Stretching over some 400 square km, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia, is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Apart from the magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire, beginning from the 9th to the 15th century, the Park also includes the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. Though the temple of Angkor Wat has worldwide popularity for its huge structure with intricate decorations, the temple of Bayon is typically distinguished by the multitude of its massive and smiling faces carved on many of the towers with one facing outward and keeping watch at each compass point.
As a part of the massive expansion project of his capital Angkor Thom, King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon temple in the 12th century, at the exact centre of the capital city. In fact, it was the last state temple to be built at Angkor and the only state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Lord Buddha. However, the structure of the temple was altered after the demise of Jayavarman and modified by the later Hindu and the Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious beliefs. It is maintained by many that the massive faces of the temple represent Bodhisattva of compassion, called Avalokiteshvara or Lokesvara.
Strangely, the 216 gigantic faces carved on the temple's tall towers bear an uncanny similarity with the other statues of the King erected elsewhere in the country. Due to this curious similarity many scholars believe that the huge faces are actually representations of the King Jayavarman VII himself, and have been dubbed by some as the Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia.
The two long surrounding walls of the Bayon temple are adorned with beautiful bas-relief scenes of legendary and historical events. The outer wall of the outer gallery is also decorated with a different series of bas-reliefs, depicting the important historical events and scenes from the everyday life of the Angkor Khmer. There are two libraries in a courtyard, surrounded by the outer gallery.
However, once the courtyard was adorned with 16 chapels, which were subsequently demolished by the next Hindu King, Jayavarman VIII, who reverted to Hinduism, from his father's religion of Buddhism and patronized Hinduism throughout his regime. The doubled cornered inner gallery is raised above the ground level and its bas-reliefs, subsequently added by Jayavarman VIII, are totally different from those on the outer wall. It depicts battle scenes and processions. A part of the inner gallery is mostly decorated with scenes from Hindu mythology, along with the mythological figures of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the members of the Trimurti or the threefold godhead of Hinduism. But, the third level can be easily termed as the gallery of the famous faces, as it is the home to the famous ‘face towers’ of the Bayon, each of which supports two to four gigantic smiling faces.
The 43 m tall central tower was initially cruciform, but was later transformed to circular. In the sanctuary at the heart of the central tower, there was a 3.6 m tall statue of Lord Buddha, seated in meditation and shielded from the elements by the flared hood of the serpent king Mucalinda.
Later, during the reign of Hindu King Jayavarman VIII, the statue was removed and smashed to pieces. Much later, it was recovered from the bottom of a well in 1933 and is now on display as an exhibit in a pavilion.
Apart from the central tower, smaller towers are located along the inner gallery and on chapels on the upper terrace. At one time the temple had 49 towers, out of which only 37 still exist and possibly there are around 200 faces, but since some of the faces are only partially preserved, it is difficult to ascertain the actual number.