- Date: Late 12th century to early 13th century
- Reign of construction: Jayavarman VII (1181-1220)
- Cult: Buddhist Mahayanism
- Art Style: Bayon
- Clearance work: G. Commaille (1911-1913)
- Excavation: G. Trouvé 1933
- Anastylosis: M. Glaize 1939-1946
The Bayon, is the exact centre of the town of Angkor Thom. Having to power after the burning of the capital by a Cham fleet, he rebuilt the city and surrounded it with a strong wall. This rampart constitutes the outer enclosure of the Bayon, it is a wide, provided the earth for the enormous embankment which support it, and makes a boulevard 25m wide, with four little temples at the corners, called "Prasat Chrung": the north-east one which is the best preserved, can be reached after charming walk along the top of the rampart in the thick forest.
The surrounding wall is opened up by five gates, 4 on the axis of the Bayon, the fifth is in the axis of Phimeanakas and the second Angkor. These entrances are splendid examples of carving in the very spirit of the Bayon; their mass is carried by enormous elephants with three heads and with trunks touching the ground in the act of picking lotuses. Above, the structure of triple tower makes the great faces of Avalokiteçvara, casting this benevolent gaze in all directions. The doors have lost their façades and have the appearance of pointed bows, before they were high rectangular bays 7 meter by 3. 50 meter strengthened with powerful leaves. The road which crosses the moat was decorated with two imposing balustrades; the churning serpent drawn by devils at the right (on entering) and by Gods on the left.
The central sanctuary is a huge mass, the dark centre of which is surrounded by a narrow corridor. The excavation of G. Trouvé brought it to light. It is a fine big statue of Buddha sitting on the coils of Naga and in the shelter of his head; it can be seen, re-installed on a terrace, on the right hand side of the avenue leads to the victory gate.
The bas-reliefs on the outer wall (160m 140m) and on the inner gallery differ completely and seem to belong to two different worlds. On the outside is the world of men, of events in history which might actually have taken place, and on the inside is the epic world of gods and legends. Many of legendary scenes are found repeatedly on Cambodian monuments and can be easily recognized. A number of the historical events pictured by the sculptors have also been identified since the correct dating of the Bayon in the 12th century directed research to the history of that time.
The faces ornamenting the towers, which are also found on the gates of Angkor Thom, of Ta Prohm, of Banteay Kdei and of great Banteay Chmar, are certainly the features which most impress the visitors.
Louis Finotformulated a theory (in 1911) that the towers at the Bayon, with somewhat phallic form, were enormous Lingas sculptured with faces, sheltering those worshipped in the shrines inside. This theory was based on the certain belief that the Bayon was a Hindu temple dedicated to Siva. But this theory had to be abandoned when the pediment representing Lokeçvara was discovered, a pediment which had formerly been hidden be the central mass. This indicated that the original and basic character of the Bayon was a Buddhist temple. The faces were certainly Buddhist and probably represented the compassionate Bodhisattva.
Even the archaeologists of the Ecole Français were not able to decide immediately whether the heads on the Bayon were Brahma, Siva or Buddha. The distinctions which clearly different: Brahma: the creator of the universe; Siva spreads blessings on every region in space; Buddha of the Great Miracle duplicates himself infinity; and Lokeçvara faces in all directions. The spirit behind these Indian divinities, which the architect tried to represent, was not so much a real being or individual, but an abstraction.
Pierre Loti: grasped this with the remarkable perception of a poet: from on high, the four faces on each of these towers face the four cardinal points, looking out in every direction from beneath lowered eyelids. Each face has the same ironic expression of pity, the same smile. The multiplication of these faces to the four cardinal points symbolizes the idea that the Royal power is blessing the four quarters of the Kingdom. As for the repetition of these faces on every tower. The idols worshipped in the chapels inside the towers were statues of deified princes or dignitaries or else of local Gods. Each tower corresponded to a province of the Kingdom or at least to a religious or administrative centre of the province. Thus if the four faces symbolizes the Royal power spreading over the land in every direction, placing them over the chapel which was typical of each province signified that: the king Jayavarman VII's Royal power was as strong in the province as at Angkor itself. This accounted for having a four-faced tower to represent each part of the Kingdom. We now begin to understand this mysterious architecture as the symbol of the Great Miracle of Jayavarman VII. It represents his administrative and religious power extending to every corner of Cambodian territory by mean of this unique sign.