13: The Succession of Khmer Kingdoms & China


The first wave of Indians gives birth to Funan, Angkor's Ancestor

The first wave of Indians migrated into Cambodia about 2000 years ago – at the beginning of the Modern Era. This migration gave birth to the Khmer race, as the Indian merchants married into the local population. The second wave occurred a few centuries later. This wave saw the re-invigorating of Hindu influences with a fresh influx of Brahman priests accompanying the merchants. This migration gave birth to the marvelous Khmer culture, a merger of the indigenous and Indian cultures. This began the Indianization of this part of the world - for better or worse - but the process was inexorable.

Kingdoms with centralized power began to pop up in areas that had previously consisted of smaller tribal units. The first Indianized kingdom of mainland Southeast Asia was called Funan. This kingdom existed from the first to the 6th century of the Modern Era. Funan is thought to be a Chinese alliteration of a Sanskrit term meaning Mountain Kingdom. Although the kingdom was located near the coast, this name was presumably chosen because the Funanese rulers believed themselves descended from the gods, who lived in the mountains.

Funan's original capital was a port city that was located 120 miles from the mouth of the Mekong River. The port's name was called Vyadhapura, Sanskrit for 'City of the Hunters'. It was a natural nexus of the land and sea routes that linked eastern India and southern China to the islands of the South Seas. Vyadhapura was also conveniently connected to the Gulf of Siam and inland cities by canals that utilized natural channels. These canals were large enough for seagoing vessels.

This ideal geography was instrumental in the origination of the Funan kingdom, whose prosperity was primarily based on trade. They were the first Southeast Asian nation, but not the last, to be a commercial empire. Archeologists have found Han mirrors from China, jewels, royal seals and amulets of Indian origin, as well as medals from Rome and Sassanid sovereigns from Persia. These diverse finds are a testament to the extent of trade that passed through this area.

Vyadhapura was established in the first centuries of the modern era. This port city was probably the first spreading center in Southeast Asia for the diffusion of Indian civilization and culture. This diffusion occurred initially on the mainland, but eventually spread as well to the surrounding islands in later centuries. Vyadhapura remained a major cultural center until the collapse of Funan. Indeed the memory of the greatness of this city continued to be a source of pride to the Khmer rulers who attempted to trace descent from the Funan rulers. Funan was definitely the earliest phase of Khmer culture.

Funan could even be considered a small empire, as their political power extended beyond Cambodia. There is evidence that they controlled kingdoms on the peninsula of Malaya as well as Southern Burma at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River. Funan was a classic mandala empire, no precise boundaries, with influence and power spread by prestige and wealth rather than through military strength. We’ll explore the mandala empire in more depth a little later on.

In a sign of things to come, the Funanese established irrigation systems that provided water for the growing needs of its population.

The Influence of the Pallava Dynasty of Southern India

The Southern India Pallava Dynasty (third to ninth centuries) exerted a prolific and vigorous influence upon Khmer art and culture beginning with Funan. As but one indication of this influence, the Cambodian kings borrowed the honorific title ‘varman’ from the Pallavas to designate their king. Bhadravarman, one of Funan’s early rulers, was the first Khmer king to add this suffix to his name.

Ruling in the 4th century, Bhadravarman was a contemporary of the Pallavas. He was also a renowned scholar of the Vedas and authored several inscriptions in Sanskrit. Significantly, he also invited some prominent Brahmins to live in his kingdom, presumably to encourage the spread of Hinduism. He was not the last Khmer king to extend this type of invitation.

As a further indication of the Pallava influence, the script that the Khmer eventually adopted was derived from the ornate Grantha script of the Pallavas. The cult of the 8-armed Vishnu also came from their kingdom. It is believed that Angkor Wat was initially dedicated to this god. A freestanding larger than life size statue of this god was originally housed in the uppermost tier of the temple. The statue is now found at the entrance. Its stylistic features are nearly identical to its South Indian counterpart.

However, the interaction between the 2 cultures was not one-sided. As evidence, some of the Pallava kings employed Khmer words in their titles. Further, one of the Pallava kings actually lived for years in Funan before ascending to the throne.

The Kings of Funan and Chenla

Funan’s most powerful king was Jayavarman. He ruled for 34 years from 480 CE -> 514 CE.  ‘Jaya’ means victory in Sanskrit, while ‘varman’ signifies king. Hence, Jayavarman means ‘victorious king’.

