A brief history of Funan, the first Indianized civilization in mainland Southeast Asia built upon the coastal India-China trade routes.

The Funan Kingdom was was an ancient Asian civilization that existed in the southern regions of Cambodia, along with some portions of modern-day Thailand and Vietnam. As the precursor to almost all later mainland Indianized societies in the area, Funan was a culturally rich empire that encouraged cross-cultural trade, particularly with Chinese and Indian merchants.

Funan was first grand ancient society of mainland Southeast Asia and was centered in the region that is now known as Cambodia, particularly around the area of the Mekong Delta. The Funan states was dominated by talented artists and skilled tradespeople who influenced the world around them, and directly gave rise to the subsequent regional powerhouses of Champa and Angkor.

Who Are the Funan?

The Funan Kingdom was an economically and culturally rich country that flourished in the Mekong Delta and Southern Cambodia from the 1st to 6th centuries CE. Developing along maritime trade routes, Funan was heavily influenced by Chinese and Indian ideologies.

Due to their strategic location along the India-China trade routes, Funan developed as the first major Indianized civilization in mainland Southeast Asia. The Funan Empire itself also had a productive trade relationship with mainland China. Many of the records that remain to this day about the Funan Empire are all from Chinese tradespeople who ventured to Funan to exchange material goods.

Origins of the Funan Kingdom

Both the ethnicity and the origins of the Funan people remains a matter of open debate among archaeologists. The most likely candidates are peoples from either the Mon-Khmer or the Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, as it is these two people groups who would go on to become the successive Cham and Khmer cultures. There are also some suggestions that the Funan may have been Tai peoples, though this is not given much support, given their much later migration from Southern China.

That said, It is unknown when the people of this region migrated to the area – researchers have been able to carbon-date the remains of inhabitants of this area of the world as far back as 4000 BCE, although this would not have been the Funan culture at that time. However, records from Chinese historians definitively indicate that trade relations with Funan people began around the 1st century.

Chinese sources relate that a man named Huntian established the Funan state around the 1st century. Much speculation that surrounds the identity of Huntian as well as his origins, but his title as the founder of Funan remains unwavering.

Name Origins

The name “Funan” is likely not what the empire called itself back in the 1st through 6th centuries. The origins of the name “Funan” is widely debated by historians who study ancient culture. The most accepted consensus is that “Funan” is likely an exonym given by Chinese tradespeople and historians to the people and culture of the region.

When Funan was founded, the state or culture likely had its own name in its own language, however, that name has been lost to time along with the spoken language of the Funan people. The most likely candidates of the Funan language are Sanskrit, along with a variation of Khmer, which is the main language of the Cambodian people today.

The most common theory is that Funan is a Chinese transliteration of the Khmer word “Phnom”,  meaning hill or mountain. This word is seen in many place names in Cambodia and neighboring areas to this day, including the modern nation’s capital, Phnom Penh.

In Khmer, Funan is known as Nokor Phnom.

Culture and Beliefs of the Funan

Evidence of the reign of one particular ethnic group in Funan is sparse. Many scholars argue about the Funan Empire’s cultural background. Some speculate that, because of its location as a meeting point for Chinese tradespeople, Indian explorers, and indigenous Cambodian people, Funan was a multicultural and multi-ethnic empire.

During its history among the first generations of Indianized states in Southeast Asia, Funan was so unique because it was a country ostensibly occupied by many cultures, including Indian and Chinese people, along with the indigenous peoples of the Funan region. The religions and spiritual practices of the area were also mixed, with animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism all likely being present.

Government in the Funan Culture

No firsthand written records exist providing details of the governmental structure of Funan. Chinese records refer to Funan as a unified empire, but archaeological evidence suggests it was more likely a loosely allied confederation of Indianized city-states.

There is obvious evidence of cooperation and organized labor between the otherwise separate cities. They shared very similar beliefs, as demonstrated by the relatively uniform religious monuments and artifacts found among the excavation sites, as well as other sites they traded with (such as the Dvaravati).

However, perhaps the most impressive testament to the societal organization of Funan was its intricate system of canals stretching hundreds of kilometers through the low-lying Mekong Delta, connecting cities further inland to the coast. For the time and resources available, this canal infrastructure was remarkably well done, so much so that most of these canals are still in use today in southern Vietnam.

Economics in the Funan Culture

The Funan Empire was located at an strategic economic location in Southeast Asia. At that time, oceangoing vessels needed to remain close to the coast, not faring as well in open water. Because the Chinese trade vessel came from the North and Indian from the west, Funan was well-placed to be an access point for trade between all three regions.

The fact that Chinese scholars wrote the vast amount of historical records on the Funan region is a testament to how frequently the Chinese traveled to Funan for trade. It is thought that the people of Funan were widely respected in China, particularly by the emperor himself throughout many generations.

Religion in the Funan Culture

Like much of the other information about Funan, there is a bit of mystery surrounding their religion and spiritual practices, but the Funan people likely practiced spiritual traditions that were common to the area at that time.

