Jayavarman VII: Angkor’s Greatest King

It’s his face that is the striking visage at Bayon, arguably the most impressive of Angkor Wat complexes. Jayavarman’s features are inextricably mingled with those of Avalokitesvara, and with purpose: the king’s greatest wish was to be reborn as this Buddha of Compassion. And one version of this face points in each direction, its peaceful gaze not missing any purview.

The four faces have another meaning: each represents a form of compassion, whether it is mercy, pity, sympathy or love. Originally, 54 of these Bayon structures were built to represent each province of the kingdom at that time.

The king is credited with extraordinary royal feats, from hospitals and libraries created throughout the land to new forms of martial art for combat. And his aspirations of kindness did not limit his ability to trounce border incursions by Angkor’s enemies. At Bantay Chhmar, his last architectural feat, the carved display of his hand-to-hand combat victory is only a few dozen yards away from his depiction as a 32-armed Buddha of Compassion teaching his subjects.

Despite his arrival as the first Mahayana Buddhist king in the Angkor reign, his loyalty to his Hindu parents and his appreciation for Angkor’s both Hindu and Theravadin Buddhist past led to an incredible flexibility. His choice was far from the chopping and recarving of figures of traditions he might not believe in – an approach taken by several kings both before and after him. Instead, Jayavarman VII built a Hindu temple for each of his parents, and several others for general or royal use.

Jayavarman VII’s magnanimous approach to his subjects is one of the very few things known about him. But as you wander through far-flung evidence of his incredible works, evident in the immediate Angkor Wat area and beyond, it’s not just once that you’ll imagine his wish for divinity was granted.

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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