The Bayonic Man

Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 25, 2008

Sentry Solo: Angkor Thom

What does enlightenment look like?

Pop culture would have us believe that enlightenment looked like the gaunt, hammy seriousness of Keanu Reeves in Little Buddha. But for the ancient Khmer, it was the face of Jayavarman VII, still revered in Cambodia as the greatest Khmer king.

Smiles in Single File: Angkor Thom

From Angkor Wat, a short tuktuk ride takes me to a walled city, Angkor Thom. Approaching the South Gate, we pass through two rows of stone heads flanking the entry causeway. This is how I first meet The Faces. They are silent sentries, mute witnesses to all the touristy goings-on. I stop the tuktuk to behold them more closely.

Enter The Tuktuk: Gopura at Angkor Thom

I study their features and expressions. They are identical: lips together but upturned as if smiling, flaring nostrils, and half-open eyes. They seem to have been cast from the same mould. On one side of the causeway, The Faces overlook a moat that still holds glassy waters. On the opposite is a dried-up moat that now doubles as pasture for livestock. Again, The Faces seem to scan the pastoral scene. Careening tuktuks and camwhoring tourists are an anachronism to the rustic serenity all around: still waters and languidly grazing cattle.

Profile Primeval: Angkor Thom

All this does not escape the gaze of a grimacing gopura up ahead. A gopura is an entry tower or gateway crowned by a figure. Of course it is The Face. I cannot decide whether it is glowering at me or beckoning me. Passing under its chin, through what appears to be a gaping hole on its throat, is like going through that Narnian wardrobe. On the other side, you find yourself in an imaginary world where you expect to see things you do not expect. The tuktuk zips though the woods on bright terra cotta ground. Quite suddenly, a clearing emerges, unveiling another temple-mountain: the Bayon. Cue in hand-on-mouth reaction.

Bayon Rocks!

Bayon is decidedly different from Angkor Wat stylistically. It is craggier but no less majestic. Its stone-gray jagged outline pierces the sky with impunity. There is more chaos than order in this microcosm of the universe. Acropolis-like ruins surround its base, roof-less columns standing on cracked slabs of rock. The whole temple appears to be crumbling in suspended animation, as if it is a movie earthquake scene on pause.

I approach the temple tentatively, gingerly walking over sharp shards of broken rock. As I get closer, the peaks seem to form sharper images that slowly reveal . . . The Faces. The crags and crevices from a distance are actually facial features etched on the stone towers. Four faces on each tower, corresponding to the four cardinal points, and as such, you never lose their gaze. The eyes have their upper lids lowered as if squinting. I walk and their gaze follows. This is Big Brother, Khmer style. But no hidden cameras, just The (ubiquitous) Faces. There are more than 200 of them – frozen faces that have seen passing centuries of mundane daily life, historic wars, religious conversions, human abandonment, and now stupefied tourists.

Bayon: Angkorian Acropolis
Bayon: Rock Face

It is said that The Faces were patterned after King Jayavarman VII himself, whom I call the Bayonic Man. Rulers then projected their power to godlike status and would take on a deified image (this sounds all too familiar, actually). Also, contrary to previous Khmer kings who were Hindu, the Bayonic Man was a Mahayana Buddhist. Thus, he chose the visage of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara as his representative image for the ages. A Bodhisattva is a person who has attained a considerable measure of enlightenment and seeks to help others achieve a similar spiritual state. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva for compassion. He sees the sufferings of all beings at all times, hence the downcast gaze and the omnipresent face. Some Angkorian experts believe that the Bayonic Man lived up to his Bodhisattva and was a compassionate and accessible king to his people. Perhaps that’s why he is hailed as the greatest Khmer king, not only for having an edifice complex, i.e. building dozens of monuments during his reign. However, his successors converted back to Hinduism and they summarily decapitated his Buddha images.

Budhha Comes to a Head

Stone chambers and steep stony steps allow tourists to clamber up the temple-mountain. Bas-relief depicting daily Angkorian life is in stark contrast to the mythology on the walls of Angkor Wat. Countless devatas stand on guard at every turn, lending a feminine touch on the masculine rock-hard face towers. Today, a local artist on a corner is lost in his sketches as his devata-muse watches over him. And also on this day, at the summit of the temple-mountain, I come face-to-face with The Face.

