Monday, February 23, 2015

In Search of Ancient Funan

                                                                           by Jim Goodman

flooded plains east of Takeo, Cambodia
       When the Bronze Age was just getting under way in northern Vietnam, around the 19th century BCE, the lands around the Mekong Delta in the south were all swamps, subject to annual flooding during the rainy season as well as by the waters of the sea.  Over 4800 km from its source in the Tibetan highlands of China to its mouth in southern Vietnam, the Mekong continuously carried and deposited a massive amount of silt as it coursed its way to its mouth, while sea tides pushed these deposits around to create patches of land. 
       Human habitation of the Delta lands was quite difficult in the beginning.  Peat bogs, swamps and thick forests covered most of the spaces between the rivers.  In some places a portion of land rose one or two meters above sea level and on these fingers of dry land people could make farms.  Most such sites were near the coast, such as in present-day Sóc Trăng and Trà Vinh provinces, where the oldest Khmer settlements exist.  Others were near the Seven Mountains of An Giang province in the west, bordering Cambodia.
Khmer village on the canal east of Takeo
       It was this latter area that bears evidence of the earliest organized state or political entity in the Mekong Delta.  It has become known as Funan because that was the name ascribed to it by Chinese envoys to Angkor Borei, now in southeast Cambodia, from the state of Wu in the third century CE.  No one knows what the people living there called their country.  Local officials there informed the envoys the state had been around since the 1st century CE, allegedly founded by an adventurer from the Malayan Peninsula who subdued and then married the local princess.
       At the time of the envoys’ visit Funan was a rising power, in control of the sea trade between China and India, which is what aroused the interest of the state of Wu, one of the Three Kingdoms that formed after the collapse of China’s Han Dynasty.  Whether it was a single state or, more likely, a commercial alliance of ports, Funan apparently controlled the lands and ports of southwest Vietnam, southern Cambodia, lower Thailand and as far down the Malayan Peninsula as the Isthmus of Kra.  Merchant ships in those days often offloaded their cargo there for transport by land to the Indian Ocean side, where ships then took the goods on to ports in India.  Sometimes ships sailed on to places in Indonesia, or even continued beyond the islands to land on the Indian coast.   Much of this trade comprised what were the luxury goods of the times—animal hides, rhino horn, spices and gold.  
       Besides commerce, the rulers of Funan oversaw an extensive agricultural sector, creating cultivable areas through the construction of canals and levees.  The traces of one important canal have been found that linked Óc Eo, a site in the southeastern part of Vietnam’s An Giang province, with contemporary Angkor Borei in Takeo province, Cambodia.  If not the kingdom’s capital, Angkor Borei was certainly one of its most important cities.  It was also connected by canal to Takeo, which was a seaport in ancient times.  Sufficiently sited inland, it was safe from any pirate raids or attacks by rivals.
Óc Eo jewelry
Independence Monument, Takeo
       The canal that connected Angkor Borei with Óc Eo ran just east of the Seven Mountains and was 70 km long.  Óc Eo had a rectilinear grid, with transverse canals bisecting the main canal running north and an additional canal linking it with the sea.  Óc Eo’s large population lived in houses on piles or stilts on the land between the waterways.  The city was home to various craft specialists, as attested in the tools and artifacts unearthed there, such as beads, rings, pendants and medallions, which is also evidence of the existence of a class of people wealthy enough to indulge in such jewelry.
Muslim Chăm village en route to Angkor Borei
       In addition, archaeologists have found coins and gold medallions from 2nd century Rome and silver coins from Persia and Gupta India, a hint of how much East-West commerce flourished back then.  Indeed, the 2nd century Roman geographer, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, wrote of a Greco-Roman merchant’s journey to Kattigara, at the easternmost end of the Empire’s maritime trade route, where Roman merchants met their Chinese counterparts.  Some scholars believe Kattigara was Óc Eo’s port.  Others suggest it was Rach Giá, with which Óc Eo was connected by a canal, or Hà Tiên, a port in southwest Vietnam next to the Cambodian border.
Phnom Da
       Besides the jewelry and artifacts preserved in museums, Óc Eo’s legacy has all but vanished. Other than archaeology students, it doesn’t attract visitors.   Angkor Borei, however a shadow it is of its former incarnation, does get tourists who usually make it a day trip from Phnom Penh.  The starting point is Takeo, a quiet, pleasant town a couple of hours south of the capital.  A nice temple stands across from the Independence Monument, a replica of an Angkor Era stone tower.  A lotus-dappled lake flanks the town, with a walkway and park on the near side that gets active in the evenings.  But tourists don’t come to Takeo to check out its small list of attractions.  They rarely stay the night anyway.  They come for the journey to Angkor Borei, both for its historical significance as well as for the boat ride itself.
       To get there visitors take a motorboat from the wharf at the western edge of the city.  A couple of restaurants serve good Khmer food here and a kind of run down colonial-era neighborhood in the vicinity adds a little bit of atmosphere.   A larger Vietnamese boat bringing merchandise from Châu Đc, distinguished by the pair of eyes painted on the prow, may be docked at the wharf, along with small motorboats used for transport to hamlets on the canal. 
sculpted naga, Phnom Da
