Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Funan: The Earliest Maritime Kingdom of Southeast Asia

A kingdom with an impressive wealth and an extraordinary network, the Funan Kingdom stood as one of the earliest most powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia. With the capital in Vyadapura or the City of Hunters in Khmer language, it dominated the area that composed Cambodia, Vietnam, and parts of the Malaya Peninsula and Thailand. It ruled the area from the 3rd and up to the 7th century. But with the changing in the maritime trade of Asia, Funan felt the effects catastrophically, leading eventually into its assimilation with its neighboring kingdom.

According to a legend, a lineage from a Brahmin priest and a local princess established the Kingdom of Funan. A Brahmin priest in India known as Kaundinya dreamt of establishing a kingdom in the east. He took a ship and a bow from a Hindu temple and sailed towards Southeast Asia. Upon approaching near modern day Cambodia and Southern Vietnam, his ship seemed to be under threat from a raid by the nagas in the coast. Queen Soma, the daughter of the King of the Nagas, led the marauders wanting to pillage Kaundinya’s ship. In defense of the ship Kaundinya fired arrows from his mystical bow that frightened the nagas and Queen Soma. Eventually, Kaundinya, instead of conquering the Nagas by force, he decided to use marriage in order to gain power. He married Queen Soma and from their descendants came the royal family of the Funan Kingdom. The legend came from an inscription of the Champa Kingdom. However, Chinese sources gave the characters the name Hun-t’ien for Kaundiya and Liu Ye or Willow Leaf for Queen Soma.

Most of the knowledge about the Funan Kingdom came either from its neighboring Kingdoms or from Chinese records. Inscription on stones of the Champa Kingdom shed light about the earliest Southeast Asian Kingdom. But the Chinese provided substantial accounts of Funan by its missions and history of its dynasties.

The Chinese records mentioned Fan Shih-man as the earliest known ruler of the Funan Kingdom. He established the status of Funan as a great power in Southeast Asia. He ordered the construction of a huge naval fleet that attacked settlements across the Gulf of Thailand. According to Chinese historical records, Fan Shih-man conquered 10 kingdoms but identified only three. Namely: Ch’u-tu-k’un, Chiu-chih, and Tien-sun. Most the kingdoms were located in the Malay Peninsula, a vital link in the lucrative Silk route.

The Silk trade route between China and the Roman Empire led to the prosperity of the Funan Kingdom. The Funan economy relied on agriculture and trade. Thanks to the Mekong River, Funan had the capability to produce rice enough for its citizens and for traders staying in the Kingdom. Oc-Eo served as the primary port of the Funan Kingdom. Here, merchants from India, China, and other countries stayed for a long. Funan’s agricultural surplus allowed the Kingdom to feed the merchants and travelers as well. One reason for the long stay of merchants, especially from the west was the changing monsoon seasons. Half of the year, the monsoons blew from west to east. Merchants going to China used sailed with this current to the east. Before the 4th century, the maritime Silk route crossed the Isthmus of Kra instead the Malacca Strait, with this route, Oc-Eo provided a station for provisions for China or a market to sell goods. Once in Oc-Eo, merchants had to wait for the monsoons to change direction from west to east to east to west in order to go home. And so, many traders from the west, mostly Indians, had to stay for months waiting for the monsoons change.

The long stay of Indians in the Funan paved the way for the indianization of Funan. Many Indian followed the example of Kaundinya and married local women. Indian thoughts and ideas spread to Funan. Religion from India, both Hindu and Buddhism dominated Funanese culture.

Indian administrative system also influenced Funan. Funan followed the Indian concept of mandala, where kings ruled over a loosely state with local rulers maintaining power but paid tribute to a higher king. This prevailed in Funan. In center of the mandala laid China and the Chinese Emperor, whom the Funan later paid tribute. Then, the Funanese King stood second, to whom then subdued or vassal rulers paid tribute to.

In overall, Funan had an organized government. It had a bureaucracy and judiciary. It had libraries and archives. And in the center of it sat the King of Funan.