Bayon: Cloistered for Centuries
Angkorian Artist at Bayon

It is rather disconcerting gazing at The Face that gazes back. It can be creepy in broad daylight; it must sow terror at night or sundown. But that Angkorian smile eventually softens The Face. It is a knowing smile, one that conveys the discovery of a profound secret. It beckons, it calms, it lingers in the memory.

Face to Face

Descending from Bayon, I look at The Faces in a different light. It is as if the Bayonic Man they represent is serenely sleeping with a smile on his face. I smile back, knowing that this is what enlightenment looks like.

TTT with the Bayonic Man Jayavarman VII

35 thoughts on “The Bayonic Man

    1. National geographic my arse, Jays! But thanks for spreadin’ some luv. Not everyone digs my florid writing style. :p

    1. You can’t imagine how much you’ve made my day, Gin! 🙂 But the answer is no. I find it difficult to write about things beyond the realm of my experience.

  1. Cambodia heritage is much richer than ours. The people lives very modestly. This temple is a powerful symbol and lure tourists like you. I believe this iconic place is a Unesco World Heritage but not sure. I can’t think of any manmade structure except the Banawe rice terraces that we can be proud of in our country!

    1. The entire Angkor Archeological Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And rightly so. It’s a miracle that the temples are still extant despite centuries of abandonment and looting. You should visit it. Angkor deserves to be in anyone’s bucket list.

      Our beautifully baroque cathedrals are man-made structures that we can be proud of. Churches in Paoay and Miag-ao come to mind. Although the design and technology used were imported, they were still built by our people. But if you’re looking for authentically Pinoy work of wonder, you’re right – the Banawe Rice Terraces it is. And the hanging coffins in Sagada.

      Ancient Filipinos didn’t build majestic structures like Angkor but it doesn’t mean our pre-Spanish culture wasn’t sophisticated. We were more akin to Polynesians than mainland Asians, I guess. We already had the balangay, the wooden watercraft that traversed the rough seas and the Pacific. That’s no mean feat, right? 🙂

  2. This is an interesting website, congratulations, so, could you help me to spread my blog? Now I’m following you, just click on the title of English Tips thanks for your help advanced, if interested, let’s share our link on blog’s roll, link my blog please

    1. Thanks Kevin! Checked out your site too. Very informative and insightful! Now I know the differences between Theravada and Mahayana.

  3. Brilliant descriptions, almost story like and some fantastic photo’s to boot. I hadn’t noticed before until you mention it – are they smiling or warning? I like to think smiling and welcoming.

    1. Same here, I’d say they’re smiling. More like savoring the moment cuz their eyes are almost shut. I do that when I’m having my favorite ice cream. 😀 But from afar, you don’t see the eyes clearly so they look rather sinister.

      As usual, your comment made me blush. 🙂

  4. Every time I see the architecture, I think of the temples here in South India. The word ‘gopura’ is the word ‘gopuram’ in Tamil. And the names, they sound so Tamil – Jayavarman. I tried reading up but looks like there is no connection between the kings and South India. But the word ‘gopura’ is definitely Dravidian, I think.
    The faces are truly magnificient to behold. I often wonder how those kings would have built those huge structures and gave those faces the expressions. How they would have withstood the ages?
    I like the word “tuktuk.” Onomatapoeic, I reckon. Does it sound the same while it is in motion?

    Enjoyed this piece.

    Joy always,

    1. Hi Sus! (sounds like Zeus, haha) The basis of your observations had been laid down many centuries ago. The Indianization of SEA (Southeast Asia) started well before the birth of Christ. It was spurred by both commerce and oceanic currents.

      India traded with China then (till now, I suppose) and, to reach China, Indian merchants had to go through Indochina. At times they had to wait for the Indian Ocean currents to go their way for easier navigation. So they lingered in present-day Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Malaysia, spreading their culture – language, religion, mythologies, and art. The Indian-style city states that developed from that influence include the ruins of Angkor Wat. Hinduism and Buddhism remain to be the religions of many people in these countries.

      As for the word “tuktuk”, it does seem onomatopoeic. Didn’t sound that way when I rode on them though. But you got me curious there. I’d listen more closely next time. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the article. Cheerio!

  5. Your writing! I agree with JC up there – you should definitely be a writer for national geographic. As if people wouldn’t enjoy reading this! It’s very well written, vivid and personal yet still holding a degree of relatability. Good stuff!!

    1. This is the influence of years of watching NatGeo channel! It’s my favorite along with Discovery and the History Channel. Go figure. 🙂 Thanks Cindy. I’ll be exploring your site more soon. I’m traveling now, doing field work for future blog entries. Haha!

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