THE ANCIET CITY OF ANGKOR THOM, in present-day Cambodia, is still enclosed by a massive 100-meter wide quadrangle moat. Built at 8 meters high during the ruling of the great King Jayavarman VII from 1181 to 1219, the defensive walls protected what was once Cambodia’s capitol, also known as the “Great City” in its literal translation. At the four points of the moat stand large gates with towers meant to intimidate. During my visit to Angkor Thom last year in June, we were met with the most peculiar of faces at its lesser visited gate on the west side.
Upon entering the gate, we managed to park alongside the road and take shade underneath an empty hut before trekking along to what became my most favorited Angkorian temple during the trip, the Bayon Temple.
Better known as Wat Bayon, “wat” being the Khmer term for the word temple, this particular temple was designed to include 54 gothic towers that represent the 54 days of the lunar calendar, and the 54 provinces of the Khmer Empire of King Jayavarman VII. Each tower has a total of four faces planted on each side of the pillar acting as a compass to the region (each face looks in one of four directions: north, east, west, south). In total, there are 216 larger-than-life 13-foot tall carved stone faces. ALL OF THEM have their eyes closed.
Do the math-that is 432 eyes that we will never have the chance to look into! The invitingly eerie mystery does not stop there. More intriguing and humbling than the shut eyes are the faint smiles rested upon each face like Mona Lisa.
Look closely for the faces. Although large in stature, it is easy to miss the actual indentation marks of a face upon these stone towers, especially considering the wear and tear over the years.
As curious as one could be about these unnamed and unrecognizable faces, it turns out that there are many schools of thought on why each face is identical and what they represent.
EXPLANATIONS ON THE 216 BAYON FACES:
- It is believed that the faces are in the image of Avalokiteshvara, an enlightenment-being in the Mahayana Buddhist religion and a bodhisattva who embodies compassion.
- Perhaps the Mona Lisa smile and low eyes represent “an all-knowing state of inner peace, and perhaps a state of Nirvana.”
- Another theory I read about believes that the four faces represent the four sublime states of Buddhism – charity, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity.
A quick glimpse of the inner surroundings of Wat Bayon…
The magic of Wat Bayon in Angkor Thom is merely a taste of the true miracle in historically ancient art, architecture and culture still residing in Cambodia today. I had such a difficult time imagining what it would be like to recap this three-week, life-changing trip into one blog post so, naturally, there will be more posts featuring parts of my trip in the future.
Photos: All photos were taken by Rosie Chuong.