Angkor, located in Cambodia, is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 square km, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Among others, they include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. While the temple of Angkor Wat is more popular among the tourists for its huge structure with intricate decorations, the temple of Bayon is distinguished by the multitude of its massive and smiling stone faces on many of the towers with one facing outward and keeping watch at each compass point.
Built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII as part of a massive expansion of his capital Angkor Thom, the Bayon is built at the exact center of the capital city. The Bayon was the last state temple to be built at Angkor and the only state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Lord Buddha. After the death of Jayavarman, the structure of the temple was altered and modified by the later Hindu and the Theravada Buddhist kings, in accordance with their own religious beliefs. It is suggested that the massive faces of the temple belong to Bodhishattva of compassion called Avalokiteshvara or Lokeshhvara. However, there is an uncanny similarity between the 216 gigantic faces on the temple’s towers and the other statues of the King erected elsewhere in the country. This has led many scholars to the conclusion that the faces are actually representations of the King, Jayavarman VII himself, and has been dubbed by some as the Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia.
Bayon Temple is surrounded by two long walls decorated with beautiful bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events.The outer wall of the outer gallery is also adorned with a different series of bas-reliefs, depicting the important historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkor Khmer. In a courtyard, surrounded by the outer gallery, there are two libraries. At one time the courtyard was adorned with 16 chapels, which were subsequently demolished by the next Hindu King, Jayavarman VIII. The inner gallery is raised above the ground level and has doubled corners. Its bas-reliefs, later additions by Jayavarman VIII, are totally different than those on the outer wall. It depicts battle scenes and processions. A part of the inner gallery is mostly decorated with scenes from Hindu mythology, along with the figures of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the members of the Trimurti or the threefold godhead of Hinduism. However, the third level can be termed as the gallery of the famous faces. It is the home to the famous “face towers” of the Bayon, each of which supports two, three or four gigantic smiling faces.
Apart from the mass of the central tower, smaller towers are located along the inner gallery and on chapels on the upper terrace. At one time the temple had 49 towers, now only 37 remain. The number of the faces is probably around 200, but since some of the faces are only partially preserved, it is difficult to ascertain the actual number.
The central tower, 43 m above the ground, was initially cruciform but was later transformed to circular. Originally a 3.6 m tall statue of Lord Buddha, seated in meditation and shielded from the elements by the flared hood of the serpent king Mucalinda, was located in the sanctuary at the heart of the central tower as the deity. Unfortunately, during the reign of Hindu King Jayavarman VIII, the statue was removed and smashed to pieces. After being recovered in1933 from the bottom of a well, it is now on display as an exhibit in a pavilion.