From the 1st to 6th centuries AD, southern Vietnam was part of the Indianized Cambodian kingdom of Funan – famous for its refined art and architecture. Known as Nokor Phnom to the Khmers, this kingdom was centered on the walled city of Angkor Borei, near modern-day Takeo. The Funanese constructed an elaborate system of canals both for transportation and the irrigation of rice. The principal port city of Funan was Oc-Eo in the Mekong Delta and archaeological excavations here tell us of contact between Funan and China, Indonesia, Persia and even the Mediterranean.

After the A.D. 1st century complex polities began emerging in what is now Cambodia. The most powerful of these was known as Funan by the Chinese, and may have existed across an area between Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province and Oc-Eo in Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. Funan was a contemporary of Champasak in southern Laos (then known as Kuruksetra) and other lesser fiefdoms in the region. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Funan was the first large Southeast Asian civilization. It was centered on the lower Mekong Delta in present-day Cambodia and Vietnam and stretched into Thailand, and, possibly, Malaysia. Funan lasted from the A.D. 1st century to 7th century. Archeologists are still not sure where the Funanese capital was. They are currently excavating a site at Angkor Borei in Cambodia, which they think may have been it. Funan is a Chinese name, and it may be a transliteration of the ancient Khmer word bnam (mountain). What the Funanese called themselves, however, is not known. Although very little is known about Funan, much has been made of its importance as an early Southeast Asian centre of power.

Even the Chinese, who considered most everyone around them to be Barbarians, marveled over Funan's treasures of gems and gold. Funan was a convenient stopover point for Hindu traders on their way to China. The Funanese were in power when Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to Southeast Asia.

Funan, the earliest of the Indianized states in Southeast Asia, generally is considered by Cambodians to have been the first Khmer kingdom in the area. Its capital, Vyadhapura, probably was located near the present-day town of Phumi Banam in Prey Veng Province. The earliest historical reference to Funan is a Chinese description of a mission that visited the country in the third century A.D. Funan reached its zenith in the fifth century A.D.. Beginning in the early sixth century, civil wars and dynastic strife undermined Funan's stability, making it relatively easy prey to incursions by hostile neighbors. By the end of the seventh century, a northern neighbor, the kingdom of Chenla, had reduced Funan to a vassal state. [Library of Congress]

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The Fu Nan culture flourished in the Mekong River delta in southern Viet Nam and was a center of Southeast Asian trade between the first and fifth century. This period saw an increase in international trade from the Mediterranean to China. Westerners sought the gold of the East, and with the development of more advanced sailing ships that harnessed the power of the monsoon winds, transoceanic travel became possible. Few details are known about the Fu Nan people; however, it is evident that they were a technically advanced seafaring people with the means to participate in trade on a large scale. One third-century source describes their ships as two hundred feet long and able to carry seven hundred men and an extensive cargo. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

The Funan Empire collapsed in the 6th century, under the pressure of the vassal state, Kambuja to the north of Cambodia. One of the kings, Icanavarman I, based his capital at Sambor Prei Kuk (30 kilometers northeast of present-day Kompong Thom in Cambodia).

Funan Culture

During the first century A.D., when Rome ruled the Mediterranean, the Funanese traded widely, established a wonderful tradition of Hindu-influenced art and architecture, and became skilled goldsmiths and jewelers. They also built an irrigation system, impressive even by today's standards, and used an extensive network of canals for both transportation and agriculture.

Funan was essentially an Indian civilization set in Southeast Asia. Ruled by Hindu rulers and influenced by the culture of the Indian Pallava kingdom, it absorbed of Indian concepts of jurisprudence, astronomy, literature and universal kingship. The Sanskrit language was used in Funan courts. It gave birth to the first writing system and inscriptions used in Southeast Asia.

Most of what historians know about Funan has been gleaned from Chinese sources. According to Lonely Planet: These report that Funan-period Cambodia (1st to 6th centuries AD) embraced the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism. The linga (phallic totem) appears to have been the focus of ritual and an emblem of kingly might, a feature that was to evolve further in the Angkorian cult of the god-king. The people practised primitive irrigation, which enabled successful cultivation of rice, and traded raw commodities such as spices with China and India. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Indianization was fostered by increasing contact with the subcontinent through the travels of merchants, diplomats, and learned Brahmans (Hindus of the highest caste traditionally assigned to the priesthood). Indian immigrants, believed to have arrived in the fourth and the fifth centuries, accelerated the process. By the fifth century, the elite culture was thoroughly Indianized. Court ceremony and the structure of political institutions were based on Indian models. The Sanskrit language was widely used; the laws of Manu, the Indian legal code, were adopted; and an alphabet based on Indian writing systems was introduced. [Library of Congress]

Cambodia's modem-day culture has its roots in Funan. It is from this period that evolved Cambodia's language, part of the Mon-Khmer family, which contains elements of Sanskrit, its ancient religion of Hinduism and Buddhism. Historians have noted, for example, that Cambodians can be distinguished from their neighbors by their clothing - checkered scarves known as Kramas are worn instead of straw hats. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Funan Government and Economy

