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Pre Angkorian Era

History of Cambodia : Pre Angkorian Era

Ancient iron and bronze artifacts point to a form of Neolithic civilization as early as the 2nd or 1st century B. C. These people were thought to be Austroasiatic in origin, and were linked to the ancestors of the races of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The Mon-Khmer, who came from the north, around 1 A.D, probably intermarried with them and were part of the first civilization on record, the Funan kingdom, which dates back to around the 1st century AD.

Funan is actually a Chinese name for City of Mountain and is referred to in Old Khmer as Bnam or Phnom in Modern Khmer. It was a strong maritime, agricultural and trading nation and at peak was centered around the Mekong delta and covered modern day Cambodia, South Vietnam and parts of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and the northern Malaysian Peninsula. Although it is referred to as a kingdom, it was more likely a loose political conglomeration of neighboring nations in which Funan was the center of power.

Hindu divines – by Dalbera

Midway Between India and China

The Funan kingdom was strongly influenced by India and adopted Sanskrit as the official language at court, staffed its administrative points with Indians and adopted the worship of Hindu deities, Shiva and Vishnu. This laid the foundation for the evolution of the god-king (devaraja) during the Angkorian era. Evidence pointing to Funan’s prominent role as a trading port between India and China comes from archaeological excavations at the ancient port of Oc Eo in today’s southern Vietnam.

These excavations unearthed Roman, Persian, Chinese and Indian goods. As Funanese records have not survived, much is also relied upon archeological digs which have also found a large canal system that fanned out from Angkor Borei, the pre-Angkor capital during the Chenla period, to smaller satellite settlements and which could possibly have linked Angkor Borei to Oc Eo, a distance of 90 kms.

Water Power

Funan could have been considered the first great economy in Southeast Asia with its wealth derived from trade and agriculture. As a natural stopover for the trade between India and China, it benefited greatly from trade and interaction with these two nations.

Wealth from trading was poured into its complex system of irrigation and water storage, leading to successful rice cultivation and paving the way for the rise of the Angkor empire.

Water was so integral to the Funan kingdom that one of its myths of creation had it that it started from the marriage of an Indian prince to a native naga (serpent deity) princess called Soma. Her father, the Naga King, blessed the marriage by drinking up the sea around the island and created the land which was named Kambuja.

Funan at Peak, Chenla on The Rise

The Funanese Empire reached its peak under the rule of Fan Shih-man in the early third century A.D. King Fan Shih-man strengthened and expanded its naval fleet, boosted the Funanese bureaucracy, established a form of feudal rule which left local cultures and customs relatively unchanged, and set a pattern of rule for neighboring Southeast Asian nations. He and his successors sent ambassadors to China and India, and the latter’s influence was so interwoven into Funanese life that the Indian legal code was adopted and an alphabet based on Indian writing systems was introduced.

In the 6th century, Funan, weakened by civil war and succession struggles, was taken over by rebel state Chenla.. Chenla was itself a loose grouping of smaller kingdoms and at one stage was divided into Water Chenla, with its capital in Angkor Borei, and Land Chenla centered around Sambor Prei Kuk. Around the 8th century, continued incursions by a newly risen maritime nation, Java, drove the Khmer people away from the coast to go upriver to Tonle Sap, paving the way for what would become the Angkorian civilization.