A Brief History of Cambodia

The Kingdom Of Funan

Based on the testimony of the Chinese historians, the polity Funan is believed to have been established in the 1st century CE in the Mekong Delta. Chinese records dating from the 3rd century CE, beginning with the “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, record the arrival of two Funanese embassies at the court of Lu Dai, who was the governor in the southern Chinese kingdom of Wu.  The first embassy arrived between 225 and 230 AD, the second in the year 243. Later sources such as the “Book of Liang”, completed in 636, discuss the mission of the 3rd-century Chinese envoys Kang Tai and Zhu Ying from the Kingdom of Wu to Funan. The writings of these envoys, though no longer extant in their original condition, were excerpted and as such preserved in the later dynastic histories, and form the basis for much of what we know about Funan. Unfortunately not much is known about the history of the Funan. Archeological evidence shows that extensive human settlement in the region may go back as far as the 4th century BCE. Though treated by Chinese historians as a single unified empire, according to some modern scholars Funan may have been a collection of city-states that sometimes warred with one another and at other times constituted a political unity.

The ethnic and linguistic origins of the Funanese people, who might have been Cham or Khmer, has been subject to scholarly debate, and no firm conclusions can be drawn based on the evidence available.  It is also possible that Funan was a multicultural society, including various ethnic and linguistic groups. In the late 4th and 5th centuries, Indianization advanced more rapidly, in part through renewed impulses from the south Indian Pavalla Dynasty and the north Indian Gupta Empire. The only extant local writings from the period of Funan are paleographic Pallava Grantha inscriptions in Sanskrit of the Pavalla Dynasty a scholarly language used by learned and ruling elites throughout South and Southeast Asia. These inscriptions give no information about the ethnicity or vernacular tongue of the Funanese.

Similarly, the origin of Funan is shrouded in mistery and the foundation of Funan is associated with various myths, such as the Kaudinya legend and the Khmer founding legend in which an Indian prince named Preah Thaong in Khmer,  Kaundinya in Sanskrit or Hun Tian in Chinese records marries the local ruler, a princess named Nagi Soma (Lieu-Ye in Chinese records), thus establishing the first Cambodian royal dynasty.

Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk

Successive rulers following Hun Tian included Hun Pan Huang, Pan Pan, and then Fan Shiman, the “Great King of Funan”, who was responsible for the large military expansion of the Funan Kingdom. Under Fan Shiman, Funan reached the apex of its power. Fan Shiman expanded his empire’s navy and improved the Funanese bureaucracy, creating a quasi-feudal pattern that left local customs and identities largely intact, particularly in the empire’s further reaches. Fan Shiman and his successors also sent ambassadors to China and India to regulate sea trade. The kingdom likely accelerated the process of Indianization of Southeast Asia. Later kingdoms of Southeast Asia such as Chenla may have emulated the Funanese court. The Funanese established a strong system of mercantilism and commercial monopolies that would become a pattern for empires in the region. Funan’s dependence on maritime trade is seen as a cause for the beginning of Funan’s downfall. Their coastal ports allowed trade with foreign regions that funnelled goods to the north and coastal populations. However, the shift in maritime trade to Sumatra, the rise in the Srivijaya trade empire, and the taking of trade routes all throughout Southeast Asia by China, leads to economic instability in the south, and forces politics and economy northward.

Funan was superseded and absorbed in the 6th century by the Khmer polity of the Chenla Kingdom, whose name first appeared in Chinese Annals around 616/617 CE. Similarly to the foundation of the Kingdom we have very little knowledge about its demise.

Statue in the Angkor National Museum, Siam Reap

The Chenla Kingdom

Originally one of the regional centers of Funan with an unknown degree of sovereignty, Chenla was recognized by a foreign powers as a separate political entity at the end of the sixth century. The people of Chenla were probably Khmer. The History of the Chinese Sui Dynasty contains entries of a state called Chenla, a vassal of the Kingdom of Funan, which had sent an embassy to China in 616 or 617. The founder of the kingdom, who managed to break free from Funan’s control, was Strutavarman.

A record dating to the middle of the 6th century mentions a city called Bhavapura whose king Bhavavarmn I extended the Chenla kingdom from near the present town of Kampong Thom as far as Battambang in the west. He was succeeded by his brother Mahendravarman, who established peace with the neighbouring kingdom of Champa through marriage arrangements. Mahendravarman, was in turn succeeded by his son Isanavarman I. Isnavarman I  completed the conquered of the kingdom of Funan and in 616 CE moved the capital to Ishanapura, now known as Sambor Prei Kuk. According to a Chinese writer, Ishanapura was inhabited by 20 thousands families. Culturally, the royal families of Chenla generally preserved the earlier political, social, and religious institutions of Funan, thus preserving the elements introduced from India. Chenla appears to have had a preference for Hinduism over other religions brought from there, like Buddhism.

