A brief history of Chenla, the Khmer successor to Funan that ruled over ancient Cambodia and evolved into the Angkorian civilization.

During the First Millennium CE, as the ancient maritime trade routes continued to prosper between China and India, they also spread the culture and beliefs of those cultural giants. This diffusion of culture would give rise to the early states of Funan, Dvaravati, and Srivijaya.

Following the rise of the first generations of Indianized states in Southeast Asia, the Chenla Empire dominated Cambodia and parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam from around the year 550 to the beginning of the 800s. They overthrew the preceding Funan Empire and continued to proliferate many of the same trade agenda and Hindu spiritual practices.

The Chenla Empire was predominantly an ethnically Khmer country that had strong trade relations with India and China. Chenla was ruled by strong leaders that encouraged healthy trade relations and expanded the tradition of monumental architecture that had first been introduced by the Funan Kingdom.

However, after years of peace, at the end of the 700s and the very beginning of the 800s CE, the Chenla Empire fell to the Javanese and was dissolved completely. For more about this mysterious ancient civilization, read on.

Who Are the Chenla People?

Chenla was the empire that succeeded the Funan Kingdom as the reigning party in ancient Cambodia. They ruled Cambodia and some portions of modern-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam from the 6th to 9th Centuries CE.

The Chenla were a group of indigenous Khmer people who absorbed the multicultural Funan people into their society. Scholars believe that, instead of being one large unified kingdom, the Chenla Empire was actually a series of widespread and loosely affiliated cities and provinces that each had their own unique way of ruling themselves independently.

It is during the Chenla period that the first records in Khmer begin to appear. This has led to the conclusion that Chenla was predominantly a Khmer society, being made up of the local indigenous population as the influence of Indianized culture spread further inland along the Mekong River and Tonle Sap lake trade routes.

Origins of the Chenla

The first recognition of Chenla as a somewhat-organized empire came from Chinese historical documents that held information about the Chenla Empire’s overthrow of Funan. These records first show the existence of the Chenla Empire around the year 550.

These documents also indicate that the first leader of the Chenla was a man named Bhavavarman the First, who helped conquer the Funan Empire and make the land that we now know as Cambodia into an empire of his own vision.

Name Origins of the Chenla

Much like the origins of the name of the Funan Empire, which the Chenla Empire overthrew, the origins of the word “Chenla” are unknown. Many scholars who study the region have differing ideas on the matter – some believe that the name comes from the Old Khmer language spoken at the time.

Other scholars believe that the name “Chenla” is simply the term used by the Chinese historians who took down notes about the people of the area when they were traveling throughout the region. There is a plentiful mystery that surrounds this region since there are very few internally-kept records of civilization.

Culture and Beliefs of the Chenla

Between a sparse collection of written records and their subsequent re-emergence as the Khmer Empire, many facets of the Chenla people remain in open debate. Comparatively little is known about their culture and belief systems. However, a few vital and interesting facts have made their way through the time that gives a glimpse at how these people lived their lives centuries ago.

Economics in Chenla

The economy of the Chenla Empire was based around agriculture – their largest crop was rice, which grows amply in the regions surrounding modern Cambodia. The production of this crop was boosted by the establishment of numerous irrigation systems for the rice paddies.

This rice is believed to have been the biggest export from the Chenla Empire, and it helped them draw in people from all around the world. Much like during the reign of the Funan Empire, many Indian tradespeople came through the region. Like their contemporaries in Dvaravati and Funan, evidence of European trade was also found in Chenla territory, although these would have been the result of long trade networks, not direct interaction with European nations.

Religion in Chenla

Because of the massive amount of trade that occurred in the Chenla region, ideas and knowledge were easily shared between the indigenous Khmer people of Chenla and the global tradespeople who arrived on their shores. India undoubtedly had the biggest spiritual influence on the empire.

Indian tradespeople brought both Hinduism and Buddhism, two religions that are thought to have existed harmoniously within the empire. Hinduism promoted devout worship of the gods Vishnu and Shiva, becoming the state religion behind which the rulers justified their authority. To a lesser degree, Buddhism prospered within the Chenla kingdom, as well as in neighboring states such as Srivijaya and Dvaravati.

Architecture of Chenla

Chenla architecture continued the Funan tradition of constructing brick and stone towers meant to honor the Hindu pantheon. These towers would eventually evolve into the Khmer Empire’s iconic prangs, which can still be seen at hundreds of Khmer sites around Southeast Asia. This architectural style of prangs would later be adopted by the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom, who would refine the monument even more, making it into their own iconic form of Buddhist stupa.

History of the Chenla Kingdom

The Chenla Empire was, much like the Funan Empire before them, a culturally rich and spiritually harmonious civilization that boasted fine agricultural goods as well as a multi-ethnic society. Chenla was most likely a loosely-established set of states, which may have contributed to the centuries of peace they experienced.

However, the Chenla Empire only lasted a few centuries. Eventually, they were weakened from both internal and external conflicts and were taken over by the Javanese. Soon after the Javanese invaded, Jayavarman, the Second, took over the throne and made the region a Khmer Empire.

There is so much mystery surrounding the Chenla Empire, but they were certainly a culturally rich and diverse empire with strong trade relations with India, China, and parts of Europe.

The Rise of the Chenla Kingdom

The rise of the Chenla Empire occurred in the 6th century when they overtook the Funan Empire and absorbed the Funan people into their society. It’s believed that Bhavavarman the First and his close relative Mahendravarman the First took advantage of the slow dissolution of the Funan Empire and struck when the opportunity presented itself.

Mahendravarman took over the role as king of the Chenla Empire after Bhavavarman passed away, and Mahendravarman became one of the most well-known kings in Southeast Asia.

