After visiting Angkor Wat, we went to explore another symbolic temple of Cambodia, the Bayon temple which was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat.
The Bayon is located in the center of the city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom (Big Angkor) is a 3km x 3km walled and moated royal city and was the last capital of the Angkorian empire. After King Jayavarman VII recaptured the Angkorian capital from the Cham in 1181, he began a massive building campaign across the empire and built Angkor Thom as his new capital city.
Prasat Bayon as it is known was erroneously connected with the city of Yasovarman I and thus dated to the ninth century. A pediment found in 1925 depicting an Avalokitesvara identified the Bayon as a Buddhist temple. This discovery moved the date of the monument ahead some 300 years to the late twelfth century. Even though the date is firmly implanted and supported by archaeological evidence, the Bayon remains one of the most enigmatic temples of the Angkor group. Its symbolism, original form and subsequent changes and constructions have not yet been untangled.
The Bayon of today belong to the third and last phase of the art style. The architectural scale and composition of the Bayon exude grandness in every aspects. Its elements juxtapose each other to create balance and harmony.
Over 2000 large faces carved on the 54 tower give this temple its majestic character. 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. It is generally accepted that four faces on each of the tower are images of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and that they signify the omnipresence of the king. The characteristics of this faces – a broad forehead, downcast eyes, wild nostrils, thick lips that curl upwards slightly at the ends-combine to reflect the famous ‘Smile of Angkor’.
A peculiarity of the Bayon is the absence of an enclosing wall. It is, though, protected by the wall surrounding the city of Angkor Thom. The basic plan of the Bayon is a simple one comprising three levels. The first and second levels are square galleries featuring bas-reliefs. A circular Central Sanctuary dominates the third level. Despite this seemingly simple plan, the arrangement of the Bayon is complex, with a maze of galleries, passages and steps connected in a way that make the levels practically indistinguishable and creates dim lighting, narrow walkways, and low ceilings.
On the interior of the first level there are two libraries, one on each side near the corners at the east side of the gallery. The second gallery of bas-reliefs has a tower in each corner and another one on each side which combines to form an entry tower. The bas-reliefs at the Bayon consist of two galleries. The inner one is decorated with mythical scenes. The bas-reliefs on the outer gallery are a marked departure from anything previously seen at Angkor. They contain genre scenes of everyday life-markets, fishing, festivals with cockfights and jugglers and so on-and history scenes with battles and processions. The relief 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 first or outer gallery is all on one level whereas the second or inner gallery is on different level and the passage is sometimes difficult. The layout of the inner gallery can be misleading but as long as the relief are in view you are still in the second gallery.
The architectural climax is the third level, with the Central Sanctuary and the faces of Avalokitesvara. The east side of this area is crammed with a series of small rooms and entry towers .The multitude of faces at different levels affords endless fascination.
The central mass is circular, a shape that is uncommon in Khmer art. Small porches with pediments provide the bases for the monumental faces while windows with balusters keep the diffusion of light to a minimum. The faces on the four sides of the eight tower marking the cardinal directions are exceptionally dramatic depictions.
The interior of the Central Sanctuary is and surrounded by a narrow passage. The summit of the Central mass is undoubtedly the Golden Tower which marked the center of the Kingdom and was flanked by more than twenty lesser tower and several hundred stone chambers.
Coming out of Bayon we had lunch at the nearby food court. Then we proceeded to the temple which made the Angkor famous – Ta Prohm. We passed through Victory Gate. King Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom as his new capital city. He began the new city with existing structures such as Baphuon and Phimeanakas, building a grand enclosed city around them, adding the outer wall/moat and raising other important temples including the Bayon set at the center of the city and probably serving as his state temple.
Five grand entrances allowed access to the capital city – five towering face gates – one for each cardinal point, and the Victory Gate leading to the Royal Palace area. Each gate is crowned with 4 giant faces and framed by elephants wading amongst lotus flowers. Most modern visitors and tourists first enter Angkor Thom by the South Gate, coming from Siem Reap town 9km south.
The Victory Gate is on eastern wall of Angkor Thom and is the second most used gateway into the Royal Square. Visitors entering or leaving Angkor Thom through this Gate will earn an opportunity to see many significant vestiges, including the Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Banteay Kdei.