Under Isanavarman’s son, Bhavavarman II, who took the throne in 628, the empire disintegrated back into small states and it took until 654 for Jayavarman I, a grandson of Isanavarman I, from one of these kingdoms to reconquer much of the territory. There is evidence that he ruled from Aninditapura, close to Angkor. On his death, the empire disintegrated again and his successors controlled only the small kingdom of Anininditapura. The country remanined this way until the end of the 8th century when Jayavarman II became king in 790.

Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk

The Khmer Empire

Large parts of our knowledge about the early history of the Khmer Empire is based on the Sdok Kak Thom inscriptions which where incised in 1050 in what is now  southeastern Thailand.

On the Sdok Kak Thom inscriptions Jayavarman II is recognised as the founder of the Khmer Empire. His conquests, first of Vyadhapura (SE of Cambodia) then Sambhupura (present-day Sambor) and finally Aninditapura, established his power. He first settled at Hariharalaya, an ancient captital in the region of what is now Roluos. While trying to conquer the northwestern part of Cambodia, Jayavarman II experienced a setback which resulted in him relocating his capital to the Kulen Plateau, where he pronounced himself “world emperor” in 802 BCE. However, it took him several years before he was able to move back to Hariharalaya where he died in 835.

His son Jayavarman III succeeded him on his death. Jayavarman III life came to a violent endaround 877 when Indravarman I wrestled the throne from him. During Indravarman’s reign a large reservoir, known as the Indratataka and a surface area of 300 hectares, was built to collect rainwater. In addition he constructed the Preah Ko temple to honour his parents and the Bakong Temple, which was to serve as his sarcophagus. The Bakong Temple took the shape of a stepped pyramid, mimicking the mythical  mountain Mt. Meru, which stood north of the Himalayas at the centre of the universe. Bakong, was the first Angkorian temple to be built primarily of stone (namely laterite) rather than brick and probably the first temple to have a pyramidal shape.

Indravarman’s son, Yasovarman I, who reigned from 889 to roughly 915. One of his first official actions was to establish numerous religious hermitages, equipping each with a royal rest house and he seems to have instigated several administrative reforms .  Soon after, in 893, he had build the , Lolei Temple in the middle of the Indratataka reservoir in honor of his parents. At the northeast corner of the reservoir he build a raised highway running northwest toward an area, 16 kms away, where he planned to establish his new capital Yasodharapura, present day Angkor. He constructed his own temple mountain on a summit of a natural hill, namely Phnom Bakheng, which became the center of his new city.  To the east of Phnom Bakheng, he build a reservoir, the Yasodharatataka (East Barray), roughly 6.5 kms long and 3 kms wide and along the southern shore he constructed monasteries dedicated to Shivam Vishnu and Buddha.  

Jayavarman II790-835
Jayavarman III835-877
Indravarman I877-c.886
Yasovarman I889-c.915
Harshavarman Ic915-923
Isvarnaman II923-c.928
Jayavarman IVc.928-c.941
Harshavarman IIc.941-944
Jayavarman V968-c.1000
Udayadiyavarman I1001-1002
Suryavarman I1002-1049
Udayadityavarman II1050-1066
Harshavarman III1066-1080
Jayavarman VI1080-c.1107
Suryavarman II1113-c.1150
Yasovarman IIc.1150-1165
Jayavarman VII1181-c.1220
Indravarman IIc.1220-1243
Jayavarman VIIIc.1243-1295
The City Walls of Angkor Thom
The City Walls of Angkor Thom

Yasovarman was succeeded in turn by two of his sons Harshavarman I and Isanavarman II. Little is know about them except that the former probably constructed the Baksei Chamkrong temple and the Prasat Khravan in 941 CE. Even while the two brothers continued to reign at Yashodarapura (Angkor) a brother of one of Yasovarman’s wives was established a rival city at Koh Ker about 100 kms north of Angkor in 921 CE. The rival soon began to act as a king by building a reservoir and beginning work on a temple-mountain. In 928, when Isanavarman II died, the Koh Ker ruler proclaimed himself king with the title Jayavarman IV. Work continued on his 35m high temple mountain,  Prasat Thom until about 930. It remained the highest temple in the Khmer Empire until the construction of Angkor Wat. Over a 20 year period, Jayavarman IV had more than 40 temples in the Koh Ker area and his influence extended well into northeaster Thailand. After his death in 942, one of his sons, Harshavarman II, reigned briefly but in 944 one of his nephews returned to Angkor (Yasodharapura) as King Rajendravarman II. However, he did not reestablish his palace on Phnom Bakheng but moved it, along with his state temple Pre Rup (961 CE) to the south of the East Barray.  The temple of East Mebon (953) was another major project of his. At the same time he strengthend his power by declaring former ‘kingdoms’ under his rule as provinces and expanded his empire by reconquering the lands ruled by Yasovarman I