He was the original Jayavarman. The second was a Chenla king. The third founded the Angkor dynasty, which initiated the Khmer’s golden age. As a reminder, the Khmer belong to an unbroken tradition beginning with Funan and continuing to modern times. This chain includes both the kingdoms of Chenla and Angkor. The third Jayavarman even named himself after the others to establish a correspondence and continuity with these more ancient kingdoms of Funan and Chenla.

Funan’s Jayavarman sent a mission to China to ask for aid in his war with the Cham. While they sent no actual aid, the Chinese conferred an imperial title, which gave prestige to his mandala kingdom. It also brought the more important Chinese business and corresponding wealth. The Chinese visitors write about cockfights and pig fights. They say that the Funanese worshipped Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha, all of which came from India.

Sanskrit inscriptions have been found which indicate that Funan’s capital city was Oc Eo. Satellite photos indicate that the city was rectangular, approximately 2 miles by 1 mile. Surrounded by moats and mounds, the city was subdivided by canals, with houses built on the canals’ edge. The canals were primarily the work of Tamil’s Indian culture. They were constructed in the same tradition as their ancestors, who had done such great work in controlling the flood waters of the Indus Valley so many thousands of years before.

Rudravarman replaced Jayavarman. He ruled for 25 years - from 514 -> 539 CE. He also sent many diplomatic missions to China during his reign. He moved the capital to Angkor Borei, which was linked to Oc Eo by canal. Moving the capital was a major tradition of the Khmer kings. It happened so many times that some writers claim that it was necessary to revitalize the Empire.

Rudravarman is referred to as the last king of the race of Soma - referring to the Naga Princess, who gave birth to the Khmer race. After his death the Funan royal family married into the Chenla family. The Khmer refer to this as the merger of the Solar race of inland Chenla with the Lunar race of coastal Funan. Practically speaking, it meant that the Khmer moved their center of power inland from the coast.

Bharavarman, the first king of Chenla, formed his new capital, Bhavapura, on the northern shore of Tonle Sap Lake. Isanavarman, the next major king of Chenla, moved his capital a short distance away to Isanapura in 611 CE. This was another rectangular city. It was approximately 1 mile by 1 mile with double walls and a reservoir - just like Oc Eo.

During the Chenla ascendancy, Funan vanished - probably due to terrible floods. However, the commercial prominence of the ports of Funan had been declining in importance for centuries, corresponding with the rise of the ports of Sumatra. As we shall see, the Srivijaya Empire that controlled Indonesia had consolidated power by dominating sea lanes. Thus while Funan was devastated by floods, it had already been disappearing commercially, and hence politically. This was just the coup de grace - a deathblow to end suffering.

China, Funan's best customer & historian

While the Khmer of Funan were the result of intermarriage and cultural interaction between the migrating Southern Indians and the indigenous population, China was also very important. After all the Chinese were Funan’s best customer and primary historian. They were fortunate to be the middleman of the India/China trade network. India brought an incredible culture and China brought an invaluable business connection.

While India had their great religious traditions, the Chinese loved history. Most of the information about the Funan kingdom comes from the Chinese traders who visited their main port at Vyadhapura. As emissaries of their Middle Kingdom, they always reported their experiences to their Imperial court. After all, Funan was one of China’s vassal states. And they wanted to know how their subjects were doing.

The first documented instance of this historical relationship was in 225 CE, when it is recorded that Funan sent 'tribute' to China. The 'tribute' was not due to military domination. China never conquered Funan. In fact, the only Chinese that visited Funan were the traders. The following Chinese aphorism reveals much about their attitude towards business:

"Good contract with bad relationship leads to bad business.

However, bad contract with good relationship leads to good business.

That’s why we spend more time on our relationship,

through eating and spending time together, than on contracts."

Sending China tribute was like paying dues to be part of her trade network. As a trading partner, Funan was a beneficiary of her abundant commerce. If they didn’t pay tribute, China’s commerce would be directed elsewhere. It was a great arrangement. China treated her subject states very well. There were many perks to the relationship. For instance, Western traders wanted Chinese goods and vice versa. It was everyone’s best interests to pay the entry fee to her commercial network. The money returned hundred fold.

Perhaps the word 'tribute' is misleading. In other parts of the world, tribute is the fee that subject states pay to conquering states. It is protection money. The stronger country says to the weaker - ‘Pay us tribute or we will dominate or enslave your nation.’ It has less to do with services rendered or business connections and more to do with the fear of punishment or domination. When Rome, Greece under Alexander the Great, or the Normans demanded tribute, it was given under duress - not willingly. Indeed when tribute was withheld, punishment followed.

