Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Faces of Bayon

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When Zhou Daguan visited Angkor in 1297-98, Bayon's towers were covered in gold. While Angkor Wat was kept from the ravages of the jungle by devoted Buddhist monks, Bayon was forgotten, left to the mercy of nature.

From a distance, it seemed the jungle had taken its revenge on the eerie mass of jumbled rocks known as Bayon. I approached it in awe as hundreds of faces began to emerge from the tangled mass of stone and shadow. 54 towers chaotically assaulted the sky, each in its own plain, creating an intimidating sense of height.

When Chinese ambassador Zhou Daguan visited Angkor before the dawn of the 14th century, the city was dripping with the gold and riches of empire.

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"At the center of the Kingdom rises a Golden Tower flanked by more than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers," Zhou wrote.

"On the eastern side is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers."

The"golden" period of the Khmer Empire was not a peaceful one. Rival powers from present-day Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma struggled with the Khmers for regional domination. Ironically, the Khmers' architectural prowess aided in their demise, as extensive temple construction, combined with frequent military conflicts, eventually drained the empire's resources. As the empire declined, Angkor was sacked several times, the gold and jewels stripped as spoil by invading armies. Bayon was one of the last great achievements of the empire, but fell in 1432 to the Thais, and was soon after forgotten.

The gold and jewels may be gone, but the mystique and grandeur of the Khmer kingdom endures.


A translation of King Jayavarman VII`s mystic Buddhist beliefs, Bayon is a spiritual experience. From each of the survivng towers the enlightened grin of the Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara, one of the most worshipped divinities in Mahayana Buddhism and the kingdom's principal divinity, compassion radiates out in the four cardinal directions. Carved in the likeness of the King himself (his portrait is known from other sculptures found elsewhere in Cambodia and Thailand), these enigmatically smiling faces portray the King as god, symbolizing his omnipresence and omnipotence.

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The Khmer Smile.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is believed to be the embodiment of compassion. A bodhisattva is motivated by compassion to seek enlightenment for all beings. The 216 faces haunting the heights of Bayon project benevolence outward in all directions, and are believed to bring hope, happiness, peace, and protection to all, especially those living in the Khmer Empire.


As I wandered around in wonder, watched by the eyes of Big Brother, Bayon-style, I couldn't help but feel like I was trapped in an MC Escher drawing. I don't think I could ever have believed such a place existed, even in my dreams, and I certainly never imagined that someday I would see it with my own two eyes.


4 comments:

Patrick Leong said...

so where did the gold go ? looted ?

Melissa said...

The"golden" period of the Khmer Empire was not a peaceful one, Rvial powers from present-day Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma vying with the Khmers for regional domination. Ironically, the Khmers' architectural prowess aided in their demise, as extensive temple construction, combined with frequent military conflicts, eventually drained the empire's resources. As the empire declined, Angkor was sacked several times, the last time occurring in 1432 at the hands of Thai armies. The gold and jewels were stripped as spoil by invading armies like the Thais and the Cham people of Vietnam. Bayon was one of the last great achievements of the empire, but fell in 1432 to the Thais, and was soon after forgotten.

ODD said...

Wow wow wow.

Mom said...

Amazing Photos! That you were able to see Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia is fantastic! Looking forward to seeing your updates. Saigon post card received yesterday afternoon... made me sad. Love and miss you.