Towers of the Bayon

Towers of the Bayon.  The temple of Bayon is the spiritual center of Angkor Thom, the medieval Khmer capital constructed in the 12th century A.D. by King Jayavarman VII.  Bayon is surmounted by a maze of 49 towers each of which supports up to four massive, beautiful and serene stone faces that gaze in the four cardinal directions.

The person depicted in the face-towers

Scholars have speculated over the identity of the person or persons depicted in the stone face-towers of the Bayon.  One theory is that the stone faces belong to the Khmer monarch Jayavarman VII himself, and that they symbolize the extent of his power as it stretches from the capital to the most remote regions of the kingdom.  Certainly the face-towers bear a remarkable resemblance to extant sculpture portraits of the king.  Another theory is that the face on the towers is that of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion who elected to postpone his own enlightenment in order to help other beings with their spiritual advancement, and that their orientation in all four directions represents the universality of the boddhisattva’s compassion.  The two theories are mutually compatible, since Jayavarman was a devote Mahayana Buddhist who in stone inscriptions declared the depth of his compassion for his subjects.  “He suffered from the illnesses of his subjects more than from his own,” says one inscription, “the pain that affected men’s bodies was for him a spiritual pain, and thus more piercing.”  Moreover, it was the tradition of the Angkorian kings to identify themselves with the highest divine beings: for centuries, Jayavarman’s predecessors had identified themselves with the god Shiva through the erection of lingams (phallic posts associated with Shiva) that they named after themselves.  Thus, it may fairly be inferred that the person depicted in the stone faces of the Bayon is Jayavarman VII as identified with Avalokiteshvara.

Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion

The name “Avalokiteshvara” is a compound of two words: “avalokita” means “glance” or “look,” and “isvara” means “lord.”  A famous Buddhist text called theLotus Sutra(the link is to the translation at connects Avalokiteshvara’s name with his power to release others from suffering.  “All the hundred thousands of myriads of creatures who in this world are suffering troubles will, if they hear the name of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, be released from that mass of troubles.”  “If this whole world were teeming with knaves, enemies, and robbers armed with swords, and if a merchant leader of a caravan marched with a caravan rich in jewels; if then they perceived those robbers, knaves, and enemies armed with swords, and in their anxiety and fright thought themselves helpless; if, further, that leading merchant spoke to the caravan in this way: ‘Be not afraid, young gentlemen, be not frightened; invoke, all of you, with one voice the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the giver of safety; then you shall be delivered from this danger by which you are threatened at the hands of robbers and enemies;’ if then the whole caravan with one voice invoked Avalokiteshvara with the words: ‘Adoration, adoration be to the giver of safety, to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva!’ then, by the mere act of pronouncing that name, the caravan would be released from all danger.  Such is the power of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.”

Reactions of early 20th century western travellers

Travellers of the early 20th century, lacking videocameras to document their experiences, often maintained travel journals or published travel memoires.  Many of those fortunate enough to see the face towers of the Bayon were moved to put their feelings to paper.  The reactions ranged between supercilious irony and almost religious awe (the felt “mysterium tremendum” which scholar Rudolf Otto, in his influential work of 1917 entitled The Idea of the Holy, famously claimed to be the essence of religion itself).

  • Georges Groslier found the stone faces of the Bayon to be “serene,” with “enigma and charm.”  Not knowing that the Bayon was originally a Buddhist temple, he thought that the faces belonged to Shiva or Brahma, two Hindu deities frequently portrayed as polycephalic.  “Ah!” he exclaimed, “If you have an acute pain in your heart and if your soul is stirred by human tempests, I don’t think that there is a more confidential place in the world.”
  • Victor Goloubew visited the Bayon around 1900.  He wrote, “At that time the strange and magnificent temple was still overrun with vegetation and its towers with divine faces, the number of which nobody knew accurately, surrounded with lianas and topped with trees.”  The way to the upper level was littered with many obstructions.  “Stopping out of breath many times,” he wrote, “you reach the summit of the mountain, where you still are submerged in the green infinity, under the derisive gaze of giant idols.”
  • Charles Carpeux wrote in 1901, “one is struck by the hostility emanating from these superb ruins.  It seems they want to hold onto their mystery.  The stones defend their secrets and nature comes to their help by covering them with an almost impenetrable veil.  And then you are forever meeting the look of one of these gigantic heads of Brahma, four times repeated on each of the fifty-two towers of the Bayon.  This head never takes its eyes off you.  Its unseeing stare follows you and seems to reproach you for having crossed into its sacred enclosure.”
  • Pierre Loti authored perhaps the most famous early 20th century travel report for Angkor, describing a one-week round-trip from Saigon in 1901.  He entitled it Un pelerin d’Angkor (A Pilgrim of Angkor).  Somewhat maliciously, Loti asserted that the faces at the Bayon reminded him of elderly ladies who with faint smiles and half-closed eyes discretely expressed their contempt for the visitor.

Today, visitors use video cameras in order to document their reactions to the face towers.  Here isthe linkto a brief video posted by a user of YouTube.

No Comment from Zhou

Interestingly, the author of the historically first extensive travel report regarding Angkor, the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who visited the city for about a year in 1296 A.D., did not leave behind a surviving description of the Bayon.  Scholars refer his comments regarding a tower of gold to the 11th century temple known as the Baphuon.  Of course, scholars are also inclined to believe that we do not have the whole of Zhou’s report, so it may well be that the original included reference to the Bayon.  On the other hand, it is also clear that in Zhou’s day foreigners were not permitted to enter some of the sacred sites at Angkor, so it is possible that Zhou was never able to get near let alone enter Jayavarman’s state temple.

Related pages on this website: 3 Preah Khan and 4 Ta Prohm (two other temples built by King Jayavarman VII); 5 Bayon10 Battle of Khmer and Cham (bas relief at the Bayon depicting the king’s victory over the Cham); 19 Gods, Kings and God-Kings (Khmer kings and their relation to divinity).  Here is a link to an online article about the history of devotion to Avalokiteshvara.