In Funan’s case, it was entirely different. They vied with other nations to give tribute to China. Paying tribute turned them into a trading partner, albeit not equal, but with great privileges. One of these privileges was local prestige. If the Funanese could capture the India/China trade by being a vassal state to China, then money came and prestige followed.

The neighboring kingdoms seemed to feel that if Funan was powerful enough to be recognized by China that they must be very important. Due to this sentiment, they wanted to join in this circle of influence and subsequent wealth. To exhibit their respect for this prized relationship, Funan sent a diplomatic mission to China in 243 CE. This was not the last mission.

China’s Imperial government wanted to be part of the action, even if in some small way. Due to this desire, they requested and saved reports from their subjects on their trips to see their ‘vassal’ states. In many ways, this relationship was like that between the benevolent father, or perhaps the rich uncle, and the extended family.

These reports revealed that the Khmer kingdoms of Funan and Chenla were decentralized politically. National power was mainly concentrated in the trading centers. It interested the Chinese to find out that Funan’s inhabitants lived in raised houses built of wood, tree branches, or even pillars. The residents of present day Cambodia who live near flood zones continue to reside in houses of this variety.

Besides these raised houses, the imperial emmisarries accompanying the Chinese traders reported that there were many canals linking Funan’s inland cities with the coast. The Funanese seemed to have a comfortable standard of living, and their justice system was based upon trial by ordeal. The Chinese traders were most enthusiastic about the imaginative art in different mediums that they found there. The Funanese must have had a long tradition of wood working and painting because of the sophistication of their crafts. It all disappeared however because it was made of wood and pottery. It is sad that all that marvelous artwork was lost, but it is part of the transitory nature of life.

Due to the transience of the material world, the Chinese prefer the written word. The written word lasts forever, in human terms anyway. It can be transcribed over and over with very little corruption. They have documents that are thousands of years of old that have been written and rewritten. They even have an expression that reflects this sentiment. 'A strong memory is weaker than the palest ink.'

In contrast, the Khmer came to enjoy the permanence of stone. During their early kingdoms, they were known for our wood carving skills. In later times, they employed these sculptural talents to create temples embellished with elaborate stone carvings. The stonework of their dynastic building will be the least perishable and most studied. However, it is good to remember that it is based upon their ancient wood carving tradition.

Although their elaborate wood carving from this period is long gone, China’s written word from the same time continues to reveal much about the ancient Funanese kingdom. Back at the Imperial court, the Chinese were amused by the report of supernumerary gods - spirits of heaven and strange divinities with many arms and heads, usually multiples of two – probably the Hindu influence. Maybe Shiva, Vishnu or both merged with the local gods.

It seems that the Funanese believed their gods descended onto mountaintops to reside and communicate with the mortal world. That’s why they probably referred to themselves as the Mountain Kingdom.

It’s amazing how similar humans are. It almost seems to be a human universal to commune with the gods in the mountains. The Taoist shamans of China would retreat to sacred mountains to commune with the gods. The Biblical, Greek, Chinese, Hindu, Muslim and even American Indian traditions all include some variation of gods residing or communicating from mountaintops. Many Southeast Asian cultures, including we Khmer and the Javanese, have the same belief. It is evident that many cultures, although isolated by geography, language and religious traditions, have the same direct experience of god on the mountaintops.

Overall the Chinese had a great relationship with Funan until internal family problems absorbed all their energy. That was the beginning of the demise of the kingdom of Funan.

That is the Way - the Tao - of Kingdoms and Dynasties. By the time the Chinese came into contact with Funan, they had already experienced 2000 years of rising and falling dynasties. Since then multiple Chinese dynasties have come and gone. Indeed the later Chinese dynasties seemed to have a cycle between 200 to 400 years. So the kingdom of Funan actually had a pretty good run at 500 years – quite respectable as far as empires go.

The Empire at Angkor: Khmer’s Golden Age

After the decline of the Khmer empire/kingdoms centered around first Funan and then Chenla, an invigorated king moved the capitol to Angkor. This move initiated the beginning of the Khmer’s classical period. The classic period, when the Khmer's hill capitols were centered around Angkor, near present day Siem Riep, is considered the Golden Age of the Khmer. It lasted from 802 CE -> 1432 CE - over 600 years - nearly 3 times longer than the USA has been around.

