Two successive kingdoms with strong Indian influence emerged during the pre-Angkorean centuries of Khmer history. These were the Funan, from the second to sixth centuries, and Kambuja (Chenla, Zhenla in Chinese) from the sixth to the eighth centuries. A vassal state of Funan, Chenla emerged as an independent state in the middle of the sixth century. A sea route developed between India and China by this time.
The shift from the coastal trade route coincided with the appearance of conquerors from the mid-Mekong area, the brothers Bhavavarman (r. 550–600) and Mahendravarman (r. 600–611). They focused on the rice-growing areas of the Mekong basin, rather than maritime trade. The new kingdom, called Kambuja, traced its origin from the sage Kambu Svayambhuva and the daughter of Nagas, Mera.
According to the Chinese chronicle the History of Sui, Chenla was a feudatory state of Funan, covering roughly northern Cambodia and southern Laos of modern times. Its capital was at Lingaparvata with a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Bhadresvara. Chenla became a separate state after seceding from Funan in 550 with the accession of Bhadravarman I as the first ruler of the newly independent kingdom.
He was the grandson of Funanese ruler Rudravarman (r. 514–539) and had married a Chenla princess named Lakshmi, who was heir apparent to the throne. Bhadravarman became the independent king of Chenla in 550, when the ruler died. In his long reign, Chenla was engaged in warfare, and Chitrasena was in charge of the army. The kingdom of Chenla covered the whole of Cambodia, southern Thailand, Laos, and the Mekong Delta region.
Bhadravarman’s brother Chitrasena, with the title of Mahendravarman, succeeded him and ruled for 11 years. He was a brave king and conqueror. The reign of his son Isanvarman I (r. 611–635) was marked by extension of the kingdom westward, and establishment of a new capital, Isanpura at Sambor Prei Kuk (the Kompong Thom province of modern Cambodia), in 613.
Like his father, he followed a policy of friendship toward the Champa kingdom and married a Champa princess. Bhavavarman II was the next ruler (r. 635–650), who was succeeded by Jayavarman (650–690). He consolidated the Chenla kingdom. After his death, Queen Jayadevi controlled the affairs of the state. Imminent civil war led to the disintegration of the Chenla kingdom.
Factional disputes in the court resulted in the splitting of the kingdom in 706 into Land Chenla (Upper Chenla) and Water Chenla (Lower Chenla). Upper Chenla, with its capital in the Champassak province of modern Laos, was a somewhat centralized state with 30 provincial headquarters operating as administrative centers. It also sent embassies to China. Lower Chenla, occupying the former Funan kingdom along the Mekong Delta and the coast, had a turbulent existence with constant pirate raids from Java.
The Cambodian civilization in Chenla, like that of the Funan and Angkor periods, witnessed a good deal of Indian influence. Indian elements were mixed with indigenous myths of the Moon and serpent. Building a royal lingas (phallus symbol of Shiva) on mountains was a blending of the autochthonous mountain cult with Hindu beliefs.
Shiva in his linga form was connected with devaraja cult, which was used by Jayvarman II afterward to proclaim his sovereignty from Java. The Chenla kings were deified. Lord Shiva was worshipped under different names such as Bhadresvara, Sambhu, Girisa, and Tribhubanesvara.
Inscriptions from Cambodia attest to the prevalence of Sanskrit. Rhetorical and literary conventions were well known to writers of epigraphs in Chenla. They were also well acquainted with Indian epics, kavyas and puranas. The inscriptions refer to the Vedas, Vedantas, and Smritis.
Many Sanskrit words were absorbed into old Khmer, relating to geographical names, the names of divinities and persons, administrative terms, and terms relating to the calendar and numbers. Another Indian custom persisted in the marrying princesses to brahmans (Hindu priests). The brahmans played an important role in the religious life of the people.
The chief priest or purohita had a powerful influence on the royalty. This sacerdotal office passed from uncle to nephew in the maternal line, which was an example of an indigenous matrilineal social system. Kings sought to ally themselves to a particular priestly family by matrimonial alliance.
Buddhism was also prevalent in Chenla. The Mahayana faith came to Cambodia from Java as well as India. Buddhist statues are found at the time of Bhavavarman II. Influences from India, the megalithic culture of Southeast Asia, China, and neighboring regions in Southeast Asia enriched the culture of Chenla.