In 1181, the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII drove the Cham from Khmer territory and established his rule over Angkor, the city that had been the seat of the Khmer since the 9th century. He styled himself on the great Indian Buddhist king Ashoka and established hospitals and shrines, a new and extensive system of water tanks, and, close by the temple of Angkor Wat, the new city of Angkor Thom.
The city had five gateways, and the south one today retains the naga balustrade that is supported by fifty-four devas (gods) and asuras (antigods or demons) churning the ocean of milk, a theme seen repeatedly in Khmer sculpture, but most dramatically in these balustrades. This enormous head depicts one of the asuras who were enlisted by the gods to churn the ocean of milk in order to extract amrita, the elixir of immortality, which the gods wanted for their own use. Together they uprooted Mount Mandara, the axis mundi, for the pivot and used the naga Vasuki as the rope. Pulling alternately, the asuras and devas elicited the amrita, but to the distress of Vishnu and the other gods, the asuras speedily fell upon it. Vishnu intervened by taking the form of a female to distract the asuras—a ploy that worked—and the devas were able to claim the amrita.
The story has significance beyond its mythological explanation of the immortality of the gods. Jayavarman VII built more temples than did any of his predecessors, and his conception of Angkor Thom, with its great moat (ten miles in length), dramatic entries, and central temple of the Bayon, underscores his interest in putting both Buddhist concepts and royal ideals into three-dimensional form. By placing the story of the churning of the ocean at the gateways to his new city, he suggested that the temple in the center, the Bayon, was the axis mundi. In terms of Buddhist belief, the Bayon, dedicated to the Buddha seated beneath a serpent, likens Jayavarman VII to that illustrious being, further advancing the parallel.
Sculptural style during the Bayon period, the late 12th to early 13th centuries, involves a blurring of facial features, as is apparent in the soft, broad modeling of this face. Furthermore, elements of the headdress of this stern asura recall details of the Buddha’s headdress from this period, namely the central rosette of the diadem and the beading along its edge.
Nancy Tingley, "Asura," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 220.