Much like most indigenous religions worldwide, the early Funan people were thought to be animists, meaning that they believed that spirits occupied all aspects of creation, and viewed the world with a sense of reverence. Such beliefs can still be found in pockets of native communities around the globe, including many of the minority ethnic grroups still present in mainland Southeast Asia.

Because of their location in the world, it is likely that some Funan people also practiced Buddhism and Hinduism, which were imported through contact with foreign peoples. Trade relations with China (and to a lesser extent, India), are likely to have introduced Buddhist teachings from that region; while the same goes for Hindu teachings from Indian tradespeople.

Strong evidence exists for the proliferation of Hindu culure and societal organization throughout Funan territory.

History of the Funan

Early Rise of the Funan Culture

No archaeological evidence exists surrounding a definitive founding of the Funan cultture. As previously mentioned, the Funan Empire is believed to have been founded by a man named Huntian. The Chinese historical Book of Lian indicates that Huntian likely came from Malaysia or Indonesia and claimed the land and married the queen who ruled in the area.

Some sources in Sanskrit lead scholars to believe that Huntian may have been an Indian sage named Kaundinya, who could have traveled from India to claim the land of Funan as his own.

Decline of the Funan Culture

After centuries of cultural, political, and technological prosperity, the Funan culture began to crumble in the 6th century. Though archeological research indicates that their cities were filled with complex and diverse social dynamics that suggest a strong empire, the Funan Empire fell.

The fall began when the leaders of the empire began to shuffle and rearrange important ports where they launched their naval fleet. Because of this new weakness, the empire was easily absorbed by an invasion by the nearby Chenla Kingdom, ruled by the Khmer indigenous group.

Geography of the Funan Kingdom

Funan was based in the very low-lying Mekong Delta. This area is crisscrossed with natural waterways all branching off the Mekong River as it ends its long journey into the Pacific Ocean. Most of the the Funan settlements are located near small rocky outcroppings with dominate the surrounding flat landscapes. It’s on these hills (“phnom”) where most of the ancient Funan sacred sites were located.

Surrounding these settlements, the Funan people not only made use of the existing natural waterways to navigate inland from the coast, they also constructed hundreds of kilometers of canals throughout the soft delta soils. These ancient Funan canals connected their city-states which each other, and many are still in use today, allowing fishermen and rice farmers in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and southern Cambodia to easily conduct their local trade and lifestyles.

The Funan Kingdom in Southeast Asia

Funan was the precursor to nearly all the later Indianized cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia. For much of their existence, they were contemporaries of the Dvaravati in modern Thailand, and many of their goods have been found in Dvaravati sites, such as at Chansen.

The Funan state was also a major conduit of Indianized culture into the rest of the region, giving rise to both the Khmer and Cham societies, which would institute their own empires based around the concept of Hindu God-Kings (devaraja). The establishment of these later empires would mark the end of Funan influence.

The Funan Kingdom in India

Because of the records kept in India from people who traveled to Funan, it can be inferred that the amount of trade between India and the Funan Empire was immense. The Indian tradespeople provided spices and silk, while the Funan people offered ivory and precious metals in return.

The two empires maintained a positive trade relationship all the way through until the fall of Funan. Given that some scholars believe that an Indian sage was the founder of Funan, it is obvious that the two countries had a major influence on one another.

The Funan Kingdom in China

Most of the records present today about Funan are from Chinese tradespeople, historians, and scholars who were either able to travel to the Funan Empire themselves or recorded the stories of people who visited those areas.

Because of its geographic proximity, China was one of the major trade presences in the Funan Empire. The Chinese likely traded teas and silks for the previously mentioned goods that the Funan people had to offer.

What Happened to the Funan Kingdom?

The Funan Kingdom fell in the 6th century to the Khmer people group, who were ruled by the Chenla Kingdom. The Chenla Kingdom absorbed Funan into its group, and Funan was no longer. Some people still trace their lineage back to the people of Funan, but those connections are far from absolute.

Cities of the Funan Kingdom

Vyādhapura
Prey Veng Province, Cambodia
GPS: 11.25724, 105.39804

Angkor Borei
Takeo Province, Cambodia
GPS: 10.99421, 104.97782

Oc Eo
An Giang Province, Vietnam
GPS: 10.22947, 105.15934

Go Thap
Đồng Tháp Province, Vietnam
GPS: 10.60413, 105.82806

Monuments of the Funan Kingdom

Asram Moha Russei
Takeo Province, Cambodia
GPS: 10.96457, 104.9887

Fast Facts


Fast Facts

Name: Funan culture

Origin: Mekong Delta along costal trade routes

Language: Unknown

Religion: Hinduism

Era: ca. 1st-5th Centuries CE

Location: Mekong Delta (Southern Vietnam and Cambodia)

Capital: Vyadhapura

Decline: Fell to (or evolved into) the subsequent Khmer Chenla and/or Cham cultures.


Glossary

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

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
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.

Islam
Monotheistic offshoot of Judaism founded in the 7th Century CE and based on the teachings of Mohammad.

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.

Mon
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to at Dvaravati.

Tai peoples
Ethnic group originating in Southern China that migrated south during the Mongol invasions, eventually founding the kingdoms hat became Thailand and Laos.

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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