       The ride to the ruins of old Funan goes due east for nearly an hour on a canal across flooded plains, passing Buddhist Khmer and Muslim Chăm villages.  It’s not always a straight route either, for the pilot sometimes has to steer around places he already knows are too shallow for the boat to get through.  Local peasants may be standing at spots in these plains, the water at most knee-high in the dry season, casting fishing nets or even planting rice or vegetables.  The plots may be marked off by low-rising mud dikes.  Egrets fly over and dive for small fish.  Occasionally the land off to one side or the other rises slightly above the water level and is host to a collection of houses and a temple.  Aside from the temples, which are historically a relatively recent phenomenon, the landscape observed on the boat ride to Angkor Borei probably closely resembles that of the entire Mekong Delta area two thousand years ago.
Ashram Maha Russei
       Not much remains of Angkor Borei’s ancient splendor, other than remnants of a wall, a moat and a couple water tanks.  Its original buildings were made of wood and have all perished.  However, the boat makes a stop at a small river island about 20 km from Angkor Borei.  Two buildings stand here that give us an idea of what religious architecture looked like towards the end of the city’s heyday.  The older of these is Prasat Phnom Da tower, dedicated to Shiva, atop a small hill and visible from afar, made of brick and stone.
       Only one of the doorways on each of the four sides opens to the interior, where lay a few housings for the linga that were originally installed.  The other doorways are false, but flanked by sandstone columns, decorated with carvings and sculptures of rishis (Hindu holy men).  Arching over the top of the door was a decorative tympanum, but only traces of the friezes remain, mostly the multi-headed nagas at the corners.  Most of the top part of the tower has crumbled, so it is not possible to guess at how ornate it might have been.  Yet with its square base, height, architectural elements like the false doors and decorations, this tower, dating from late 6th or early 7th century, could almost be a prototype of the Chăm towers that began appearing in south central Vietnam not long afterwards.
typical house,in the village below Phnom Da
       The other temple in the area is the Ashram Maha Russei, made of gray laterite stone in the 7th century and dedicated to Vishnu.  It’s rather small, wedged into the slope near the base of a mound, in three distinct sections, but without carved embellishments.  The entrance to the interior altar is so narrow only a single devotee can enter at a time.  
       Buddhist temples must have existed in the area by then, for museums today hold Buddhist sculptures from the period.  The religion began penetrating the area from the 4th century and was popular with the urban merchant class, as in its native India.  Local Buddhist scholarship developed and near the end of the 5th century two Funan monks, Mandrasena and Samghabara, moved to China, where they lived several years translating sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese. 
Hindu deity, Angkor Borei Museum
Funan Buddha, Angkor Borei Museum
From the serene and friendly hamlet below Phnom Da, typical of settlements along the canal, to Angkor Borei is another 15 minutes by boat.  Today Angkor Borei is just the largest of the villages in the flooded plains of eastern Takeo province.  It does have a small but interesting museum, housing sculptures from the Funan period and the earliest extant stone inscription in the Khmer alphabet.  These sculptures are of deities from the Indian subcontinent—Vishnu, Krishna, Surya and Shiva, as well as the Buddha.  Trade with India resulted in the importation of ideas that came with Indian merchants, Brahmin pundits and Buddhist missionaries.  These included the Hindu religion with its many gods, the forms these deities took in sculptural representations, the Sanskrit language and alphabet, stone inscriptions and palm-leaf manuscripts and the temple complex.  Among the important secular influences were rectilinear urban grids and artificial water systems, such as canals and reservoirs.
Funan sculptures, Angkor Biorei Museum
       Maritime trade made the area called Funan wealthy.  But it was Indian influence that gave the culture its prime identity, with a religious bent far more complex than traditional animism, a code of law based on ancient precedents, a writing system (Sanskrit) that provided the basis for an indigenous (Khmer) alphabet, and a class basis for society that assigned people their positions, as well as their rights and duties.  But the strict Indian caste system did not become part of Khmer or Mekong Delta culture.  Brahmins had privileges as the religious class and royalty and military commanders came from the martial class, but among the rest no special taboos or notions of impurity regulated relationships between people of different classes and occupations as they did, and still do, in India.             
       In the 7th century maritime trade routes began altering, relying less and less on the coastal ports identified as part of Funan and more on direct sailing from Indonesia to southern China.  The wealth and influence of the coastal area rapidly eroded as political power shifted inland to new centers in the Cambodian heartland.  Yet the cultural parameters already established in the south continued to shape the new Khmer polities that arose from the 7th century.  The main difference was that these states, culminating in the Khmer Empire, would be much more sophisticated, organized not around seaborne commerce, but rice-based agriculture.  All other aspects of the state and society had their roots in Funan.
contemporary Angkor Borei
       The defunct state not only influenced its successors in Cambodia.  Chăm kingdoms in central Vietnam, though of unrelated Austronesian origins, modeled their realms on Funan as well, culturally, politically and economically, continuing to absorb influences from Funan’s Khmer successors long afterwards.  Unlike the latter states, though, the Chăm kingdoms’ success and power mainly derived from maritime commerce.  They were ideally situated to take advantage of the shift in seaborne trading routes after the 7th century.   In this sense, even more than Chenla or Angkor, the Chăm kingdoms were the genuine offspring of the state of Funan.   

8th century Chăm towers near Phan Thiết, Vietnam

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