The Principalities of Chenla Kingdom
Those who visit the Angkorian Temples in Siem Reap, remain in admiration of a glorious past. For many, it is an unexpected event in a country that is at the bottom of the poorest of Asia, with a troublesome time of wars and conflicts right few decades ago. How is it possible that this 11th century wonders seem to be unknown in the rest of the world, when they keep the same grandeur of more famous ancient treasures in Egypt, Middle East, China, South America and Europe?
Definitively, the Temples of Angkor – thousands of them spread from Siem Reap Province to the four cardinal directions of an ancient Empire – are the remains of a great history and great histories are made by great people. The Khmers of today, striving to overcome poverty in many ways, are descendants of that mysterious time where Cambodia was one of the leading powers of East Asia Pacific.
But the Angkorian Temples did not emerge from night to day. It is much before in time that we can trace the seeds of that golden time of the Khmer civilization, the same that is the root or main influencer of modern societies like Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. In order to understand the cause of those beautiful temples, we should go even more back in time, much older than the 11th century, to a mysterious epoch in the Indochina Peninsula of hidden Barons, principalities and the encounter of religions, traditions and peoples to form a political unity in Angkor and the continuity of what is today Cambodia.
In our time machine we must arrived at least to the 5th century, in the confluence between the Funan and Chenla kingdoms, political unities that produce more questions than answers. It is only knowing Funan and its later successor Chenla, that we can understand the existence of the Angkorian Empire of the 9th to 15th centuries.
In that travel of time, back at the Khmer civilization beginnings, we will discover that the Chenla Kingdom is not only the immediate ancestor of Angkor, but also that its influence reaches us in what is today the modern Cambodian mentality and the cultural contributions of the Khmers to humanity through their architecture, music, traditions, religions and wisdom. As Chandler concludes:
Hence ‘Angkor’ has come to stand for the whole imperial achievement of the Khmers in the period of their greatness. What began as a constellation of small principalities has in modern times become a community, a people. (Mabbet and Chandler, 1995, p. 12)
Let us go back in time, before the glory of the Empire, when the Khmer principalities were vassals of the Chinese and Malays, but slowly moving to create a great civilization by their own.
In order to understand the history and traditions of Asian civilizations, it is necessary to take distance from our Western assumptions and ideas of what we think is a State, as well as – in a more modern term – concepts like democracy, freedom or participation. When we compare European kingdoms with their Asian counterparts, many things will not operate in the same way and logic, as it is about comparing languages:
Historians of Southeast Asia often face problems in using terms drawn from and applicable to European polities and societies to refer to non-European equivalents that do not conform to European models (Stuart-Fox, 1994).
In the case of the origins of the Cambodian modern state and its Southeast Asian neighbors, we have to deep in the Sanskrit idea of Maṇḍala. It is one of the keys to understand what the Chenla “Kingdom” was about.
In our modern conception of what is a State, country or region, we get in our mind strict lines crossing territories, integrating features and cutting or including areas that belong to our human social pacts. It was not same with this interesting concept of the Maṇḍala, which in Sanskrit translates “Circle”. In Southeast Asia, the Mandala created a political division around a center of progress, rather associated to agricultural capacity or water sources. Many so call ancient Southeast Asian “kingdoms” overlapped with others as a game of rings over the territory, gaining control one to another and changing relations of power from time to time, as the resources and influence changed also.
In resume, the power of a monarch went to the maximum extension of his resources and the encounter with another some kilometers away.
We start with a difficult question: Was there a Kingdom we can call ‘Chenla’? Certainly, we can refer to Chenla as a particular time of the Khmer history and all scholars coincide that in what is today Cambodia, there was a certain political entity between the middle of the 6th to the late 9th century. But the name ‘Chenla’ or ‘Zhēnlà’ (in Khmer ចេនឡា) is not properly a native denomination either, but it is a name given by Chinese sources as it is stated by Chandler (1995, p. 79). I argue that such name could be rather an attempt of Chinese dynasties to claim influence and even sovereignty over ancient Khmer principalities, since ‘Chen’ is the same word for Chinese in Khmer language (ចិន) and ‘la’ could have any meaning of connection to China (Rodas, 2015, p. 4).
However, a certain continuity in a royal succession, that is not always constant or logic, gives the impression of a gradual unification of the Khmer tribes or principalities, going from the disappearance of the Funan dynasties to the consolidation of the Angkor time. It is likely possible that those kings did not have a real great power comparable to their descendants in Angkor, but in this regard it is necessary to understand the way of authority in the Cambodian culture strictly linked to religion and specifically to Sikhism. According to the studies of Vickery, we have a main political unity as for the 6th to 8th century around a center of power that splits in two:
So much for the location of Chenla; now what was it? Was Chenla ever a unitary state? Chinese writing about it thought it was. They considered that there was a state of Funan which was replaced by a state of Chenla in the 6th or early 7th century, and that Chenla split into two states, Land and Water Chenla, in the 8th century (Vickery, 1994, p. 11).
However, we should not forget that we are relying in Chinese sources and thus external to the same Khmer civilization and China could see unity where there was a sum of principalities probably in conflict around the royal succession. The regular change of capital could be hold as an evidence that such unity was not peaceful, as well as the succession of kings from different branches. May be that those kings were nothing more than barons ruling over their villages?
