Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII

By Kent Davis 

Siem Reap, Cambodia – After Angkor Wat’s unforgettable profile, the face towers of the Bayon temple are the Khmer civilization’s most recognizable architectural icons. In the late 12th and early 13th century King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon as his state temple in the center of his capital city of Angkor Thom. Over the years, the Bayon was modified to accommodate both Hindu and Buddhist rites, according to changing religious preferences. Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII

Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII
The Bayon is best known for its mystical face towers.

On the towers above, serene faces gaze out over the jungle. But below, Jayavarman VII followed the example of King Suryavarman II by filling his monument with female energy. The portraits of sacred women, now called devata or apsaras depending on their style, surround the Bayon. No one knows exactly what the ancient Khmers called these women who are represented so prominently in their temples.

Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII
The Bayon temple’s main sacred female types are: dancing (left) & devata (right)

The Bayon primarily features two types of sacred Khmer women: celestial goddesses dancing on lotus flowers, generally located on pillars; and devata, who stand gracefully in niches surrounding the structure.

Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII
Bayon New Perspectives edited by Joyce Clark

Dr. Peter Sharrock, School of Oriental and African Studies, has done considerable research on the Bayon, Jayavarman VII’s reign and Khmer religious practices. Sharrock distinguishes the standing devata with the term “courtly devata” because of their elaborate hair and jewelry, as well as their non-dancing stance.

In addition to the courtly devata, Sharrock estimates that the original Bayon structure displayed 6,250 of the celestial dancers; an incredible manifestation of female energy that Jayavarman VII also included in temples such as Preah KhanBanteay Kdei and Ta Som.

To read more of Sharrock’s work, please see his chapter “The mystery of the face towers,” in Bayon New Perspectives, a compendium of the latest research on this temple.

A second expert, Robert McCarthy, is now cataloging the 377 courtly devata at the Bayon while consulting with the JAPAN-APSARA Safeguarding Angkor project.

For comparison with Angkor Wat, Devata.org has cataloged 1,780 standing devata. The dancing goddesses remain uncounted (but we estimate fewer than Dr. Sharrock has calculated at the Bayon).

Stylistically, the Bayon and Angkor Wat styles have many similarities and differences that will be dealt with in future articles. For convenience, a chart and a few photo examples follow so readers can make immediate comparisons.

Links to detailed photo galleries follow. Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII

Bayon Devata

Angkor Wat Devata

Individual devata portraits only

Devata in groups

“Flame” style crowns common

Triple crown common

Flower garlands common

None

Mudras (sacred hand positions) common

Mudras (sacred hand positions) common

Crossed “sautoir” chest bands common

Rare (only on most powerful devata)

Higher Waist-Hip Ratio

Lower Waist-Hip Ratio

Sampot “tail” not seen

Sampot “tail” common

Lotus pedestal seen

Lotus pedestal extremely rare

Bayon and Angkor Wat Devata

Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII
Bayon devata (left) and Angkor Wat devata (right) have many similarities and differences. Note that varying camera angles in the two photos affect perceived proportions.
Bayon devata (left) and Angkor Wat devata (right) have many similarities and differences.
Bayon devata (left) and Angkor Wat devata (right) have many similarities and differences. Note that varying camera angles in the two photos affect perceived proportions.

Bayon Dancing Goddess Trio

Archeologist Peter Sharrock estimates that the Bayon had more than 6,000 of these goddesses dancing on lotus flowers.
Archeologist Peter Sharrock estimates that the Bayon had 6,250 of these celestial goddesses dancing on lotus flowers.

Bayon Dancer Pair

These Bayon dancers are seen on a bas-relief with musical accompaniment. They are not dancing on lotus flowers and may represent real women.
These Bayon dancers are seen on a bas-relief. They dance on the ground, not lotus flowers, and are actually accompanied by musicians implying that they may represent real women participating in religious rites.

Angkor Wat Dancing Apsara

Angkor Wat dancing apsara - West Gopura NW gallery
Angkor Wat dancing apsara – West Gopura NW gallery. The lotus base that she dances upon implies her celestial nature and thereby earns her the designation of “apsara”

Bayon Photo Gallery of Courtly Devata

Bayon Devata Goddesses of King Jayavarman VII

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