According to the Library of Congress: Funan emerged in the second century B.C. as the earliest and most significant power in Southeast Asia. Its Hindu ruling class controlled all of present-day Cambodia and extended its power to the center of modern Thailand. The Funan economy was based on maritime trade and a well-developed agricultural system; Funan maintained close commercial contact with India and served as a base for the Brahman merchant-missionaries who brought Hindu culture to Southeast Asia. [Source: Library of Congress]

Funan traded with the Mediterranean, Persia, India, China and Indonesia. At the Funanese site of Oc-Eo in Vietnam Roman artifacts (including a gold medallion dated at A.D. 152) have been found as well as a seal rings with Sanksit inscriptions, a life-size Hindu statue, gems, crystal beads, a gold bell, and gold-and-sapphire rings.

Modern-day archaeological findings provide evidence of a commercial society centered on the Mekong Delta that flourished from the 1st century to the 6th century. Among these findings are excavations of a port city from the 1st century, located in the region of Oc-Eo in what is now southern Vietnam. Served by a network of canals, the city was an important trade link between India and China. Ongoing excavations in southern Cambodia have revealed the existence of another important city near the present-day village of Angkor Borei.

During the Funan period the population was probably concentrated in villages along the Mekong River and along the Tonle Sab River below the Tonle Sap. Traffic and communications were mostly waterborne on the rivers and their delta tributaries. The area was a natural region for the development of an economy based on fishing and rice cultivation. There is considerable evidence that 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. The remains of what is believed to have been the kingdom's main port, Oc Eo (now part of Vietnam), contain Roman as well as Persian, Indian, and Greek artifacts. [Library of Congress]

By the fifth century A.D., the state exercised control over the lower Mekong River area and the lands around the Tonle Sap. It also commanded tribute from smaller states in the area now comprising northern Cambodia, southern Laos, southern Thailand, and the northern portion of the Malay Peninsula. [Library of Congress]


In the 6th and 7th centuries Funan was weakened by civil wars and absorbed by the pre-Khmer civilization of Chenla (Zhenla). Chenla endured for around 200 years. In the 8th century it split into two kingdoms. Lower Chenla was located east of Tonle Sap. Upper Chenla extended from the northern shore of Tonle Sap northward up the Mekong River into southern Laos. Chenla was conquered by Khmers.

From the 6th century, Cambodia’s population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, where the majority remains today. The move may have been related to the development of wet-rice agriculture. From the 6th to 8th centuries it was likely that Cambodia was a collection of competing kingdoms, ruled by autocratic kings who legitimised their absolute rule through hierarchical caste concepts borrowed from India.

This era is generally referred to as the Chenla period. Again, like Funan, it is a Chinese term and there is little to support the idea that Chenla was a unified kingdom that held sway over all of Cambodia. Indeed, the Chinese themselves referred to ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Chenla’. Water Chenla was located around Angkor Borei and the temple mount of Phnom Da, near the present-day provincial capital of Takeo, and land Chenla in the upper reaches of the Mekong River and east of Tonlé Sap Lake, around Sambor Prei Kuk, an essential stop on a chronological jaunt through Cambodia’s history.

Chenla flourished from southern Cambodia to southern Laos. The first stone inscriptions in the Khmer language and the first brick and stone Hindu temples in Cambodia date from the Chenla period. Little archeological evidence exist on Funan or Chenla. Most of what is known about them is based on Chinese texts. Many historian now think they were relatively minor states and the only reason they were mentioned in Chinese texts is because they paid tribute to the China. States that may have been more powerful but didn’t pay tributes were not mentioned.

King Mahendravarman reigned form 607 to 616 over Chenla. He was a son of a king. The century following the death of Jayavarman I, the last known king of the kingdom, in the second half of the 7th century, was a dark period in the history of Chenla. According to a Chinese accounts, in the 8th century, the country of Chenla was divided into land and water Chenlas. The obscurity prevails and this monument might be neglected thereafter. The history. However, is traced again with the accession of Jayavarman II, who founded a new polity that is now referred as Angkor in the beginning of 9th century.

Impact of the Chenla

The people of Chenla also were Khmer. Once they established control over Funan, they embarked on a course of conquest that continued for three centuries. They subjugated central and upper Laos, annexed portions of the Mekong Delta, and brought what are now western Cambodia and southern Thailand under their direct control. [Library of Congress]

The royal families of Chenla intermarried with their Funanese counterparts and generally preserved the earlier political, social, and religious institutions of Funan. In the eighth century A.D., however, factional disputes at the Chenla court resulted in the splitting of the kingdom into rival northern and southern halves. According to Chinese chronicles, the two parts were known as Land (or Upper) Chenla and Water (or Lower) Chenla. Land Chenla maintained a relatively stable existence, but Water Chenla underwent a period of constant turbulence. [Library of Congress]