The temple of Ta Prohm, also known as jungle temple, was used as a location in the film Tomb Raider. Its scenes of Ta Prohm were quite faithful to the temple’s actual appearance, and made use of its eerie qualities.
Ta Prohm is locating southwest of the East Mebon and east of Angkor Thom. Its outer enclosure is near the corner of Banteay Kdei. It can be accessed by enter the monument from the west and leave from the east entrance. We entered from east and existed the same way.
It was built about mid-12th century to early 13th century (1186) by the King Jayavarman VII, dedicated to the mother of the king.
Ta Prohm is the undisputed capital of the kingdom of the Trees’. It has been left untouched by archaeologists except for the clearing of a path for visitors and structural strengthening to stave off further deterioration. I was proud to see Archaeological Survey of India helped in restoring some of the portion of Ta Prohm. A big Crane is seen at the site where a Library is being restored.
Because of its natural state, it is possible to experience at this temple the wonder of the early explorers when they came upon these monuments in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Shrouded in dense jungle the temple of Ta Prohm is ethereal in aspect and conjures up a romantic aura. Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. Trunks of trees twist amongst stone pillars. The strange, haunted charm of the place entwines itself about you as you go, as inescapably as the roots have wound themselves about the walls and towers’, wrote a visitor 40 years ago.
A Sanskrit inscription on stone, still in place, give details of the temple. The complex included 260 statues of gods, 39 towers with pinnacles and 566 groups of residences. Ta Prohm comprises a series of long low buildings standing on one level, which are enclosed by rectangular laterite wall. Only traces of the wall are still visible. The center of the monument is reached by a series of towers connected with passages. This arrangement forms a ‘ sort of sacred way into the heart of the monument’; three-square galleries enclose the area.
Some areas of the temple are impassable and others are accessible only by narrow dark passages. It is recommended to follow the plan with a route and landmarks indicted or to stay with a guide to avoid getting lost. This place is teamed with tourists. It was very congested and humid. Taking photographs without tourists obstructing great view was near impossible.
Almost everyone wanted the great Tomb raider points of interest and not archaeological wonders of this temple. Everywhere around you, you see nature in this dual role of destroyer and consoler; strangling on the one hand, and healing on the other; no sooner splitting the carved stones asunder than she dresses their wounds with cool, velvety mosses, and binds them with her most delicate tendrils; a conflict of moods so contradictory.
The boundaries of the exterior wall are recognizable on the west by a stone entry tower in the shape of a cross, with an upper portion in the form of four faces, one looking towards each of the cardinal points. The approach to the west entrance of the temple is a path through the forest. After about 350 meters there is a stone terrace in the shape of a cross. Remains of lions, serpent balustrades and mythical creatures lie scattered in the area. Walk across the terrace to the vestibule of the enclosing wall. The view from this point is spectacular.
The roots of a tree grip the double row of pillars in this gallery. Walk to the center of the complex, turn right and enter the entry tower of the third enclosing gallery. The inner walls are decorated with friezes of pendants, scrolls and figures in niches. Turn right again and walk into the central courtyard of the temple.
The Central Sanctuary, recognizable by its undecorated interior. The stone has hammered, presumably to apply a coating probably of paint or gilt. Evenly spaced holes in the wall from floor to ceiling suggest a covering of wood, stucco or metal.
So the temple is held in a stranglehold of trees. Stone and wood clasp each other in grim hostility; yet all is silent and still, without any visible movement to indicate their struggle as if they were wrestlers suddenly petrified, struck motionless in the middle of a fight, the rounds in this battle were not measured by minutes, but by centuries.
It was late in the evening, when we finished our exploration of three symbolic temples of Angkor. We asked our Tuk Tuk driver to drop us off at the Night Market so we can have some shopping. We had dinner over there and returned to our room for much deserved sleep.
For our next day we planned take a break from visit to Angkor temples and wanted to explore the largest fresh water lake Tonlé Sap & Angkor National Museum. I will cover those in part 6 of this travelogue.
Thanks to all of you for being part of this journey and encouraging me to write this travelogue. If you have missed earlier, check all the 8 parts with links below.