The same real unity of Bhavapura, known by Chinese sources as Funan, is under discussion. The old Empire that lasted since the 1st to the 6th century in the Indochina Peninsula, could be rather an extension of several tribes of different ethnicities and even linguistic groups that Chinese visitors saw as a single kingdom. In the same way, Chenla could be a continuity of this Funan that was, so far, more extended than what was Chenla, although there are some evidences of Chenla’s kings acting as successors of the old Funan like king Isanavarman I (616 – 635), who continued sending embassies to China as Funan.
Creating a list of Chenla kings is not easy due to the many gaps in history and the problem of genealogies and inscriptions. However, there is a list of 11 monarchs, including some queens, where Jayavedi (690-713) is the most important. She stands between the great Javarman I and a difficult time that some scholars think was a time of chaos and disputes for succession, making Chinese sources to conclude that there was a division of the kingdom in two: Land Chenla at the northwest of today Cambodia and Water Chenla at its south. Scholars like Vickery doubt about this division:
What, then, was the political situation of the eighth century? It was certainly not anarchy, fragmentation, and absence of rulers. In spite of the lack of inscriptions, and although we do not have the names of any of the rulers between Jayadevī in 713 and Jayavarman II in 770, except for the queens or princesses of Śambhupura (K 124), the steady investment in art and architecture (Briggs, 1951: 76-78; Coedès, 1964: 1778-9, 1968: 94; Pottier) proves the contrary (Vickery, 1994, p. 15).
Contrary to that idea of chaos and conflicts, the 8th century shows not violent events but big constructions over the territory as prove of a great activity and an active civilization. As Chandler argues, weather those city-states were few or many ‘they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan; their masters could afford to live in style, and their wise men could plumb the secrets of Sanskrit religious texts’ (Mabbet and Chandler, 1995, p. 85).
The absence of inscriptions for this “chaotic” period, while proving a great time of architectural production, makes this 8th century very interesting and mysterious. Did the people keep on going while waiting a new great ruler? It was properly the waiting room of a biggest and strongest period of political and cultural unity: Angkor. It was, by sure, a not passive waiting at all. Probably, the influence of foreign lords played their rule during that century.
Studying the history and traditions of Southeast Asian countries, it is necessary to understand how their peoples see their own culture and civilizations, in such a way that we should not apply Western concepts to compare with an Asian, Buddhist and Hindu context. An example is the idea of Kingdom or State that in this case has its own definition as the Maṇḍala (Circle). The Chen-la “Kingdom” is, evidently, a Hindu Mandala with several princes holding authority around certain territories, maybe around water sources. Many of those Mandalas were small and it is possible that several lords or kings were nothing more than feuds of local areas.
Those who are interesting in the grandeur of the Angkorian Civilization, something that still shining today as a great archeological site, cannot omit to pay a look to its deep root starting from one millennium before (1st to 8th century), first with Funan and second with Chen-la. It is a very impressive and mysterious time, probably of peace and great constructions, but also local conflicts and tensions with foreign powers like Sumatra.
There is much to see, to study and to discover in Cambodia today. That is precisely the most important part, the hope to continue discovering new things, to reveal more things that are hidden and waiting for the lovers of science to go deep into the time and territory.
- Dumarçay and Royére (2001). Cambodian Architecture: Eight to Thirteen Centuries. Edited by Michael Smithies. Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2001. ISBN 90-04-11346-0
- O’Reilly & Jacques (1990). Early Civilizations of Southeast Asia. December 21, 2005.
- Mabbet, Ian and David Chandler (1995). The Khmers. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1995. ISBN 0- 631-17582-2.
- Stuart-Fox, Martin (1994). Conflicting conceptions of the state: Siam, France and Vietnam in the late nineteenth century. Journal of the Siam Society (Siam Heritage Trust). JSS Vol. 82.0.
- Rodas, Albeiro (2015). Sambor Prei Kuk: The Center of an Ancient Kingdom. Essay for Coursera ‘English Composition I’. Kep City, July 21, 2015.
- Vickery, Michael (1994). What and Where was Chenla? Recherches nouvelles sur le Cambodge. Publiées sous la direction de F. Bizot. École française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris, 1994
Area of Inquiry / Focus: History and Archeology.
Potential Case Study: Research about the Chenla Kingdom (Cambodia, Southeast Asia).
Mabbet, Ian and David Chandler (1995). The Khmers. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1995. ISBN 0- 631-17582-2.
Mabbet and Chandler have written extensively about the Southeast Asian cultures and especially about the Khmers. In The Khmers, they make a very well summary of authors and researches about the origins of the peoples of what is today Cambodia, pointing out the main problems and limits in particular times such as the Chenla period (6th to 9th century AD).
Vickery, Michael (1994). What and Where was Chenla? Recherches nouvelles sur le Cambodge. Publiées sous la direction de F. Bizot. École française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris, 1994
Vickery is very much strict in investigation and has worked with original sources such as inscriptions. The same as with Mabbet and Chandler, he knows very well the work of other scholars, including the elder ones such as researches made during the 19th century and early 20th century, mostly in French.