The Art of Angkor at the Bayon


Shiva Sarabha

Dec 26, INDIA (SUN) — Angkor flourished from the beginning of the 9th to the middle of the 4th century as a political and cultural centre of Cambodia, and it remained the centre of Khmer artistic activity for over 500 years. Derived from the word magara in Sanskrit, Angkor is a sixteenth century nomenclature of the Khmer capital and art styles which radiated from this centre. It was known as Yashodharapura in the Sanskrit inscriptions of Cambodia, named after its founder King Yasovarman (AD. 889-910). This was the first Yasodharapura or the first Angkor. It’s centre was marked by a natural hill known as Phnom Bakheng. On the top of this hill, King Yasovarman built a Siva temple in the shape of a pyramid. The first Angkor was either surrounded by the mud walls, or it was an open city without any walls, as some archaeologists suggest.

The centre of the city of Yasodharapura/Angkor was shifted many times, but the name Yasodharapura was retained by Jayavarman VII (A.D. 1181-12220), who built a new walled city as the capital of the Khmer empire. It is called Angkor Thom, or Angkor the Great by the present-day Cambodians. But in the inscriptions of Jayavarman VII, it is known by the old name of Yasodharapura. Phnom Bakheng, the centre of the first Yasodharapura, is outside the rampart of this 12th century Yasodharapura or Angkor Thom. The famous temple of Angkor Vat is also outside this walled city. The temple complex of Bayon marks the exact geometric centre of the city of Angkor Thom. Bayon is a modern Khmer compound word: ba is a prefix, denoting the masculine element; yon is a Khmer transformation of Sanskrit yantra. In some sort it is a virile yantra to safeguard the Cambodian kingdom.

Professor Sachchidanand Sahai, world-renowned expert on South East Asia had taken photographs of this temple in his recent visit. These were presented at an exhibition at IGNCA. This was the first time that these photographs were being shown in India. In all, 41 photographs were exhibited at the exhibition (April 25 to 30, 2003). The monument occupies a horizontal rectangular area measuring 141 x 228 meters. It is a complex of some 60 edifices, constructed on three principal levels and composed of towers and pavilions with linking galleries.

The Bayon is the most enigmatic piece of Khmer architecture known for its multiple towers carved with four colossal human faces. The exhibition took one inside the walled city of Angkor Thom, spread over 12 sq km and retained the attention to the central monument of the Bayon, focusing on the symbolism of the site, its bas reliefs and its face towers. The walled city of Angkor Thom can be entered through five gates; the four gates are in the four directions; an additional fifth gate is parallel to the eastern gate, leading to the royal palace.

As one reaches the southern gate of the walled city of Angkor Thom, the impressive four colossal faces can be seen above the entrance. The walled city is surrounded by a deep moat where ferocious crocodiles lived in the heydays of the Angkor empire. On crossing the moat through a causeway to enter the gate of the walled city, one sees on the left side of the causeway 54 devas represented as holding a nine-headed naga. On the right side of the causeway, a row of 54 asuras (demons) hold another nine-headed naga. The scene represents the churning of the milk ocean. After admiring the beautiful devas and ferocious asuras, one walks inside the walled city for about two kilometers before reaching the main temple of the Bayon.

The Bayon can be entered through four axial gates, corresponding to the four gates of the city. Entering through the eastern gate, one can admire the bas reliefs depicting every day life and beautiful dancing figures. Climbing the second and third levels of the monument, one is surrounded by four-faced tall towers, colossal human faces staring from all sides. Many efforts have been made to count the number of towers with four human faces. According to one reckoning, the towers with faces are as follows: 37 towers with 4 faces each (148 faces), 9 towers with 3 faces each (27 faces) and one tower with 2 faces (2 faces) - a total of 177 faces.

These enigmatic faces have been variously identified as Brahma, Shiva, Lokesvara and the Buddha Samantamukha. A Japanese team has been restoring this temple complex for the last ten years. Restoration and better knowledge of this central architectural piece would reveal many lost linkages about the past cultural ties between India and this part of South East Asia. It has been pointed out that in Bihar, there is a four-faced Shiva temple which might have been the influence of such temple architecture.

Source: Excerpted from IGNCA’s Vihangama.


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