon consists of two enclosures, the inner one raised. The first enclosure doesn't promise much; it's more a cluster of stones than a wall. We crossed it, and climbed up the first set of stairs to the second enclosure. 

Inside, it's a veritable maze. What I had initially thought of as ruins turned out to be towers with multiple faces. These face-towers pop up wherever you look - there are almost forty of them on that upper level. The faces are strange - almost creepy. Perhaps the word 'inscrutable' describes them best. Some of them are so weathered that it's hard to distinguish them from the stone. 

How many faces can you spot?
The temple has a central shrine, of course. But, despite being quite large, it's comparatively undistinguished - the face towers steal the eye and the heart. 

It's easy to sit there and stare at the faces and wonder - why? What were these faces supposed to symbolize? Why carve them so many times on so many towers? What have these faces seen over the years? What lies behind those inscrutable smiles? Really, if Mona Lisa had a male counterpart, he would be somewhere here. I finally understood why my friends had raved about Bayon in particular. 

On the southern side of the second enclosure is a gallery similar to the one at Angkor Wat. The only difference is that, unlike Angkor Wat, these galleries feature real life scenes. Many of them feature naval battles that the Khmer kings had with the Cham kings. 

Below is an example of a naval battle between the two kingdoms (click to enlarge the photo). The Khmers are the ones on the left with the crossed ropes across their chest, and the Chams are the ones on the right with the strange helmets. Note the exquisitely life-like carving and the sheer amount of detail. Note the dead bodies in the water, a crocodile eating a man who has fallen in, the fishes and turtles in the water. Note the bottom panel, in which the common people are going about their daily lives as usual, oblivious of the great battle that is being fought for their protection.

Coincidentally, I came across another blogger who also wrote about the Bayon Temple for the 'B' post of the A to Z Challenge. Visit her blog for a much better set of photos. She seems to have visited during the rainy season, hence the greenery. 
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M said...

Great photos! My daughter was there last year when she traveled through south east Asia. How exciting to see the soon as I retire I will be traveling there too.
Happy A-Z April!

Su-sieee! Mac said...

Wow! You've got me curious now. I want to know if the towers were constructed or carved from rock, who did all the carvings--was it one person who supervised many or did the artists collaborate, and so on. What a thrill it must've been to be among such history.
The View from the Top of the Ladder

DR said...

M: That's great! Make sure you go during the winter though - it was REALLY hot when we went, though it was still March.

Su-sieee: Yup, it certainly was a thrill! To answer your question, the rocks were first put together to form the tower, and then the faces were carved on them. In fact, different towers were put up at different times, so many people worked on them, some of whom lived in different centuries!

Kirsten said...

When I first read this I thought the idea of all those faces carved into the rock seemed a bit creepy; but seeing the pictures, I realise it's quite beautiful. Sounds like an amazing experience! :-)

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head, they were inscrutable! That's the perfect word to describe them - and part of what made them quite eerie too (although so beautiful!)

It's quite cool to compare your photos with mine and see how different it looks in the dry versus wet season. Your photos do look a lot 'drier' than mine...

And a big thank you for the shout out! :)

DR said...

Kirsten: Indeed it was! :)

Celine: Hehe... Yes, I think they look way better in the rainy season.