Funan and Chenla gave way to the Angkor Empire with the rise to power of King Jayavarman II in 802. Late in the eighth century A.D., Water Chenla was subjected to attacks by pirates from Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula. By the beginning of the ninth century, it had apparently become a vassal of the Sailendra dynasty of Java. The last of the Water Chenla kings allegedly was killed around A.D. 790 by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended. The ultimate victor in the strife that followed was the ruler of a small Khmer state located north of the Mekong Delta. His assumption of the throne as Jayavarman II (ca. A.D. 802-50) marked the liberation of the Khmer people from Javanese suzerainty and the beginning of a unified Khmer nation. [Library of Congress]

Funan Art

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "More than three hundred Fu Nan archeological sites have been identified in the Mekong Delta region; these sites are characterized by domestic architecture built on stilts, terracotta wares and buff-colored ceramics, gold jewelry, and Buddhist and Hindu architecture and sculpture. A preponderance of imagery from this region is associated with the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu, and several examples are on view here. Extensive excavations of the city of Oc Eo have yielded rich local artifacts and a few examples of international contact, including Roman coins and jewelry, Chinese sculpture, and Indian beads. The dominant position of the Fu Nan people in international trade fell significantly by the sixth century and then came to a halt around 650." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

Describing an Ekamukhalinga from the 6th century Tingley wrote: "The Hindu god Shiva is frequently worshipped in his linga (phallus) form, which according to ritual texts signifies Shiva’s highest level of being. This is an example of an ekamukhalinga, or one-faced linga. The linga is generally installed in the garbhagrha ("womb," or central, chamber) of the temple, and is the primary object of worship for devotees of Shiva. The form of the linga is divided into three sections, a square section that alludes to Brahma the Creator; an octagonal section, to Vishnu the Preserver; and the cylindrical upper portion, to Shiva the Destroyer." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society, found at the Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province; now in Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5532]

Describing Three Intaglio made from carnelian and crystal from the 6th century, Tingley wrote: "These intaglios, along with Indian inscribed gems, cameos, and Roman medallions, attest to the cosmopolitanism of Oc Eo. The use of carnelian for stone seals was common in the western ancient world. A close look at these carnelian intaglios reveals that they were produced with a rotary abrasive tool, which creates a round edge at the end of a cut. In contrast, the crystal intaglio was more coarsely carved with a chisel, and was probably made at a different location. Several similar crystal examples with figures seated in the posture of royal ease were excavated at Oc Eo." [Source: ** found at Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 2248, BTLS 2258, BTLS 2253]

Describing a stone lintel from the late 7th century, Tingley wrote: " The lintel of a Southeast Asian temple, positioned above the doorway, served as the sculptural focus for the temple’s entrance and provided a large surface for deep relief carving. The lintel framed the image of the primary deity inside and was one of the first views the devout had of the building. As in this example, early lintels often included a curved arch that imitated wooden prototypes." [Source: ** found at Thuy Lieu Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5977 ]

Bronzes combine elements of indigenous animism with tantricism. Buddhism. Describing a bronze Vishnu from the 7th century, Tingley wrote: "Vishnu was the most popular Hindu god during the Fu Nan period, and four-armed images of him are abundant throughout the Mekong Delta region. In these images, he holds a conch (a symbol of the origin of existence); a mace, which also serves to support the figure in this example; a clod of earth; and a wheel (a symbol of power), broken here. The long dhoti he wears recalls earlier images of Vishnu, but also suggests Pallava south Indian influences. The silvery patina of this piece reveals that the bronze is of high tin content, which is typical of Southeast Asian bronzes. The large hands and the backward thrust of the second pair of upper arms are also common in sculpture of this early period." [Source: ** found at the Tan Phu site, Tan Hoi Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 1585]

Describing Three Elephants made of gold sheet from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "The site of Go Xoai, excavated in 1987, included a square brick temple measuring approximately 50 feet (15.4 meters) on all sides. The temple contained a smaller structure in its western section. In this secondary structure, the excavator found a hole filled with white sand and ash, as well as a thin inscribed gold leaf text; inlaid jewelry; and tortoise, snake, eight elephants, and a number of lotuses all in gold repoussé. The dedication of a temple in Southeast Asia was an important religious and secular event that involved the practice of burying gold and other precious objects in the foundation. The Agni Purana, an Indian text of which the Southeast Asians were aware, states that a tortoise and five objects of cosmological significance were to be buried in the base of the temple." [Source: ** found at the Go Xoai site, Duc Hoa District, Long An Province; now in the Long An Museum, BT87-M1-I-3]

Describing a stone Surya from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "Surya, the sun god, is an important generative force derived from Indian Vedic and other solar deities. When portrayed without his chariot and attendants, he can be distinguished by the two lotuses he holds and his heavy clothing. Early images of Surya have been found in many areas of Southeast Asia. His importance derives not only from his independent identity as sun god, but also from his close association with the Hindu god Vishnu. In this sculpture, Surya’s headdress recalls that of Vishnu, although this headdress has an octagonal form, rather than the more common circular shape." [Source: ** at the Ba The Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5527]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

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