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Far East Kingdoms

South East Asia


Chen-La (Pre-Angkor Cambodia & Vietnam)
c.AD 550 - 802

By the time the Sa Huỳnh culture of central and southern Vietnam was fading, around the beginning of the third century AD, coastal areas of South-East Asia had already emerged into the early historical record. Kingdoms such as Annam and Nam Viet had been ended by a phase of Han Chinese dominance, but the kings of a renewed Nam Viet took Vietnam out of the fading Iron Age and into the medieval period.

To the south of the Sa Huỳnh, the Óc Eo culture flourished as the archaeological expression of the kingdom of Funan. The preceding Dong Nai culture recorded the proto-Funan period in this southerly territory. The history of this early state is extremely patchy but in its late stages - in the early sixth century AD - its dominance was confirmed in the provinces of the middle Mekong, territory into which it had no doubt expanded in previous centuries.

It may have been the usurpation of the Funanese throne by Rudravarman in AD 514 which resulted in discontent in the provinces becoming apparent. A movement was directed by one Bhavavarman, seemingly a noble in the middle Mekong region, but perhaps related to some extent to the king himself via the latter's mother. Bhavavarman and his successor and fellow movement leader, Chitrasena (Chenla), managed to form a principality of their own, removing their territory from Funan's control.

The Chinese name of Chen-La (alternatively shown as Chenla or even Zhenla) may have originated from that second leader, Chitrasena, or he may have borne it as an appellation due to his influential role in his state's creation. The cause of the movement is not clear. Two main options are available to explain it: either it was a reaction to Rudravarman's usurpation or, perhaps more probably, it was a form of defence against the rightful line of rulers attempting to reclaim their throne. This they may have done in 550, but by then it was too late.

The New History of the Tang continued to mention embassies from Funan in the first half of the seventh century, but it also indicated that a great change had already taken place in the country: 'The king had his capital in the city T'e-mu. Suddenly his city was subjugated by Chen-La (to the north-west of Funan's core territory on the Mekong delta), and he had to migrate south to the city of Nafuna (Na-fu-na, location unknown but possibly Angkor Borei)'.

The last vestiges of Funan were removed in 627 during this pre-Angkor period of South-East Asian history. North-eastern Funan territory was gradually absorbed into the growing Cham domains. The remainder was absorbed into Chen-La and then the Khmer empire. For a long time after its fall, Funan retained much prestige in the memories of subsequent generations. The kings of Chen-La adopted its dynastic legend, with the later rulers at Angkor striving to relate their origins to the Indianised kings of Funan and the Javanese and Sumatran sovereigns of the eighth century AD.

The oldest text to mention Chen-La is the Sui history: 'The kingdom of Chenla is to the south-west of Lin-yi (Lâm Ấp). It was originally a vassal kingdom of Funan... The king's family name was Ch'a-li [Kshatriya], while his personal name was She-to-ssu-na [Chitrasena]. His ancestors had gradually increased the power of the country, [but it was] Chitrasena [who] seized Funan and subdued it'.

The name Chen-La which is used consistently by the Chinese to designate what would in time become Cambodia, remains unexplained: no known Sanskrit or Khmer word corresponds to its ancient pronunciation of tsien-lap. The state's centre can be located to the middle Mekong, in the region of Champasak (Bassac) which must have come under the domination of the Cham states by the end of the fifth century. This is confirmed by the presence of a stele which bears the name of Lâm Ấp's King Devanika in Sanskrit (created during his reign between 446 and about 480).

Various minor states in the region are known about to a limited extent. They largely seemed to have been formed as city states within Chen-La's overall territory and undoubtedly their little-known rulers paid homage to Chen-La's kings. Their number included Ampil Rolum, Aninditapura, Canasapura, and Vyadhapura.

Possibly - as has been proposed by one or two twenty-first century scholars - Chen-La was never a unified kingdom at all, instead being made up of a series of polities which perhaps acknowledged the most powerful of their number as a kind of high king.

Later in its relatively short history, Chen-La was for a time divided in two, with an Upper Chen-La inland and a Lower Chen-La commanding the coastal region (possibly another sign of the fragmented nature of Chen-La from the beginning?). One or other of these rulers was likely the aforementioned most powerful ruler in the region. The numbering of kings was continued by the Khmer empire, with the origins of that numbering being included here.