Eventually, the empire was loosely divided into two portions – Water Chenla and Land Chenla.

As the names indicate, Water Chenla was the part of the empire that was closest to the sea, making them effective traders, while Land Chenla was the inland portion of the empire that focused on agriculture.

The Decline of the Chenla Kingdom

Much like the Funan Empire before them, the Chenla Empire is believed to have suffered internal and external challenges and conflicts. These conflicts came to a head when pirates from Java began to attack the most vulnerable areas of the Chenla Empire, particularly in the Water Chenla province.

Through these repeated attacks, the majority of the Chenla kings were killed. The Javanese pirates weakened the Chenla Empire so much that it was easy for a king from a distinctly Khmer region to take complete power.

In a Hindu ceremony at Kulen Mountain, near modern Siem Reap, this king proclaimed himself a devaraja (“god-king”) and assumed the name of Jayavarman the Second. Under this divine right, he unified the disparate Chenla city-states, consolidating them into the newly-formed Khmer Empire.

Geography of Chenla

The Chenla in Greater Southeast Asia

Growing out of the expanding Indosphere that began in the Mekong Delta, the Chenla Khmer arose alongside the nation of Champa in south-central Vietnam. The two cultures would become longtime adversaries, a dynamic which would outlive the Chenla Kingdoms and into the era of the Khmer Empire.

Chenla settlemens expanded into southern Laos and Northeastern Thailand (Isaan), where some of the region’s oldest Khmer monuments still stand today. The people engaged in trade with the neighboring Dvaravati kingdoms that inhabited Central Thailand and had begun expanding into Isaan as well.

The Chenla in India

There was a massive influence of Indian culture and spirituality on the people of the Chenla Empire. This was because of the vast amount of trade that occurred between the two regions. The Funan Empire that preceded the Chenla Empire was viewed as an “Indianized” civilization, meaning that they took on many aspects of Indian culture and made their own.

Along with Indian material goods such as silks and spices, the Hindu religion and the cultural ideals of Indian people were established upon the Chenla just as they were on the Funan people before them. This includes the use of Sanskrit, an ancient scholarly and religious language.

The Chenla in China

Because China is relatively close to what was once the Chenla region of the world, the two participated in trade with one another regularly. Much like they did with India, the Chenla Empire had a cordial relationship with China at the time. However, the Chenla Empire sent far more ambassadors to China than they did to India, likely because of the closer proximity.

What Happened to the Chenla?

At the very beginning of the 9th century, Chenla crumbled under both internal and external pressure. Much like with the Funan Empire, the Chenla Empire was weakened through internal divisions and power struggles. This led to an opening in their defenses.

A large group of Javanese pirates was able to break through Water Chenla by attacking at the shoreline and then were able to defeat Land Chenla after that. The Khmer King Jayavarman, the Second, took over and established the Khmer Empire.

Cities of the Chenla Kingdom

Shrestapura (Champasak)
Champasak, Laos
GPS: 14.85314, 105.8704

Sambor Prei Kuk
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.8719, 105.04328

Monuments of the Chenla

Prasat Tao
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.86656, 105.03949

Prasat Yeay Poan
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.86556, 105.04186

Praying Rain Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.86944, 105.04367

Asram Eisei Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.87224, 105.04261

Daem Chan Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.87241, 105.04358

Daem Chrei Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.87254, 105.04206

N19 Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.87331, 105.04349

Bos Ream Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.87805, 105.04445

Sandan Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.876, 105.04528

Chramouh Chrouk Temple
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
GPS: 12.87445, 105.04494

Vat Phou
Champasak, Laos
GPS: 14.84917, 105.81363

Prasat Phum Phon
Surin, Thailand
GPS: 14.548, 103.8765

Prasat Muang Teui
Yasothon, Thailand
GPS: 15.63997, 104.25809

Fast Facts

Name: Chenla
Origin: Khmer kingdoms which absorbed Indianized culture and overthrew the existing Funan Kingdom.
Language: Khmer
Religion: Hinduism
Period/Era: c. 500-800 CE
Location: Cambodia and nearby territories.
Capital: Shestrapura (modern Champasak, Laos)
Decline: Broken apart due to various conflicts until re-unified by Jayavarman II, who founded the Khmer Empire.

Glossary

Angkor
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern day Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ayutthaya Kingdom
Thai kingdom based in central Thailand, later referred to as Siam. Its capital was the city of Ayutthaya until the city was destroyed by the Burmese, forcing the state of Siam to relocate to modern Bangkok and found the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Cham
Austronesian ethnic group native to Southeast Asia that once controlled the Hindu Champa civilization in the region of modern Vietnam. Today, the Cham people are a minority in Vietnam and largely practice Islam.

Champa
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.

Chenla Kingdom
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.

devaraja
Southeast “God-king” who was imbued with the divine right to rule the earthly realm.

Dvaravati
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.

Funan Kingdom
Early mainland Southeast Asian culture (1st-6th Centuries CE) which grew along the Mekong Delta coast with influence from the China-India maritime trades routes. Funan was among the first regional cultures to adopt an Indianized society.

Hinduism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.

Indianization
A culture adopting Indian culture, religion, and social structures.

Isaan
Common name for the northeastern region of Thailand.

Khmer
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Mekong Delta
Low-lying river delta making up much of southern Vietnam where the Mekong River meets the Pacific Ocean.

Mekong River
The world’s 12th longest river, which flows from the Himalayas through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vetnam, into the Pacific Ocean.

prang
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.

prasat
Thai and Khmer word meaning “castle”, “tower”, or “temple” most often used in reference to Khmer stone prangs and ruins, and occasionally for Thai brick stupas.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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