The basic structure of Bayon comprises of three levels. The first two levels are square and adorned with bas-reliefs. They lead up to a third, circular level, with the towers and the mysterious faces.
The outer walls of the temple complex are adorned with astounding bas-reliefs. They depict scenes from Khmer history and offer tantalizing glimpses of everyday life of the people. One of the best sections portrays a naval combat that took place in the last quarter of the 12th century between the Chams and the Khmers. Chams were the heirs of the Hindu kingdom Champa, who controlled central Vietnam. They were the sole rivals of the Angkor empire for a long time. The extensive bas-relief illustrates the battle between the two in vivid detail. It shows battleships with ornate prows - like galleys - warriors armed with javelins, bows and shields tower above the line of oarsmen’s heads. Bodies are thrown overboard, some to be devoured by crocodiles. The king is seated in his palace to the extreme right, presiding over preparations and giving orders. Numerous species of fish are shown, often amongst the trees, since the forest becomes flooded during the rainy season! On other panels events from everyday life are shown, depicted with much candour and humour: market scenes, scenes of open-air cooking, of hunting or of attack by wild animals. A woman picks lice from one figure, while another plays with her children and one further on mourns an invalid who lies in her arms.
The Bayon bas-reliefs are less stylized and more deeply incised than those of Angkor Wat. The attention to details is quite incredible. They offer us a vivid visual narration of the times and tribulations in ancient Cambodia.
We spent quite some time totally enthralled with the timeless beauty of these bas-reliefs and slowly made our way inside. A plethora of towers, almost 40 of them with carved faces greeted us. They were arranged in a staggered manner to form varying sizes of stone mountains with smaller peaks. These giant stone faces of Bayon have become one of the most recognizable images connected to classic Khmer art and architecture. Who the faces might represent is a matter of debate. According to some scholars, the statues depict the face of the Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. This is supported by the features of the face, in particular the closed eyes and mysterious smile, which represent the achievement of the state of Enlightenment. Others, however, have argued that the faces depicted Jayavarman VII himself, as they bear an uncanny resemblance to other images of the king. It is also possible that the statues were meant to depict Jayavarman and the Avalokitesvara simultaneously, thus allowing the king to take on the attributes of Bodhisattva! These faces, dubbed the ‘Mona Lisa of South East Asia’ are in sets of four and dominate the architecture of the temple.
As we climbed the wobbly stone steps and reached the upper terraces, the faces loomed larger. It was hard to escape the feeling that someone was constantly watching you! The faces with broad forehead, downcast eyes, wide nostrils, thick lips that curl upwards slightly at the ends radiate boundless serenity. They do not utter a word and yet seem to convey a sense of ecstatic bliss.
There were hordes of tourists milling around, chatting noisily, more intent to have a selfie with these faces, rather than silently imbibing the mysterious aura radiating from them!
Deep inside the inner recesses of the temple there was an idol of a seated Buddha in quiet repose, with just enough candles to alleviate the darkness. He must have witnessed calamitous and turbulent years yet the tranquility in his face was timeless.
Bayon was the last temple built in Angkor. After that, the epic Khmer city full of palaces and temples was deserted for five hundred years.
But the faces of Bayon are ageless and remain etched in our memories…
Soar in the sky
Whispering fathomless secrets
Of bygone eras
With thousand year old smiles
Glimpses At photos.app.goo.gl/cxKOUuddNy2T6gLo2
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