The Bayon Temple
The Bayon Temple

Rajendravarman died in 968 and was succeeded by his 10-year old son Jayavarman V, who appears to have spend several years under the close supervision of relatives and high officials.  During this time, Yajnavaraha, his tutor and mentor  built the exquisite temple of Banteay Srei, which was dedicated to the last year of Rajendravarman’s life. Jayavarman V, was not particularly noted as a temple builder, his own state-temple Ta Keo appearing to be unfinished.  

Jayavarman’s son, Udayaditayavarman I, took over the reigns but ruled oned a few months after which there was a nine-year war between Jayaviravarman and Suryavarman I, both pretending to have been consecrated in 1002. The war ended around 1010 with the final victory of Suryavarman I, who build his royal Palace at Angkor Thom.  In addition, Suryavarman I expanded the territory under Angkorean control, colonising the western end of the Tonle Sap with new religious foundations and annexing the Buddhist kingdom of Louvo, centered on present-day Lopburi in central Thailand. He also expanded the hydraulic works at Angkor by constructing the West Barray, which suggests that under his reign the population of Angkor increased significantly.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

He was succeeded by his son Udayatityavarman II (1050-1066) who built the Bapuon, a spectacular temple-mountain, and the West Mebon in the middle of the West Barrya. His younger brother Harshavarman III (1066-1080) was the last of the dynasty and after his his reign the Khmer Empire disintegrated. The  last years of the 11th century in Cambodia were ones of turmoil and fragmentation. At different times, two or even three monarchs contended for the title of absolute ruler. 

At the end of the century, however, a new dynasty, which was to last for more than a hundred years began to rule at Angkor. Little is known about the first two of its kings, Jayavarman VI amd his brother, Dharanindravarman I, but their nephew Suryvarman II, like Yasovarman II and Suryvarman I, another unifying monarch. Suryvarman II was the first king to rule over a unified Cambodian kingdom since Utyaditayavarman II’s death in the 1060s. His rule, from 1112 to about 1050 marked the peak of Angkor’s power and influence. Suryavarman II campaigned in the east, against Vietnam and Champa and he was the first Angkorian king to establish diplomatic relations with China. A devout Hindu, he commissioned the largest of all monuments of Angkor, namely Angkor Wat, which functioned as a temple, tomb and observatory. Angkor Wat covers an area of 200 hectares and was began at the beginning of his reign and was not completed until after his death, the exact date of which is unknown. In fact, the period 1145-1182 produced almost no inscriptions and the geneagology must be recreated from later sources. 

Relief in Preah Khan Temple

After Suryavarman’s death, there were increasing revolts in the provinces. Suryavarman’s successor, perhaps a cousin, reached the throne under mysterious circumstances in a coup d’etat. However, shortly afterwards, around 1150, the throne passed to Yasovarman II. Instability continued through the 1150s into the 1160s and in 1165 Yasorvarman was assassinated by one of his subordinates called Tribubhuvanadityavarman, who was killed 12 years later when a Cham and Khmer group mounted a surprise attack from the Great Lake and took Angkor. This might have been the end of the city, had it not been for the return of a prince, later crowned as Jayavarman VII, After 4 years of fighting, he succeeded in driving out the Chams, beginning his reign in 1181 as the last great king of Angkor. 

A fervent Buddhist, unlike his Hindu predecessors, Jayavarman VII crammed into his 30 year rule the largest building program ever undertaken. His new city is the surviving Angkor Thom, centred on the Bayon. He was also responsible for the Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan among others, not to mention hundreds of temples, hospitals and other building across the empire.This hurried and frenzied building activity is generally considered as the last; but is is difficult to evaluate the part playued by Indravarman II in the programme. Moreover, Jayavarman VIII, responsible for the destruction of so much Buddhist imagery, tried to restore and improve some of the importnat Hindu temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bapuon and the central plaza of Angkor Thom. Nothing else has survived at Angkor from later than the early 13th century.

East Mebon