Enigmatic expressions on faces at the Bayon hint at a long-lost knowledge.
I was sorting through my images recently, looking for some good shots of Angkor to upload to image banks, when I was struck yet again by that blissful smile on the faces that gaze down from the towers of the Bayon, the centrepiece of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
Originally over fifty towers featured four faces looking in the cardinal directions. Now only 37 towers remain, yet wherever you wander in the Bayon, these faces are looking at you.
Or are they? As you approach these two-metre high heads, you realize that their attention is elsewhere. The closed eyelids, relaxed features and slightly upturned lips suggest nothing less than a state of bliss, the attainment of Nirvana, of Enlightenment, of total mindfulness. Even patches of lichen do not disturb them.
Though they are often referred to as Buddha heads, they are thought to represent Jayavarman VII, the all-powerful Khmer ruler in the 12th century.
What baffles me is this—how could Khmer stone carvers convey such a facial expression if they had not experienced this serene state for themselves? And if they had experienced such bliss, how come this knowledge got lost down through the years?
When Henri Mouhot visited the site in 1860, he asked “What has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” Over 150 years later, his question echoes through history.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.