Jayavarman II is considered the founder of the Khmer Empire based at Angkor. In 790 CE he returned from the Sailendra court in Java with some big plans. He claimed heritage from the ancient royal family of Funan. In 802 he founded a capital on a hill called Phnom Kulen, the first of many hill capitols. He even built a brick pyramid to support a temple-shrine. He called in artists from Champa and Java to give new impetus to local traditions.

Jayavarman was followed by a series of strong rulers. Indravarman I (877-889) laid the foundation of the temple complex known as Angkor. It is 1700 yards by 1500 yards. Its well thought out plan was based upon a rectangular grid of reservoirs, canals, and irrigation channels to control flooding and provide water for the growing empire. This well developed irrigation system was one of the foundations of the Khmer empire.

After dealing with the water for his new capital, Indravarman I built Bakong, a second mountain top temple. The succeeding kings elaborated on this theme - further enhancing the Angkor complex by building their own temple mountains in 893, 961, 1000, 1066 - each more elaborate and grandiose than the preceding. This temple building spree culminated in 1100 with the construction of Angkor Wat by Suryavarman II.

Following this efflorescence of art, the Khmer culture under Jayavarman VII suffered an embarrassing loss to the Cham culture of South Vietnam. Marshaling his forces, he eventually defeated them and extended the boundaries of the empire further than they had ever been before - to Chang Mai in the north - to South Vietnam in the east - to southern Thailand in the west.

With this renewal of energy, he then supervised the construction of Angkor Thom in 1200 - perhaps the most ambitious of all the temples in size and scope. The temple was notable for its four sided Buddha heads. These heads represented the all-seeing power of the Buddhist Lokesvara - Lord of this world - and his representative - the king.

This was the last of the temple building. The high standards of Khmer craftsmanship were maintained; but there were no more huge works of art.

After Jayavarman VII, the culture at Angkor lasted about 200 more years. At this time, the Mongol invasions of China created huge population pressures that pushed the Thai out of Southern China and the Cham out of North Vietnam. As a result, the Khmer civilization was attacked by the Thai from the west and the Cham from the east.

The Khmer's cultural momentum had petered out and they were dissipated internally. There was no more temple building to revitalize and give meaning to the people. Perhaps more importantly, the irrigation system that they had used to support their inland empire was crumbling and in need of repair. During its peak, the fertile land provided 3 crops of rice per year. The abundance of rice fed the temple population. By now, the once fertile soil was spent and over-farmed. Like the vitality of the  Khmer culture, the vitality of the land was severely diminished.

In contrast, the Thai cultural momentum was rising. They invaded and conquered the Khmer kingdom, reducing it to the status of a vassal state. Simultaneously, the Thai stripped all of the temples at Angkor of their gold and gems. The once proud Khmer Empire had been reduced to ruins in a generation. The cultural energy had played itself out. It disappeared. For the next 400 years, the Khmer were vassals of Vietnam or Thailand. They came under Western rule when they became a French protectorate in 1864.

The jungle took over at Angkor. The local Buddhists and tribes used these temples as a place of worship. But the magnificent temple complex disappeared from history until the French rediscovered them in the late 1800s. It was at about this time that archaeologists began the long process of simultaneously restoring our temples and protecting them from looters.

Southeast Asia: “Such was the wave of the Khmer civilization at Angkor. We saw the wave build, grow into maturity, and then crash upon the beach of humanity, leaving an indelible mark. Then we saw this cultural tidal wave fragment and dissolve back into Void. Such a brief stay upon our planet. But what an impact. Like a glacier, etching my ground for human eternity.

This is just one more example of the Indian postulate that the external world of manifestation is transitory. No matter how great or small, all things pass. When it is happening it seems like it will last forever. But when it is over, it just seems like the blink of an eye. I’ve seen so many come and go.

Entire human lives can be devoted to the recollection of these flowerings - recalling the grandeur of these great civilizations, which have left their sand castles upon the shores of time. With just minuscule glimpses into these ancient cultures, entire universes are created. Then the historian implies reality to his fantasy - believing it to be real. Instead it is just one more illusion - reflecting his world-view - and perhaps of those around him. But what a great story. Allow my Author to bounce off the trampoline of facts to soar high into the air. Hopefully our Reader realizes that it is really just a tale to amuse, educate, inspire, and transform, but that it has no reality whatsoever - just the foam of the waves, seeming so dramatic, but without substance.”


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