After a Century of Study, Bayon Temple Continues To Deliver Mysteries

As one reads the book “Bayon, New Perspectives” written by a group of experts on Angkor, one fact clearly emerges: that in spite of more than a century of intensive research, crucial pages of Angkorian history remain a mystery.

This could not be more obvious than at the Bayon, which still is a riddle to scholars who continue to differ on many aspects of the temple–from the years in which its various structures were built or modified to the events that the historical scenes carved on its walls actually depict.

The only point on which there now is a general consensus, as historian Michael Vickery mentions in the introduction, is “that the Bayon was mostly constructed in the reign of King Jayavarman VII as his central temple and that its religious orientation then was some kind of Buddhism.”

“Some kind of Buddhism” refers to the fact that “the religion represented by Jayavarman’s temples was a complex one, predominantly Buddhist but also strongly Hindu” and reflected ancient Khmer as well as Indian values, oriental-history scholar TS Maxwell writes. The Bayon contains both Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

Peter Sharrock, an authority on ancient Khmer Buddhism, suggests in the book that Jayavarman VII–who reigned when the Khmer empire dominated the region–favored Buddhism in an unorthodox form called Tantrism, and that the Bayon’s giant faces actually are the Buddha as viewed in Tantric form.

“The uniformity of the faces and their lack of individual detail can be seen as a deliberate attempt to render the qualities of the ultimate ‘fourth state’ […] adopted by the late Tantric Buddhists,” Mr Sharrock writes. These qualities included being invisible, impalpable, ungraspable and indefinable, he added, qualities that certainly apply to those enigmatic faces.

In the late 1290s, Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan was told at Angkor that the faces of the Bayon represented the Buddha. The first French researchers who came to Angkor towards the end of the 19th century believed the temple to be Hindu and interpreted the faces as images of Hindu deities Brahma or Shiva.

Even today, experts have yet to come to an agreement on the meaning of those impenetrable faces, and some authors in this book bring theories contradicting Mr Sharrock’s own.

This richly illustrated, 406-page work published by River Books in Bangkok was first meant to present a unified viewpoint on the Bayon, according to editor Joyce Clark, vice president of the organization Friends of Khmer Culture and an Asian art specialist. But the contributing authors, who figure among the leading authorities on Cambodia and Angkor in various fields of study, soon realized that they would not be able to reach a consensus and would have to settle for publishing their divergent theories, she says.

Among agreed upon facts is that construction of the Bayon was started in the late 13th century by Jayavarman VII to stand in the middle of his walled city we now call Angkor Thom.

While the king may have needed a fortified city to protect himself from his enemies, this temple and city may have been meant to embody, for Cambodians of the time, the myth “Nokor Kok Thlok” regarding to birth of Cambodia, writes Ang Choulean, an ethnologist, religious myth expert and ancient-Khmer professor.

Virtually every Cambodian today knows this myth according to which a man married the daughter of the underwater serpent deity naga who then drank some of the ocean’s water so the couple would have an island to live on, he writes.

According to the Siem Reap town version of this myth, which Mr Choulean believes predates Angkor, the naga climbed through a well to reach the island and see the couple but his visit ended in tragedy.

There actually is a well at the Bayon temple, Mr Choulean writes, which shows that the temple was intended as the center of this mythical island.

“In the rainy season, people come here, everyone seeking a little of its water from which to make a magical, religious potion,” he says of today’s locals.

Jayavarman VII’s walled city formed a square enclosing 900 hectares, with each of its walls extending over 12 kilometers, writes architect Olivier Cunin who has been studying the Bayon and other Angkorian monuments since 1997.

In the middle of this vast square is the Bayon complex, a 144-by-228-meter rectangle in which stands the temple made of sandstone and laterite as backing, built over three main levels with a central sanctuary rising to a height of 42 meters, he says. Mr Cunin estimates that the temple may have had 59 towers adorned with giant faces sculpted on each of their four sides for a total of 236 faces.

The Bayon was built and modified over nearly a century, and experts have been debating for years when each change was made. For example, conjectures abound as to whether its 16 “passage-galleries,” which provided access between the first and second levels of the temple and were later removed, were part of the temple’s original design.

