According to the Chinese records, Chenla at its peak was a large and powerful kingdom. It was also immensely wealthy. During the reign of Isanavarman, which corresponds roughly to the years 619-636, Chenla diplomatic missions presented many rich and luxurious presents to the Emperor of China. By some point in the seventh century, Funan had disappeared altogether from the world of Asian diplomacy, and it was reported by the Chinese that the upstart empire of Chenla, invading from the north, had ‘conquered’ Funan. It was during this period that Chenla took over the ancient Funanese city of Angkor Borei- either through war or, as others argue, more peaceful methods of absorption- and a large and impressive brick temple in the Chenla style was built atop Phnom Da, complete with a monumental sculpture of Vishnu. By this point their kingdom stretched from what is now the Isaan region of Thailand all the way to the Mekong Delta, in what is today’s Vietnam. Evidently Isanavarman’s Chenla was a far larger and more powerful entity than Funan had ever been.
When a Chinese pilgrim-traveller of the Sui Dynasty, known as Hsun-Tsang, arrived at Isanavarman’s court, he left a long and tantalizing report of the kingdom at its height. He had a little to say about the geography and climate, rightly describing the country as a searingly hot land which never saw ‘snow or hoar frost’, but it was his observations on Isanavarman’s fabulous capital city of Isanapura, captured right at the height of its glory, which give his report real zing. Hsun-Tsang’s report is full of interesting and revelatory details:
The prince makes his residence in the city of I-she-na (Isanapura), which contains more than twenty thousand families. In the middle of the city is a great hall where the king gives audience and holds court. The kingdom includes thirty other cities, each populated by several thousands of families, and each ruled by a governor; the titles of state officials are the same as in Lin-yi.
Now even allowing for a degree of hyperbole in the headcount, Isanapura would have been a city of some fifty-thousand people or more, meaning it dwarfed the cities of Europe of the day, then plunged into the Dark Ages. And this was just the centre of a large kingdom containing many subsidiary centres. We by no means know the location of all these ‘thirty other cities’, but we can presume that one of them would have been Angkor Borei, another would have been the ancient centre of Prey Veng, a third would have been the riverside settlement of Hanchei, of which a single Chenla-era temple remains on a hill above the Mekong, near the modern city of Kampong Cham, and a very important final inclusion would have the sacred city at the base of Mount Phu in what is now Southern Laos. But of all these vanishes centres, none would have matched the grandeur of Isanapura, which had served as the capital of his uncle , Bhavavaraman and then his father Mahendravarman, but which was brought to its fullest development during the two-decade reign of Isanavarman.
Every three days the king proceeds solemnly to the audience hall and sits on a couch made of five kinds of aromatic wood and decorated with seven precious things. About the couch there rises a pavilion hung with magnificent fabrics; the columns are of veined wood and the walls of ivory strewn with flowers of gold. Together this couch and this pavilion form a sort of little palace, at the back of which is suspended, as in Chih-tu, a disk with gold rays in the form of flames. A golden incense-burner, held by two men, is placed in front. The king wears a dawn-red cloth of cotton that falls to his feet. He covers his head with a cap laden with gold and precious stones, with pendants of pearls. On his feet are leather sandals; in his ears, pendants of gold. His robe is always made of a very fine white fabric called pe-ti. When he appears bareheaded, one does not see precious stones in his hair.
This description of the prince is, of course, King Isanavarman, the king who the Chinese credited with conquering Funan. His namesake city was founded early in the early seventh century by his uncle Bhavavarman, several kilometres away from the flood-prone Stung Sen River, which ran down from the Chenla kings’ spiritual homeland in the Dangkrek Mountains, past the site of Sambor Prei Kuk (home of ancient Isanapura) and finally entering Tonle Sap, the vast lake at the centre of modern Cambodia. It may have been the first temple-city in all South-East Asia, with the kings of Chenla- only a generation or two removed from the Dangrek Mountain chiefs who were their ancestors- installed in the fabulous city as the supreme ruler of their worldly realm. The depiction of the splendour and luxury in which the king lived shows that Chenla was a highly striated society in which Isanavarman stood as a highly revered and mysterious figure at the top of an enormous hierachy.
By this point the more egalitarian world of the farming village had been left far behind. In his grandeur and fabulous wealth, the king of Chenla must have far surpassed the prestige and glory of his recent ancestors, who ruled small, mountain chieftancies: he was already well on the way to becoming something like the Hindu deva-raja (God kings) who were to rule over Angkor. And befitting a semi-diety of his magnificence, the furnishings, clothing and rituals of his palace were all imbued with immense, almost mystical, significance. In reading the description of Isanavarman’s court, we see the South-East Asian kingdom coming into its own. We see in it all the religious symbolism and luxurious trappings that today surrounds the Kings of Thailand and, on a somewhat more modest scale, Cambodia. Like today’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who is viewed by many Thais with a devotion and reverence that borders on the religious, Isanavarman’s presence was invested with supernatural significance.
For the traveller who is unimpressed by the crumbling brick towers of Sambor Prei Kuk today, these descriptions can a lot of the missing colour and lustre of Chenla civilization, confirming that what remains is just a faint hint of what the city once was. Apart from giving a vivid sense of a gilded royal court, steeped in ceremony and ritual, we also gain a sense of a general populace who have fulfilled assimilated a Hindu-Buddhist mindset, making this kingdom very the predecessor of Angkor and the later kingdom of Cambodia, where religion and ritual are deeply imbued in every day life. It adds the missing human face which sculptures and crumbling brick shrines cannot properly convey:
Funerals are conducted in this way: the children of the deceased go seven days without eating, shave their heads as a sign of mourning and utter loud cries. The relatives assemble with monks and nuns of Buddha or the Hindu Priests, who attend the deceased by chanting and playing various musical instruments. These corpses are burned on a pyre made of every kind of aromatic wood; the ashes are collected in a gold or silver urn to be thrown into deep water. The poor use earthenware urn, painted in different colors. There are also those who content to abandon the body in the mountains, leaving the job of devouring it to the wild beats.
As we set off into the jungle-fringed site of Sambor Prei Kuk, already thronged by children wanting to sell us traditional cloths and various trinkets, I marvelled to think that Khmer people had occupied this site for fourteen centuries, making pottery, playing instruments, singing and chanting, and mouring the passing generations. The city was already three hundred years old when Angkor civilization began to rise and was almost six-hundred years old when Angkor Wat was completed. Sixty generations had come and gone since the city was founded and though Sambor Prei Kuk was now just a small village in the midst of jungle-clad ruins, Khmer daily life still went on there, following its own unique rhythms.