Within the Angkor complex near Siem Reap stands the 12th-century Bayon Temple, known for its distinctive stone faces, each adorned with a subtle smile. These faces, prominently displayed on the temple’s towers, have piqued the curiosity of visitors for years. In this article, we’ll delve into the history and significance of these unique features, highlighting what makes Bayon a notable temple in the Angkor region.
History of Bayon
Bayon was built in the late 12th or early 13th century as a state temple for the seat of the Khmer Empire. It was commissioned by King Jayavarman VII and originally called “Jayagiri” meaning “Victory Mountain.” The temple was dedicated to Buddha and renamed “Bayon” likely because of the many banyan trees on site.
The temple underwent modifications during power shifts between Buddhism and Hinduism. The recognizable face towers were added later by Jayavarman VII. There may have been up to 54 towers, one for each province in the Khmer Empire. Today only 37 remain due to the passage of time.
In addition to the iconic faces, Bayon contains two richly decorated galleries with over 11,000 detailed bas-relief figures depicting historical events, everyday life, and myths. The galleries and upper terrace with the stone faces were added later by Jayavarman VIII.
Symbolism of the Faces
The oversized smiling visages on Bayon’s towers have inspired many interpretations. Some believe they depict Bodhisattva Lokesvara, the Buddha of compassion. The similar facial features match statues of Jayavarman VII, leading many to conclude they represent the god-king. Another theory suggests the faces symbolize the rulers keeping watch over their kingdom.
The exact symbolism remains a mystery. The faces exhibit slight differences but share the same closed-mouth smile. This hint of a grin likely represents Buddhist enlightenment and inner peace. The popular nickname “Smile of Angkor” reflects their impact.
Visiting Bayon’s Enigmatic Faces
Bayon’s iconic faces are a must-see for any visitor to Angkor Archaeological Park and one of the top three attractions along with Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. Allow at least two hours to fully experience the temple’s maze of passages and steep stairways.
The best times to see the smiles are in the early morning or late afternoon when crowds are smaller. There are great photo opportunities facing the massive visages. A guide can point out optimal spots at different times as the light changes dramatically.
Let Bayon’s 216 giant heads charm you with their slightly upturned lips and serene glow. But don’t expect them to reveal their secrets. The enigmatic magic of their subtle smiles has endured for centuries, continuing to fascinate visitors who flock to Siem Reap to admire this wonder of Khmer architecture.