Cambodia's historic past

(Information by Peter Kessler and the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopaedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Keat Gin Ooi (ABC-Clio, 2004), from Early Mainland Southeast Asia, C Higham (River Books Co, 2014), from Encyclopaedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations, Charles F W Higham (Facts on File, 2004), from The Khmer Empire (National Geographic supplement, July 2009), from Historical Atlas of the World, R R Palmer (Ed, Chicago, 1963), from The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Weller Taylor (California, 1983), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, George Coedès (Walter F Vella (Ed), Susan Brown Cowing (Trans), University of Hawaii Press, 1968, and available online via the Internet Archive).)


Kambu Svayambhuva

Legendary ancestor. King of Aryadesa of the Kambojas.

fl c.540s?


Founder. Elite member of court officialdom.

517 - 539

Rudravarman of Funan sends various embassies to the Southern Liang between 517-539. He is sometimes claimed (at least by Coedès) as the last king of Funan. A Sanskrit inscription in the province of Bati links him to Buddhist monumental construction in the kingdom.

Oc Eo Culture
The Iron Age Óc Eo culture of southern Vietnam and areas of Cambodia serves as the archaeological expression of the kingdom of Funan, with this item dating from near its end in the early 600s AD

Brahmadatta (a member of an elite family of court officials and a retainer of King Rudravarman) becomes the first historically recorded king of Chen-La. His maternal nephews, Dharmadeva and Simhadeva, serve Bhavavarman and Mahendravarman.

fl c.550s?

Bhavamarman I

Related? Perhaps related by marriage to Funan.


The irregular route taken to attain the throne by Rudravarman of Funan seems to provoke unrest in the provinces of the middle Mekong. This movement is directed by a nobleman by the name of Bhavavarman and his cousin and successor, Chitrasena (known as Chenla, with Mahendravarman being a coronation name).

Bhavamarman has his capital at Bhavapura, which may be located close to Ampil Rolum. He may be a relative of some kind to Rudravarman through his mother.

His movement to revolt against Funan's control may be a reaction to Rudravarman's usurpation of Funan's throne, but it may equally be an opposition movement to the rightful line of kings attempting to restore themselves to the throne.

Dress costumes from Funan
Dress costumes from Funan, a kingdom in southern mainland South-East Asia which, by the early sixth century AD, seemed ripe for internal discontent and self-destruction

fl c.550s - 590s

Mahendravarman / Chenla

Cousin. Fought alongside Bhavamarman.


By this time Funan has been partially dismembered and Rudravarman now lies dead. The kingdom has most likely lost much of its outlying domains to Chen-La and has been reduced to its southernmost holdings, perhaps as a vassal state.

The former capital of T'e-mu has been lost to Chen-La, with the southern city of Nafuna serving as a bolt-hole. Meanwhile it appears to be Isanavarman who greatly extends the kingdom, securing many vassals who acknowledge his overlordship.

c.615 - 637?

Isanavarman / Ishanavarman (I)

Son. Completed conquest of Funan?


The inland city of Isanapura is founded by Isanavarman, at Leek Sambor Kuk (now in Cambodia's Kampong Thom province). Also known as Sambhupura or Sambor, it is the kingdom's new capital.


Funan has been the dominating power in the southern region of South-East Asia for five centuries. The death of Rudravarman may have meant the restoration of the rightful line after 550, but it may be this very restoration which now causes Chen-La to destroy what remains of the kingdom. Isanavarman leaves an inscription in the same year.

My Son Sanctuary in Vietnam
The kingdom of Lâm Ấp was about the first state to emerge in what is now central Vietnam, with the Nam Viet to their north and various independent Cham groups to their south, while Funan formed their most important neighbour, with relations between the two usually being friendly

al 639 - c.657

Bhavavarman II

Son or grandson. Left an inscription.

c.657 - 681

Jayavarman (I)

Son or grandson. Great-grandson of Isanavarman.

650s - 680s

Jayarvarman tightens controls and increases central authority over a considerable area. He creates titles and administrators and has an army at his disposal. He also appoints ministers (mratan and pon) to a sabha (a council of state).

His daughter is Jayadevi. She rules over a subordinate kingdom in the vicinity of Angkor but is often shown as one of Chen-La's overall rulers. The rough dates which can be calculated here also support this idea, placing her after her father and before Sambhuvarman.

c.681 - 713


Daughter. Ruled a small pre-Angkor state. Succeeded her father?