To help answer such questions, an archeometric study was conducted by the Tokyo’s University of Waseda, the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor and Mr Cunin to determine the magnetic sensitivity of sandstone, which varies from one quarry to the next. In the mid-2000s, they concluded that the stones used for the Bayon had come from a minimum of seven different quarries over four major periods of construction, he says.

This study has enabled him to assert that the passage-galleries were only built towards the end of Jayavarman VII’s life, during the Bayon’s third construction phase and not as part of the temple’s early design.

While this archeometric study cannot in itself provide absolute or relative dates, it shows which parts of the monument were built with stones from the same quarry and this, Mr Vickery says in the book’s introduction, “makes difficult an argument that two structures of the Bayon with very different magnetic susceptibilities were built at the same time, or that two structures with the same magnetic susceptibility were built at very different times.”

One fact that leaves no doubt is that Buddhist sculptures at the Bayon and other Angkorian temples were destroyed or defaced to be turned into Hindu ones during the reign of Jayavarman VIII in the mid-14th century.

“The scale of destruction was certainly enormous […] the number of destroyed images comes to tens of thousands,” writes epigraphist Claude Jacques in the book.

That king probably came from a family hostile to Buddhism and especially to Jayavarman VII, he notes. “[T]here are ground for believing that Jayavarman VIII saw to the disappearance of much that was written on stone by Jayavarman VII,” which would explain why no record carved on stone slab or pillar was found about the construction of the Bayon, says Mr Jacques, who taught archeology in Cambodia from 1965 to 1970 and has been studying Angkor and Khmer inscriptions ever since.

This also might explain why so little is known of the life of Jayavarman VII before or after his coronation. Indications are that, in his youth, he spent time in Champa at the court of an ally Cham king–Champa consisted of a series of small kingdoms in today’s central and southern Vietnam–and was there when the Khmer king Suryavarman II was killed and his throne usurped.

Some Cham factions attacked Angkor in the 1170s and at least two Cham kings might have fought against Jayavarman VII, writes epigraphist and ancient Vietnam scholar Anne-Valerie Schweyer. One scene sculpted on a wall of the Bayon could be depicting his Khmer army and Cham allied forces fighting other Cham factions, she says.

There is no Cham record, however, that a Cham king actually occupied and raided Angkor in 1177 as Chinese annals have reported, she states.

No Angkorian inscription either speaks of Cham sacking Angkor, and there is no evidence that the naval battle on a wall of the Bayon took place on the Tonle Sap lake during a Cham attack, Mr Jacques adds. Nevertheless, around 1177, Jayavarman VII emerged victorious from an encounter with a Cham faction, and, while it is not known what happened in the intervening years, he acceded to the throne around 1182, he writes.

An inscription recently discovered on a bowl has revealed that the king lived at least 10 years longer than previously believed, and was still alive around 1218: He would have been at least 72 years old at the time, Mr Jacques says.

His successor Indravarman II, who seemed to have succeeded him without any bloodshed, probably reigned about 50 years, and was followed by Jayavarman VIII who acceded to the throne around 1270–probably not without some upheaval–and tried to reinstate Hinduism in the country, Mr Jacques writes.

Jayavarman VIII’s program of destruction at the Bayon may not have been solely for religious purposes, TS Maxwell says in the book. Some of the numerous deities in the temple were linked in inscriptions to individuals who had wielded enormous social and political power under Jayavarman VII and removing or reshaping those statues was probably part of Jayavarman VIII’s efforts to eliminate the influence of the late king, he writes.

More than a century ago, researchers from the French-government agency Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient went about restoring temples at Angkor and deciphering Sanskrit and ancient Khmer stone inscriptions.

Over the last 20 years, scholars have discovered new inscriptions, revisited old ones, and uncovered vestiges at the temples that have helped them advance knowledge of Angkor’s history.

And yet, Mr Jacques writes at the end of his chapter, “many things remain to be discovered about the history of Cambodia. […] It is hoped that this work will encourage younger generations of scholars: there remains plenty of work for them to do and they must not be frightened to propose new hypotheses, provided that they are based on solid foundations.”


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