What is the first thing you would do if you have just reclaimed your kingdom that was plundered from you in a surprise attack? Arm yourself in preparation for a reprisal, of course!
This could have been the motivation behind Jayavarman VII (the Cambodian king responsible for Angkor Wat and many other magnificent temples) when he successfully regained Angkor from the Chams (from the Kingdom of Champa) of Southern Vietnam.
One of the first tasks that Jayavarman VII undertook after the recapture of Angkor was to construct a new fortified city – one that would cover a massive 10 square kilometres, surrounded by gigantic walls and a massive moat – the city of Angkor Thom.
And Bayon was its crown jewel.
Constructed as a state temple of Jayavarman VII, the Bayon signified a great departure from the usual quincunx layout (imagine five dots on a dice) that you find in most other Angkor temples. Instead, 216 enormous square faces of Avalokiteshvara (which some say are ‘caricatures’ of the king himself) are spread out over 54 towers, looking in different directions.
Archaeologists have debated the exact function and symbolism of Bayon, according to Lonely Planet. However, if you were trying to guard against a counterattack from your enemy, the scenario that Jayavarman VII found himself in at that time, the many faces of your own portrait, designed to pass off as similar to that of a Bodhisattva, makes perfect sense.
Because to the enemy, seen from a distance, it would appear as if the King (or Buddha) himself is watching over the city from every conceivable angle, exuding a mystical power and aura over the fortified city. It was also said that Jayavarman VII had adopted Mahayana Buddhism and the Avalokiteshvara was his patron ‘Buddha’.
Today, most of the 216 faces have been painstakingly restored, and quietly watch over the Angkor Wat to its south, Ta Prohm to its east, and Preah Khan to its northeast.
These faces are also the subjects of comic selfies and photo opportunities of countless tourists, all eager to stage a personal ‘attack’ on these faces.
You could ‘kiss’ the Buddha, ‘touch’ your nose with Jayavarman (Maori style), ‘hold’ Avalokiteshvara in the palm of your hands, or even ‘stick’ a finger up one of its nostrils, according to a local temple guide who grabbed my camera and enthusiastically showed me all the different possibilities, in exchange for a quick US$2 tip.
I politely declined his offer, and wistfully, wondered what Jayavarman VII would have thought of this. LS