The images represent a Hindu myth of creation called the Churning of the Sea of Milk. On one side of the causeway, fifty-four guardian deities (called devas) pull the head of a mythical serpent or “naga.” On the other side, fifty-four images of demon gods (called asuras) push the tail of the serpent. The whipping motion of the serpent’s body was said to churn the ocean and recreate the cosmos anew. The dancing female deities (each known as an apsaras) were the first beings to emerge from the sea of creation.
Angkor Thom was a fortified city built from the early eleventh to the late twelfth centuries A.D. during the reigns from Suryavarman I to Jayavarman VII. Because it was built over a long time by successive kings, it has two city centers and differing architectural and sculpture styles. Angkor Thom, located just north of the Angkor Wat site is the largest building complex in the Angkor area.
The Bayon Temple complex within Angkor Thom was built under the direction of the Mahayana Buddhist ruler Jayavarman VII, who ascended to the Khmer kingdom’s throne at Angkor in 1181 CE. He erected the site for Buddhist worship, although it later was renovated and used as a Hindu temple. Various forms of Hindu and Buddhist worship were practiced side-by-side and successively in the ancient royal courts of Southeast Asia.
The bas-relief carvings on the outer walls of the Bayon towers depict heroic historical tales as well as scenes of everyday Khmer life. Jayavarman VII was a capable military commander who repelled attacks by the Champa kingdom before becoming the Khmer king and undertaking a massive effort to construct stone temples and other monuments.
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