The Bayon vies with Angkor Wat as the favorite monument of visitors. The two evoke
similar aesthetic responses yet are different in purpose, design, architecture, and
decoration. Construction from immense blocks of steel grey sandstone, the Bayon gives
a powerful and primitive appearance.
Like the rest of Angkor, Westerners discovered the Bayon amidst dense jungle. This
environment camouflaged its position in relation to other structures at Angkor so
it was not known for some time that the Bayon stands in the exact center of the royal
city of Angkor Thom. Because of this, it was incorrectly dated for several decades
after its discovery. Even after its position was known, the Bayon was erroneously
connected with the city of Yasovar-man I and thus dated to the ninth century. The
correct date of the Bayon was not known until the discovery of a pediment in 1925
depicting an Avalokitesvara. This find identified the Bayon as a Buddhist temple
and moved the date of the monument ahead some 300 years to the late twelfth century.
Even though the date is firmly supported by archaeological evidence, the Bayon remains
one of the most enigmatic temples of the Angkor group. It still holds the secrets
of its original form and subsequent changes and constructions.
Work on the Bayon started nearly one hundred years after Angkor Wat and at least
two additional phases of construction followed. Thus, it is difficult to determine
either the basic structure or the earliest part of the temple. Since it was located
at the center of a royal city it seems possible that the Bayon would have originally
been a temple mountain conforming to the symbolism of a microcosm of Mount Meru.
The middle part of the temple was extended during a second phase of building the
powerful central mass that dominates the upper level of the Bayon today belongs to
the third and last phase of the construction and represents the art to which the
temple gives its name
The architectural scale and composition of the Bayon are grand in every way. Elements
juxtapose to create balance and harmony and the whole is eternally surrounded by
some two hundred faces on fifty-four towers. The concept of four immense faces one
facing each cardinal direction-at the apex of a tower is unique to Khmer art. Pierre
Loti, a French visitor at the turn of this century, wrote of these faces "I
raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhang me, drowned in verdure, and I
shudder suddenly above with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from
above, a huge, fixed smile, and then another smile again beyond, on another stretch
of wall,...and then three, and then five, and then 10. They appear everywhere, and
I realize that I have been overlooked from all sides by the faces of the quadrupled-visaged
towers. They are of a size, these masks carved in the air, so far exceeding human
proportions that it requires a moment or two fully to comprehend them."
It is generally accepted that the four faces of the towers are images of the bodhisattva
Avalokitesvara and that they signify the omnipresence of the king. The characteristics
of these faces-broad forehead, downcast eyes, wide nostrils, thick lips that curl
upwards slightly at the ends-combine to reflect what has become known as the Angkor
look. The faces with "slightly curving lips, eyes placed in shadow by the lowered
lids utter not a word and yet force you to guess much," wrote P. Jennerat de
Beer-ski in the 1920s.
The basic plan of the Bayon that stands is a simple one consisting of three levels.
The first and second levels are square galleries featuring bas-reliefs. A circular
central sanctuary dominates the third level. A peculiarity of the Bayon is the absence
of an enclosing wall but the whole is protected by the wall surrounding the city
of Angkor Thom.
Despite this seemingly simple plan, the arrangement of the Bayon is complex with
a maze of galleries, narrow courtyards, and steps connected in a way that makes the
levels practically indistinguishable and creates dim lighting, narrow walkways, and
low ceilings. This complexity in architectural layout resulted from additions and
changes to the original plan.
The exterior of the Bayon, the one a visitor first encounters at the east, is a square
gallery on the ground or first level. This gallery is interspersed with eight entry
towers-one in each corner and one in the middle of each side. All of these eight
towers are in the shape of a cross. The gallery was probably originally covered with
a roof, perhaps of wood but today any trace of a roof has disappeared.
The architectural climax of the Bayon is the central mass on the third level. The
east side of this area is crammed with a series of small rooms and entry towers.
A multitude of towers-each one with faces-stands at different levels. This arrangement
of staggered heights gives the impression of faces everywhere.
The central mass is circular, a shape uncommon in Khmer art. Small porches with pediments
provide the bases for these monumental faces while balustered windows minimize the
light diffusion. Eight towers with faces mark the cardinal directions and are exceptionally
dramatic figures. The interior of the central sanctuary is a cell and surrounded
by a narrow passage. The summit of the central mass was probably encased in gold
as described by Zhou Daguan in the late 13th century.
The inner and outer galleries at the Bayon are decorated with bas-reliefs. The inner
gallery is separated by rooms, cells, and fragments-it is not a continuous aisle
as on the exterior. The bas-reliefs depict mainly mythological subjects of a Hindu
inspiration. The outer gallery has genre scenes of everyday life-markets, fishing,
festivals with cock fights and jugglers etc.-and historical scenes with battles and
processions. The bas-reliefs on this outer gallery are a marked departure from anything
previously seen at Angkor. The reliefs are more deeply carved than at Angkor Wat
but the representation is less stylized. The scenes are presented mostly in two or
three horizontal panels. The lower one is without any awareness of the laws of perspective
whereas the upper tier presents scenes of the horizon. The outer gallery was most
likely open to all worshippers of Buddhism and served as a teaching vehicle to disseminate
the tenants of Buddhism.
Reliefs on the east side of the gallery stand out for their excellent workmanship.
They are divided into three panels and depict a military procession. Warriors are
armed with javelins and shields while others have goatees and wear exotic headdresses.
Musicians accompany the warriors. Horsemen riding bareback flank the musicians. The
commanders of the troops, including King Jayavarman VII, identified by umbrellas
with tiers and insignias, are mounted on elephants. Towards the end of the procession,
covered wooden carts of the same style as those used today carry provisions of food
for the military.
The scenes on the south side of the gallery are renowned for their composition, execution,
and quality of workmanship. The panel begins with a historical scene depicting a
naval battle between the Khmer and the Chams, their neighboring enemies from south-east
The Chams are readily identifiable by their hats which look like upside-down lotus
flowers. Boats majestically portrayed with richly ornamented prows and a galley with
the rowers and warriors armed with javelins, bows, and shields ply the waters. Action
is provided by corpses being thrown overboard and sometimes being eaten by crocodiles.
Genre scenes of daily life along the shores of the Great Lake are depicted with spirit
and candor-outdoor cooking, an attack by wild animals, a woman removing lice from
another one's hair, a mother playing with her children, another woman kneeling with
her arms around a person who is writhing in pain which may be a scene of childbirth
assisted by a midwife.
Helen Churchill Candee who visited the Bayon in the 1920s wrote that "here the
carvings stopped me wide-eyed, open-mouthed. Not like those of my first love, Angkor
Vat; no, those are far more gracious and lovely, of more sophisticated art, but these
hold one by their quality of directness. They do not lure by elegant suggestions
of aristocracy among men and exclusiveness among gods, but by direct simplicity.
They have homely human things to tell and they tell them without affectation."