Khmer Kingdom Funan



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Funan (Old Khmer Bnam, Modern Khmer Phnom, Vietnamese Phu Nam) was a pre-Angkor Indianized Khmer kingdom located around the Mekong delta. It is believed to have been established in the first century C.E, although extensive human settlement in the region may have gone back as far as the 4th century B.C.E. Though regarded by Chinese envoys as a single unified empire, Funan may have been a collection of city-states that sometimes warred with one another and at other times constituted a political unity. At its height, Funan and all its principalities covered much of mainland Southeast Asia, including within its scope the territory of modern day Cambodia and Southern Vietnam, as well as parts of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, and extending into the Malay Peninsula.

Little is known about Funan, except that it was a powerful trading state, as evidenced by the discovery of Roman, Chinese, and Indian goods during archaeological excavations at the ancient port of Oc Eo in southern Vietnam. The capital, initially located at Vyadhapura (City of the Hunter) near the modern Cambodian town of Phumi Banam in the Prey Veng Province, may have been moved to Oc Eo at a later time. Most of what is known about Funan is from records by Chinese and Cham sources dating from the third to sixth centuries and from archaelogical excavations.


The race and language of the Funanese are not known, but Chinese records dating from the third century A.D reveals the same origin myth of the Khmer people that survives in modern Khmer folklore.In a tenth century document of the Chinese official Rang Tai’s visit to Funan in the middle of the third century A.D records one of the earliest variants of the legend. In it, Rang Tai learned that the original sovereign of Funan was a women name Liu-Ye. According to the story, Kaundinya had been given instruction in a dream to take a magic bow from a temple and to embark on a journey. He did so and went to Cambodia, where a local queen (Liu-ye) launched an attack on the Brahmin’s boat. With the aid of the divine bow, Kaundinya repelled the attack and persuaded the defeated queen to marry him. Their lineage became the royal dynasty of Funan.. A similar account is recorded in the seventh century History of Chin.

Although the Chinese records shows bias, similar names have been recorded in stone inscriptions at My Son dating to 657 A.D. In this Cham version, the prince is known as Kaudinya and the queen as Soma, the daughter of the naga king. A Khmer inscription from the tenth century described the ruling line as descendants of Sri-Kaudinya and the daughter of Soma. The same origin myth in modern Khmer folklore gives the name Preah Thaong to the prince and Neang Neak to the queen. In this version, Preah Thaong arrives by sea to an island marked by a giant thlok tree, native to Cambodia. On the Island, he found the home of the nagas and met Neang Neak, daughter of the naga king. He married her with blessing from her father and returned to the human world. The naga king drank the sea around the island and gave the name Kampuchea Thipdei, which in sanskrit (Kambuja Dhipati) translates ino the king of Kambuja. In another version, it is stated that Preah Thaong fights Neang Neak. The continuation of the same origin myth implies that modern Khmers are descendants of the Funanese people.

It is debatable who founded Funan. However, it is very unlikely that the empire was founded by Indian traders because they would likely not have had the knowledge needed to start an empire. It is thought Funan existed before Indianization but gained political power and territories through trade and cultural exchange with India. The first Khmer inscription dated shortly after the fall of Funan and those dating to later dates are concentrated in southern Cambodia suggests that the Khmers already inhabited lowland Cambodia.


Funan’s Empire at it’s greatest extent.The Funanese Empire reached its greatest extent under the rule of Fan Shih-man in the early third century C.E., extending as far south as Malaysia and as far west as Burma. The Funanese established a strong system of mercantilism and commercial monopolies that would become a pattern for empires in the region. Fan Shih-man expanded the fleet and improved the Funanese bureaucracy, creating a quasi-feudal pattern that left local customs and identities largely intact, particularly in the empire’s farther reaches.

Keeping in mind that the Funanese records does not survive into modern time, much of what is known is from archaeological excavation. Excavations had yield discoveries of brick wall structures, precious metals and pottery from southern Cambodia and Vietnam. Also found was a large canal system that linked the settlements of Angkor Borei and coastal outlets in the ports suggests a highly organized government. Funan, a complex and sophisticated society with a high population density, advance technology and a complex social system dominated the area of Cambodia because of the Khmer people’s ability to produce food in Cambodia’s fertile plains.


Funanese culture was a mixture of native beliefs and Indian ideas. The kingdom is said to have been heavily influenced by Indian culture, and to have employed Indians for state administration purposes. Sanskrit was the language at the court, and the Funanese advocated Hindu and, after the fifth century, Buddhist religious doctrines. Records show that taxes were paid in silver, gold, pearls, and perfumed wood. K’ang T’ai reported that the Funanese practiced slavery and that justice was rendered through trial by ordeal, including such methods as carrying a red-hot iron chain and retrieving gold rings and eggs from boiling water.

Archaeological evidence largely corresponds to Chinese records. the Chinese described the Funanese as people who lived on stilt houses, cultivated rice and sent tributes of gold, silver, ivory and exotic animals.

K’ang T’ai’s report was unflattering to Funanese civilization, though Chinese court records show that a group of Funanese musicians visited China in 263 C.E. The Chinese Emperor was so impressed that he ordered the establishment of an institute for Funanese music near Nanking. The Funanese were reported also to have extensive book collections and archives throughout their country, demonstrating a high level of scholarly achievement.


Funan was Southeast Asia’s first great economy. The Kingdom was rich because of trade and agriculture. Citizens lived relaxed lifestyles. The Funanese population was concentrated mainly along the Mekong River: the area was a natural region for the development of an economy based on fishing and rice cultivation. The Funanese economy depended on rice surpluses produced by an extensive inland irrigation system. Maritime trade also played an extremely important role in the development of Funan. Archaeological remnants of what was the kingdom’s main port, Oc Eo, were found to include Roman as well as Persian, Indian, and Greek artifacts.


King Fan Shih-man, the greatest king of Funan, and his successors sent ambassadors to China and India. The kingdom likely accelerated the process of Indianization into Southeast Asia. Later kingdoms of Southeast Asia emulated the Funanese court.

During its golden age Funan controlled modern southern Vietnam, Cambodia, central Thailand, northern Malaysia, and southern Burma. Although Funan collapsed under the pressure of neighboring Chenla, its capital Vyadhapura remained the largest and most important urban center in the region until Angkor Thom.

The Funan kingdom had an efficient navy and rose to prosperity by regulating the sea trade between China and India.
Funan collapsed in the sixth century and was absorbed by the Chenla kingdom who are undeniably Khmers. Funan is held to be the first Khmer kingdom and the forerunner of the mighty Khmer Empire. The Khmers and the Funanese share the same origin myth and under Funan, Cambodia became an indianized polity which had a profound effect on its culture.


Asia in 400 AD, showing Funan and its neighbors.The French historian George Coedès once hypothesized a relation between the rulers of Funan and the Sailendra dynasty of Indonesia. Coedès believed that the title of “mountain lord” used by the kings of Sailendra may also have been used by the kings of Funan, since the name “Funan” is related to the Khmer “phnom,” which means “mountain.” Other scholars have rejected this hypothesis, pointing to the lack of evidence in early Cambodian epigraphy for the use of any such titles. The Funanese also traded with the Liang dynasty of southern China.

Little is known about Funan’s political history apart from its relations with China. A brief conflict is recorded to have happened in the 270′s when Funan and its neighbor Champa joined forces to attack the Chinese province of Tongking, located in what is now modern Northern Vietnam. In 357, Funan became a vassal of China, and would continue as such until its disintegration in the sixth century. Chenla, a vassal of Funan eventually absorbed Funan entirely.

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