China and Funan shared a special relation because of the mandala concept. Chinese merchants already visited Funan during the reign of Fan Shih-man, but it was during the reign of Fan Chan that it developed. Fan Chan usurped the crown around late 220’s and early 230’s. He killed Fan Shih-man’s successor, Fan Chin-sheng, and usurped the throne. Under his rule Funan continued to expand its agriculture and trade. It was during his reign that he received a mission from China headed by Kang Tai and Chu Ying, who later wrote an account of their visit. It was also under Fan Chan’s reign that Funan also developed relations with the Murunda Dynasty of India. Fan Chan received a mission, but his successor, Fan Hsun, sent the first Funanese mission to China. In 243, he sent a mission to the capital of Wu Dynasty of China, which include musicians that successfully delighted the Emperor. But the relations with the Wu soured in the following decades because of the Wu’s incursion to northern Vietnam. Funan and its neighboring kingdom, Champa, felt threatened and together, launched a campaign to harass the Wu. In order to gain support, Fan Hsun sent a mission to the rival of the Wu, the northern Jin Kingdom. In 280, the conflict ended with the Wu defeated by the Jin. Funan paid homage to the victor and between 285 and 287, Funan sent three more missions to the capital of the Jin Empire.

In the 4th century, Funan seemed to be ruled by an Indian dynasty. Chinese records mentioned a T’ien Chu Chan-t’an or simply Chandan. In Chinese, T’ien Chu, meant India. Thus, being attached to Chandan meant that he came from India. Chandan descendant of Brahmins. Nevertheless, Sri Indravaman who ruled during 430’s had the first recorded recognizable Sanskrit name. Under their rule, Hinduism expanded but not to the extent that it supplanted the major religion of Funan – Buddhism.

Funan reached its pinnacle during the reign of Jayavarman, who reigned from 484 to 514. Funan enjoyed trade over many goods from across the known world. Its markets filled with copper from Thailand, tin from the Malaya Peninsula, frankincense and myrrh from the Middle East, camphor from Sumatra, sandalwood from Timor, spices from Moluccas, and silk and ceramics from China. People paid taxes either in gold, pearl, perfume, silk, or even labor. Funan experienced the zenith of its prosperity. Jayavarman used it to display his power and wealth to China. From 484 to 502, Jayavarman sent regular tributes to China, one of which included a Buddha statue made of coral stones. In 484, he even sent a Buddhist monk named Nagsena to China. In the 490’s he sought China’s aid in crushing his rebellious son who usurped the Champa of Linyi throne. His son, Fan Tang, failed to succeed in a coup to oust his father. His failure led him to Champa where he took the crown. Surprisingly, China recognized him, despite Jayavarman’s protest and wishes to remove him. In addition, China formalize their recognition of Fan Tang as King of Champa by conferring to him the title of Commander in Chief of the Seashore. Jayavarman, furious of the title, sent more embassies to China to impress the Emperor and show his power. It succeeded and in 503, China conferred to Jayavarman the title of General of the Pacified South. Before his death in 514, Jayavarman continued to send more embassies to China.

Rudravarman succeeded Jayavarman. He sent missions to China to show Funan continuing domination and to gain recognition. In one of the mission, two monks named Sanghapala and Mandrasena went to China as part of a Funan mission and to study Buddhism in the Middle Kingdom. However, Funan already faced declined.

The route of the Silk Route shifted from the Isthmus of Kra to the Sunda Straits in modern day Indonesia. As time progress, the number of traders using the Isthmus of Kra decreased. Many traders from the Sunda Straits began to directly go to China without stopping in Oc-Eo. This caused a drain in the revenue of the country. Also, its influence began to wane as its vassal states began to send their own mission to China and not to Funan, deviating from the prevailing mandala system. A vassal sending mission directly to China simply meant equal to a declaration of independence and cessation from Funan. By 539, Funan began to be supplanted by the Khmers. The Khmers forced the Funanese to pay tribute. The final blow to Funan came in 600’s when the Funanese Prince Bhavavarman married a Chenla princess. As a result, Bhavavarman succeeded to the Chenla throne and let Chenla to absorbed Funan.

Funan, however, created a marked in the history of Southeast Asia. It was the earliest known kingdom in Southeast Asia. Its prominence lived on in the later kingdoms that grew in the region. Sailendra that meant mountain may had a relation with Funan as some suggested. The Khmer Empire grew also out of the Funan Kingdom, as the Khmers considered Jayavarman as their first King. The Funan was indeed the earliest known great maritime kingdom of Southeast Asia.

See also:

General Reference:
“Funan” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilization edited by Charles Higham. New York, New York: Facts on File, 2004.

“Funanese” in Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania by Barbara West. New York, New York: Facts on File, 2008.

Southworth, William. "Funan: An Early Maritime Power" in Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor. Edited by Ooi Keat Gin. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc, 2004.

Coeddes, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu, Hawaii: East-West Center Press, 1968.

Tarling, Nicholas. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia v.1 pt. 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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