Ancient Hindu kingdoms of Southeast Asia

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A great deal of Indian customs, traditions, and religious philosophy found widespread acceptance in the region in the first few centuries of the last millennium.

Angkor Wat Elephant Terrace in Angkor, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Elephant Terrace in Angkor, Cambodia. Photo by R.K. Pillai

In the spirit of adventure, and because of economic, commercial and religious reasons as well, early Indians started traveling eastwards. They reached Southeast Asian countries by sea and land from around 200 BC onward. From the 2nd and 3rd century AD onward we can see clear epigraphical and archaeological evidences of these migrations to Vietnam, Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Bali, Borneo, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Malay peninsula.

Travel logs of Chinese, Arab and Greek merchants and traders, who visited these regions, also recoded these migrations. Furthermore, we can be certain that a large number of Indian merchants and other groups made frequent voyages from the southern coasts of the Indian subcontinent to the Far East. These groups included, besides traders, Buddhists monks, Brahmins, astrologers and architects and southern Indian ruling clans.

From the historical evidence, we can conclude that a great deal of Indian customs, traditions, and religious philosophy found widespread acceptance in these new lands during the first few centuries of the last millennium. A few members of the politically elite clans also moved there during the period.

These lands are not only geographically diverse, with pristine flora and fauna, they are rich in minerals such as gold, silver, copper, gems and precious stones. They would have found alien land hospitable. The environment and local inhabitants were cordial and friendly. Therefore, it was only natural that the merchant community established favorable relations with the ruling elites and built their own outposts near the sea ports for living and practicing their trade and faith.

In that process being strong Hindu believers, they established their own temples with their favorite deities, mostly Shiva, and started worshipping them like they did in their native land. They brought Brahmins to conduct regular pooja and other religious rituals; and shilpies, or builders, to build magnificent temples with their newly found wealth.

Folk stories about origin

Politically inclined clans traveling with them got engaged in social relationships with local ruling and elite classes and married eligible women among them with the blessings of their parents. These relationships eventually led many of their successors to become local rulers themselves. There are many interesting folk stories relating to the origin and lineages of the first Hindu dynasties. Interestingly, during the early part of the last millennium these stories appeared in Hindu Puranas and Tamil Sangam literature, such as Manimekhalai, an original Tamil literary work.

In the first story, Adityavamsa, the king of Indraprastha, was displeased with one of his sons and banished him from the state. He went to the country of Kok Thlok and made himself the ruler by defeating the native king. One evening, he was walking on the sand bank when suddenly the tide arose and he was forced to stay there overnight. A Naga girl of marvelous beauty came to play in the sand. The king, overwhelmed by her grace and charm, agreed to marry her. The Naga Raja, the father of the charming princess, extended his dominions to his future son-in-law, by drinking the waters which covered the country, converted it to a pristine land, built a capital for him and changed the name of the kingdom to Kambuja.

The second story goes like this: Cambodia was a desert and rocky land. One day, Kambu Svayambhuva, the king of Aryadesa, found himself in an isolated place. The untimely death of his wife, Mera, who was given to him by Lord Shiva, made him very disturbed and left the country in order to die in the wildest desert he could find. Having reached Cambodia, he entered into a cave. To his horror, Kambu found himself in the middle of horrifying, large and many-headed snakes. He took his sword and went towards the most dreadful among them. The snake then spoke to him in human voice and asked his whereabouts. On hearing Kambu’s story, the snake told “You are a stranger to me, looked very brave, and you spoke dearly of my Lord Shiva. I am his disciple and the king of Nagas.” The snake then transformed into human form and asked Kambu to end his grief and stay with them. Several years later, he married the Naga princess. The king of the Nagas possessed mystic powers and turned the desert and rocky land to one similar to Aryadesa. Kambu ruled over the land and the kingdom called after him Kambuja Desa.

The third story is relating to the Pallava dynasty of southern India. The early southeast Asian historians were of the view that the kingdoms established in Champa, Funan and Chenla were of the Pallava dynasty, who ruled southern India from around 2nd century AD to 7th century AD. By favor of Lord Shiva, Bhrahmin Drona had a glorious son named Asvathama, who became an ascetic and lived in the forest. One day, a beautiful apsara named Madani came to his hermitage. Both became enamored of each other. The apsara bore him a son named Pallava, who became the originator of the dynasty known after him. Some of his successors made voyage to Cambodia and later became the king.

The Kingdom of Champa 

Situated in the central Vietnam, the kingdom of Champa consisted of small provinces such as Amaravati, Vijaya, Panduranga and Kauthara. The name of the founding monarch of the first dynasty was Sri Mara, who lived in the 2nd century AD. He is said to have directly descended from the abode of Lord Shiva. He established the first Hindu rule there, similar to that of any small Hindu kingdom in India.