On or before this date Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa founds the Sumatran empire of Sri Vijaya from his capital at Srivijaya (in today's Indonesia). Within about a century his Buddhist-centric state will come to dominate areas of mainland South-East Asia.

Sri Vijaya's capital on Sumatra
Sumatra's Sri Vijaya kingdom, along with its successor, Majapahit, was one of several states of this period which transmitted South Asian (Indian) and Malay culture to pre-colonial Philippine societies


In the early eighth century, Chen-La is apparently divided into Upper Chen-La ('Land' Chen-La) and Lower Chen-La ('Water' Chen-La). Modern maps of the period show an insular (mainland) upper land and a maritime lower land by 750.

They appear to be equal in rank and without a boundary, suggesting that they are still under a single ruler, or at least are somehow federated, but Jayadevi's reign is reputed to be opposed. She is known to reign until 713, but her fate is not known. The state is also increasingly threatened by the Shailendra dynasty of Java.


Subsequently the monarchy is split, with a Queen Indrani of unknown heritage ruling from the capital city of Isanapura in Upper Chen-La (the inland region). Pushkaraksha commands the coastal polity of Lower Chen-La, possibly as the son of Jayadevi or as a usurper.

The state appears to fragment to an extent in addition to this division. This allows individual principalities to emerge with their own semi-independent rulers (especially in Lower Chen-La), such as those of Ampil Rolum, Aninditapura, Canasapura (which already has local rulers), and Vyadhapura.

c.713? - 716


Relationship? Ruled Upper Chen-La. m Pushkaraksha.

c.713? - 716


Son of Jayadevi? From Aninditapura. In Lower Chen-La.

c.716 - 730


Son of Indrani. Reunited the kingdom?

730 - 731

A war of succession in the Pallava kingdom in India is avoided as military leaders (dandanayakas), scholars, and representatives of the merchant class and the peasantry form an entourage and undertake 'a long journey' to reach the kingdom of Kambujadesa (seemingly referring to Chen-La which covers modern Cambodia and areas of Vietnam).

Mahabalipuram Temple
The Pallava king, Mahendravarman I, of the early seventh century contributed greatly to architecture and promoted rock-cut temples in his kingdom such as the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram

This body of people is ruled by a certain Kadavesa Hari Varma, who is a sixth generation descendant of Bhimavarman, brother of the great Simhavishnu of the Pallavas. Of his sons, only the youngest, Nandivarman, accepts his request to return to the Deccan to govern the Pallava kingdom as successor to the deceased Parameshvaravarman.

c.730 - 760


Sister and queen regnant. m Rajendravarman.

fl c.760 - 780

Rajendravarman (I)

Husband & successor. Descendant of Pushkara of Aninditapura.

fl c.780 - 788


Son. Ruled Upper Chen-La?

fl c.780 - 802

Jayavarman II

Relationship? In Lower Chen-La. Created Khmer empire.

fl 788? - 802


Dau of Nripatindravarman. Ruled Upper Chen-La.

802 - 809

Jayavarman II, ruler of Lower Chen-La, is a vassal of the Sumatran state of Sri Vijaya. Now he asserts his independence, unites his state with the Upper Chen-La which is ruled by his wife, Jayendrabha, and with other rival fiefdoms (such as Ampil Rolum, Canasapura - albeit perhaps a little later - and Vyadhapura) and, on the plain near the site of the future Angkor, he builds his capital of Harlharalaya.

Mahabalipuram Temple
Between about 802-809 Jayavarman II of Lower Chen-La unified the region, shrugged off his overlords on Sumatra, and established his capital at Harlharalaya (shown here) to found the beginnings of the Khmer empire

With strong support from Aninditapura, he is declared the universal monarch, chakravartin ('supreme king of kings' - effectively high king over many minor kings) on the Kulen Hills.

Chen-La retains its identity until at least 809, and possibly for some decades after that as it is governed as a vassal state by Jyestha, daughter of Jayavarman and Jayendrabha. Upon her death Chen-La is merged into the holdings of her brother, Jayavarman III.

In the meantime, Jayavarman II brings under his rule much of what is now Cambodia, southern Thailand, southern Laos, and much of south-western Vietnam, forging the beginnings of the Khmer empire.

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