Volume 2 No.2

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BAYON SMILES - Still a mystery
By: Moul Vongs. Pictures by : Sem Vannjohn ( February, 2002 Volume 2 No.2 )

The smile of the four-faced Bayon has become a world-recognized symbol of Cambodia. The towering faces, reaching up to four meters in height, adorn the Bayon Temple at the exact center of Angkor Thom in Siem Reap as many as 216 faces on 54 remaining towers, each represented one province of Khmer empire in the ancient time.
At first glance, they look identical. But on closer inspection, each of the four faces of these statues smile with a slightly different expression. Most have half closed eyes, but some stare more resolutely. Some smile serenely, some broadly, some almost sadly. But what do the smiles of these ancient creations mean, and in whose image have their features been cast? That is still a matter of much debate. Some of the confusion might be better understood by looking at the confused history of the Bayon Temple itself. It was not until a long time after Angkor Wat had attracted the interest of the finest archeologists in the world that some French archeologists turned their attention to Bayon, which had until then lain deep in undisturbed jungle. It was only then that they realized its importance and its beauty. Even when the discovery was made that the Bayon Temple had in fact been built on top of another, much older structure, people still believed it to be a Hindu dedicated temple. The man who had commissioned the Bayon Temple, King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), had formerly been known to be a devotee of the Hindu faith.
Then, in the year 1924, Henri Parmentier found a representation of Lokeshvara inside the Bayon's walls. Lokeshvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion and an important deity in Mahayana Buddhism. Then a statue of the Buddha was found inside, and the Bayon was confirmed as a Buddhist-dedicated creation. Researchers concluded that, following the sacking of Angkor by the invading Cham army in the late 12th century, the king concluded that his former gods had failed him and moved towards Mahayana Buddhism. But who was the model these stone faces were created in the image of? Archeologists have argued that they are representations of Buddha, that they are the likeness of Lokeshvara and many find their startling resemblance to Jayavarman VII himself an obvious clue as to their origins. Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Professor Pich Toum Kravel, believes the statues reflect the faces of their sculptors, at least slightly.
"A sculptor cannot help but put some of himself into a work. That is why the faces each reflect a different personality," he said. But both he and fellow Undersecretary of State, archeology expert Mr Chuch Phoeurn, agree that all the faces represent four elements Khmers see as virtues necessary for a wise ruler. The Pali words these concepts have their roots in have been adopted into Khmer. Metta is compassion, whether through a physical act, thought, word or deed. Karuna is the representation of pity. Mutita is the virtue of rejoicing at other people's happiness and Oupekha is impartiality. No one face in the temple can be defined by one single one of these virtues, however. Bayon literally means a throne that a deity or a king sits. The temple rears to a height of 43 meters and was perhaps once even more stunning than its surreal faces render it now.

Some say each of the faces were plastered and painted in skin tones, making them seem almost real. Some, like noted scholar of Chinese history, Paul Pelliot, say 13th century Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan was speaking of this temple when he described a "golden tower flanked by more than 20 towers" rising from the middle of the Kingdom. The Bayon Temple is rich in bas-relief carvings, too, which detail scenes of everyday life in Angkorian times. It is obviously an important temple from its position at the center of Angkor Thom and experts estimate it could have taken as much as 20 years to build. But what takes the visitor's breath away is always the huge stone faces, staring from every angle, watching over the entire complex with satisfied expressions, secure in their confidence in their own power. What these faces were really meant to represent or preside over has been lost to time, as has the true identity of the model they were based on. So their smiles remain, a beautiful mystery, as enigmatic and intriguing as Cambodia itself.