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If you’re headed to Cambodia anytime soon, Angkor Wat is probably already on your to-do list. Head a little north though and you can also check out the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia” at Bayon Temple.
Bayon Temple is at the heart of Angkor Thom (“Great City”), another Buddhist temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It stands in the middle of the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s, the late 12th century Mahayana Buddhist king. The Hindu cosmology, as well as several Theravada carvings, was added after his death according to the spiritual preferences of future kings.
Dating back to 1190 AD, Bayon Temple has many traditional elements of Buddhist temples, but the integration of elements of Hindu cosmology into its ornamental carvings sets it apart. It is also an excellent example of the baroque style of Khmer architecture, as opposed to Angkor Wat’s more classical style.
Khmer architecture emphasized the divine nature of kinds and paid tribute to their images through sculpture. Temples in this style were built to reflect Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods, with five peaks surrounded by water. Architectural critics often note that there is more of a hurried feel to Bayon Temple – it lacks the perfection of Angkor Wat.
The “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia” is actually several giant carvings of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and, according to Tourism Cambodia, signifies the omnipresence of the king. The carvings adorn the 37 remaining towers (at one point there were 49) and these can be seen best from the upper terrace of the Temple.
Importance of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an enlightened being. They became enlightened beings by falling away from themselves and generating compassion for all sentient creatures. However, they stop right before reaching Buddhahood, allowing them to continue on in a state of constant helping all beings. Avalokiteshvara is, in Mahayana theology, the bodhisattva who made a vow to stay among the sentient beings and assist them until all had achieved Nirvana. In Tibetan theology, they often consider the Dalai Lama and other high lamas as coming from the body of Avalokiteshvara.
There is also a school of thought that the faces are just representative of the King. The sculptures of Avalokiteshvara (or King Jayavarman) are joined by more than 2,000 other carvings of faces to make up the decorative façade of the temple.
The Buddha of Bayon Temple
The Temple’s Buddha also has a bit of a story behind him. Standing tall at 3.6 meters high, this statue of Buddha meditating was in the heart of the sanctuary for years until Jayavarman VIII’s reign. He was a Hindu and had the Buddha smashed, throwing the pieces into a well. In 1933, the pieces were found and reassembled and Buddha is now on display in Angkor.
Bayon Temple is also notable for it’s bas-reliefs, a sculpture technique that makes an image look like it is rising out of its base. It’s the same technique used on coins. Bas-reliefs have a very shallow background. Bas-reliefs are very common among Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Banyon Temple’s show a really unique conglomeration of mythological, historical and everyday moments.
So if you are taking a page from The Dead Kennedy’s and going on a holiday in Cambodia, make sure you don’t overlook Banyon Temple. It’s definitely one of the more notable temples and completely worth the day trip.