The Bayon. When King Jayavarman VII constructed his walled capital city of Angkor Thom in the years following his coronation in 1181 A.D., he built his state temple, now known as the Bayon, at the center of the city.  A devout Mahayana Buddhist, he dedicated the temple to the Buddha and included within it numerous statues of minor local deities identified with the nobles of his court or associated with the far-off the districts of his realm.  Today, the Bayon is known especially for the jungle of “face-towers” (towers with massive stone carvings depicting the face of the king himself) on its upper level, and for its extensive and fascinating bas reliefs, depicting not only mythological and historical events but also the everyday life of the Angkorian Khmer, in the galleries below. 

Hinduism and Buddhism at the Bayon

Though the Bayon was constructed as a Buddhist temple, it abounds with the iconography of Hinduism, including for example a prominently displayed lingam in one of its rooms.  The inner gallery of bas reliefs includes numerous depictions of the Hindu god Shiva as a bearded ascetic, and shows him being worshipped by Khmer people.  Other scenes show the four-armed Vishnu, also as the object of worship.  The presence of these images is explained by the religious syncretism of the Bayon’s founder, King Jayavarman VII.  Clearly, Jayavarman VII did not believe that Hinduism and Buddhism were competing alternatives.  Indeed, some scholars have suggested that be believed Shiva and Buddha to be one and the same.  What is also clear is that some of the king’s followers, especially the 13th century monarch Jayavarman VIII, did not share his syncretism, and that they sought to revert the kingdom to Hinduism to the exclusion of Buddhism.  Originally, the central image of the Bayon had been a large statue of the Buddha meditating and shielded by the serpent king Mucalinda.  Hindu iconoclasts of the 13th century cast this statue to the bottom of a deep pit at the Bayon.  The statue has been recovered and pieced back together; today, it is on display in a separate pavilion a short distance from the temple itself.

The Legend of the Leper King

A bas-relief of several scenes in the inner gallery at the Bayon tells the story of the mysterious Leper King, whom some have identified with Jayavarman VII himself.  In one scene, the king is depicted wrestling with a gigantic serpent, while his subjects look on.  Some speculate that the king contracted leprosy from the serpent’s venom, while others say that the serpent is the personification of the disease.   In another scene, some people examine the king’s hands; in yet another, he lies ill on a bed.

Zhou Daguan, a Chinese traveller who visited Angkor in 1296 A.D., was aware of the story of the Leper King.  Zhou reported that the people of Angkor frequently came down with colds and illnesses, which they cured by bathing repeatedly.  He also reported that leprosy was an especially common disease, and that the people did not avoid contact with lepers, going so far as to eat and to sleep with them.  Zhou’s personal opinion was that the Angkorian custom of bathing after lovemaking was responsible for the prevalence of leprosy.  However, he also pointed out that the climate was so hot that everyone had to bathe several times during the day, and once or twice at night.

Related pages on this website:  6 Apsaras10 Battle of Khmer and Cham (narrative bas relief from the Bayon depicted the king’s victory over the army of Champa); 11 Towers of the Bayon (the face-towers of the upper level at the Bayon).

The Bayon shares many stylistic similarities with the temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.  All three temples were built as part of the same program of monumental construction ordered by King Jayavarman VII toward the end of the 12th century.  One stylistic similarity that connects the three temples is the omnipresence of beautiful devatas such as this one found on the lower level of the Bayon.  Other shared iconographic themes are those of dancing apsaras and meditating ascetics.

According to Maurice Glaize, from afar the Bayon has the appearance of “a muddle of stones, a sort of moving chaos assaulting the sky.” Like other monuments of the late 12th century, the Bayon bears the traces of a certain negligence and haste in the process of construction, and lacks the overall harmony of Angkor Wat, the architectural masterpiece from earlier in the same century.  The later temples seem in some ways to be unfinished, suggesting that the work may have been abandoned at some point.

The temple’s upper level is occupied by the famous jungle of face towers representing the king Jayavarman VII as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.  (See the page “Towers of the Bayon” on this website.)  The king, whom scholars have characterized as a megalomaniac, initiated a period of frantic monumental construction that exhausted the people of Angkor and initiated the period of gradual decline leading to the abandonment of the city in the 15th century, following its sack by Thai invaders in 1431 A.D.


The cramped nature of the Bayon has led scholars to conclude that it was not designed and constructed in one throw, but that the raised central terrace was added shortly after the rest, and that it was constructed over a center that originally was on the same level with the outer galleries of the temple, in the style of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.

Numerous narrow passageways and galleries lend to the Bayon a mysterious and medieval feel.  These galleries once contained the statues of numerous Khmer princes and nobles, who, granted the ultimate boon of apotheosis by their gracious king, had their likenesses preserved under the aspect of lesser divinities.

A bas relief in a tympanum over a doorway depicts the story of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana over his head in order to shield his devotees the cowherds from a deadly storm.  This story, though Hindu in inspiration, would have appealed to King Jayavarman VII, who liked to portray himself as a protector of his people.

In one porch area of the temple, bas reliefs inscribed on the pillars show elegant groups of two or three apsaras posing and dancing, some of them on lotus leaves.  They appear to be almost nude, except for their short skirts, jewelry and magnificent headdresses, which match that of the devata above.  The object to the right appears to be a piece of a stone column pressed into service as a lingam atop a square pedestal reminiscent of a yoni.

The mythological apsaras were dancers and entertainers in the court of the god Indra; their presence in the Khmer temples signalled that the temples, too, should be regarded as the abode of divine beings.  According to renowned Angkor scholar George Coedes, Angkorian temples were regarded not so much as places for human devotees to engage in worship or prayer than as residences of divinity itself.  The temples lack the large assembly halls typical of modern houses of worship.

Following the death of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer empire returned to Hinduism. Hindu iconoclasts vandalized the Buddhist images at the Bayon and replaced them with the symbols of Shaivism.  This lingam and yoni may be an artifact of the Hindu restoration.  They may just as well be original to the temple, however, since Jayavarman himself seems to have tolerated a certain eclecticism in the state religion, perhaps on the belief that Shiva and Buddha are one and the same.

The extensive bas-reliefs include many delightful details, such as this smiling fish swimming in the lake along with other marine creatures, as a naval battle between the forces of Angkor and Champa rages overhead.  Other scenes include crocodiles attacking the casualties of the battle as they fall into the water.

Some of the scenes depict the everyday life of the common people.  Here, a crowd prepares for a cockfight.  The people standing appear to be placing bets.  One of the bettors is identified as being Chinese by his beard and topknot.  Medieval Angkor had a significant minority of Chinese expatriots.

A beatific ascetic, his tiny cherubic wings extending from his shoulders, sits deeply engrossed in meditation.  Like the apsaras, legendary wisemen were thought to frequent the celestial homes of the gods, and thus could appropriately serve as denizens of temples in which the gods were thought to reside.