The name of the kingdom was Kauthara, and it was situated at the southern portion of Champa. He was an able ruler. The central administration was divided into three categories: civil, military and religious. He is said to have been in friendly terms with the neighboring ruler of the kingdom called Funan, in Cambodia. It is worth noting that both these kings may have belonged to the same clan that came around the same period from southern India. His successors from the same dynasty ruled until 420 AD.

The most prominent monarch among them was Sri Bhadravarman, who ascended to the throne in 380 AD. His full name was Dharma-Maharaja Sri Bhadravarman. One of the strongest rulers of his dynasty, King Bhadravarman fought many wars with his neighbors and enlarged the territory of his kingdom with a powerful army. He improved the administrative systems of his kingdom and built many places for Hindu worship.

Epigraphical evidence shows that he built a magnificent temple for Lord Shiva, under the name Bhadresvarasvami. He consecrated Shiva linga there and made tax-exempt land and other endowments for the temple maintenance. He also appointed Brahmin priests for daily temple rituals, and servants for temple up keeping. King Bhadravarman was a scholar, well-versed in all the four Vedas. King Bhadravarman died in the year 413 AD.

King Bhadravarman was succeeded by his son Sri Gangaraja. He was a weak ruler, and a civil war broke out during his reign. After two years of rule, he abdicated the throne in favor of his son and travelled to the banks of Ganges in India for spiritual retirement. In the year 420 AD, the Chinese army inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Chams. With this the first Hindu dynasty established by Sri Maru ended in the year 420 AD.

Towards the end of the civil war, after the Chinese aggression, the grandson of Sri Gangaraja, through maternal lineage, took control of the kingdom and established another dynasty under the name of King Gangaraja. He was succeeded by several kings from his lineage. The last two kings of this dynasty were Sri Devavarman (508 AD – 520 AD) and Sri Vijayavarman (520 AD – 529 AD).

King Vijayavarman was succeeded by Sri Rudravarman (529 AD – 565 AD). He was not a direct descendant of Sri Vijayavarman, but belonged to the genealogy of abdicated king Gangaraja. It is interesting to note that Sri Rudravarman was son of a Brahmin and his mother was a direct descendant of Sri Gangaraja.

King Rudravarman was succeeded by his son, Sri Sambhuvarman (565 AD – 629 AD), who was succeeded by his son, Sri Kandarpadharma (629 AD – 640 AD). Sri Prabhasadharma succeeded him and ruled from 640 AD – 645 AD. He was succeeded by his son- in-law Sri Satyakausvikasvamy (645 AD – 653AD), who was followed by Sri Bhadresvaravarman (653 AD – 655 AD).

The other rules who followed Sri Bhadresvaravarmanare Sri Prakasadharma-Vikrantavarman (655 AD – 690 AD); Sri Naravahanavarma (690 AD – 710 AD); Sri Vikrantavaraman II (710 AD – 730 AD); and Sri Rudravarman II (730 AD- 757 AD).

History shows that around this period, a Javanese fleet invaded Champa but never took over the kingdom. It returned with a large quantity of gold, silver and other precious things. The Champa kingdom existed under different dynasties until the year 1543 AD. Beginning this period, Hinduism would slowly give way to Buddhism in the next three hundred years. Today there is very little trace of any Hindu royalty in this part of the world.

Angkor Wat Byon Temple in Angkor, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Byon Temple in Angkor, Cambodia. Photo by R.K. Pillai

The Kingdom of Funan

The Kingdom of Funan was located in the southeast region of Cambodia, not too far from the mouth of the Mekong river delta. Even though the specific period the kingdom was established is not known, it is estimated to be around the middle of 1st century AD. The founder, Koundinya, is said to be son of a Brahmin descendants from India. On his mother’s side, he had Indian royal lineage.

The stories mentioned above are also attributed to the royal origin of Funan, repeated here again for clarity. One day, Koundinya heard a supernatural voice asking him to go and reign in Funan. In a traders’ sailboat, he reached the shore p’an – p’an to the south of Funan. The people of Funan cordially welcomed him, arranged marriage with the daughter of a local ruler and elected him king. He introduced Indian law, Hindu customs and traditions.

Chinese court documents attested the fact that there existed two kingdoms, towards the middle of 1st century AD, Funan and Kambuja, both Hindu kingdoms. The royal name of the Funan king is said to have related to Sanskrit Parvatabhupala or sailaraja, in ancient Khmer language kurung banam. Its capital was Vyadhyapura. One of his successors called Sri Simhavarman is said to have enlarged the size of his kingdom. He was a great warrior who sailed in large ships in the neighboring regions and made many local rulers his vassal. He seems to have been the contemporary of Sri Mara, the founding ruler of Champa.

(R.K. Pillai, who is based in northern Virginia, has been in the forefront of information technology and business management for over 30 years both in India and United States.)