Loneliness of the stone kings in Bayon

P Krishna Gopinath | Updated on November 08, 2019

Spot the face: The State Temple of King Jayavarman VII is a multitude of stone towers rising from different levels   -  P KRISHNA GOPINATH

The temple architecture of Cambodia is grand, spatial and elevating. But Bayon, just half an hour away from Siem Reap, is disconcertingly different

In the dying light of day, Bayon’s brooding granite and laterite figures exude an air of loneliness. The roosting birds in the forest are eerily quiet. It is difficult to imagine Bayon, just half an hour by road from Siem Reap, as a place where people once gathered to celebrate the gods. They walked up gradient after gradient to reach the god-king at the top.

Today, at the first hint of dark, tourists retrace their tentative steps and coaches drive off without honking.

The temple architecture of Cambodia is grand, spatial and elevating. But Bayon is disconcertingly different. Its Gothic starkness, set against a dense forest, lends it a quality that could have inspired Bram Stoker to set a sequel to Dracula.

I have seen Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei, at the foot of the Kulen Mountains, and am content. But Sakana, who drives us around in a temperamental van, mentions Bayon, a 10-km drive from Siem Reap, several times. So I find myself at the ancient stone temple one afternoon.

The State Temple of King Jayavarman VII and his successors was built from the late 12th century to the late 13th century. It is a multitude of stone towers, rising from different levels to create a mountain of ascending peaks. Even the towers are of varying heights, some looking over others. French archaeologists, who pioneered the excavation in 1899, estimated there would have been 54 towers. Only 37 stand tall today.

There are faces etched on stone. I count about 60, though some say there are more than 200. Each face is said to be a temple in itself. Khmer scholars believe that the 200-odd faces resemble the visage of King Jayavarman VII. The faces are everywhere on the temple facade. Some are in clusters, some in twos or threes. There are solitary faces too. The towers display eclectic religious influences. Expressions of Hinduism, with Vishnu and Siva as the major gods, are conspicuous. Hinduism was followed by Buddhism and, later, Mahayana Buddhism in the region. Prior to Hinduism and Buddhism’s arrival from India, there were the local gods and guardians of Khmer.

The aloofness of the faces disappears when one looks at the rich panels on the temple. Wars, battlefield scenes, kings in victory, soldiers in retreat — all find place in these. There are scenes from villages, markets, fields and much more. You can see depictions from the Ramayana, as well as the Buddha’s life.

The temple architecture and engravings have drawn heavily from South India. The Pallava dynasty was a major influence on the Indo-China region. Even the names of Khmer kings resemble Pallavan names.

I decide to return the next morning.


The outskirts of Siem Reap — the capital of Siem Reap Province in northwestern Cambodia — wake up to a groggy dawn. A passing cloud brings forth a drizzle.

A xylophone begins to play in the village shrine. A wedding is about to take place. The rituals and the feasting will carry on for a day or even more.

Sakana is invited but cannot go. I feel happy for the couple and the regeneration a marriage implies. Life stirs. The xylophone is louder. Villagers walk in the direction of the shrine.

There is no traffic on the road to Bayon. Most tourists visit Angkor Wat, which is about 5 km away but in another direction, before the heat picks up. The Face Towers look eastward, and in the sunlight the features are clear. From a distance, they have the same intimidating presence. I can see some monks are praying there.


I am back in Siem Reap. The city is elegant. There is a river in the town centre, flanked by trees. The streets and markets are uncluttered. At night, tourists throng the restaurants. Everything is lit up. Music blares. Dancers sway.

There are no old people to be seen — not in the city, nor in the villages, nowhere. I can see only the young and the middle-aged. Where are the elderly?

During Prime Minister Pol Pot’s rule from 1975 to 1979, millions of people were massacred. Generations were despatched to that land from whose bourn no traveller ever returns. So there are only young people without memories of a past or of anything that happened before them. The present leader, Hun San, has ruled now for 30 years. In 2018, he won with 80 per cent of the vote. This has happened in election after election.

The sightless eyes on the face towers of Bayon peer out to all corners of the land. That way, the past connects to the present.

P Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer

Published on November 08, 2019

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