The Khmers, who were probably vassals of Funan, came from the upper course of the Menam River. They had reached the Mekong River via the Man River Valley. Their first independent principality developed in the 5th century, north of Tonle Sap Lake: the Chinese accounts call this kingdom Chenla and also mention the kings Shrutavarman and Shreshthavarman, whose capital Shreshthapura must have been in southern Laos.
A major influence on the future history of Cambodia was wrought by the Khmer kingdom of Bhavapura, in the area of present-day Kompong Thom: its most important sovereign, Ishanavarman, completed the conquest of Funan in 612-628 and chose Sambo Prei Kuk as his capital, renaming it Ishanapura.
After some turmoil, Jayavarman I regained control of the kingdom in 657, but upon his death after the year 700 the kingdom broke up into numerous principalities, among which there emerged that of Shambhupura, or Sambor, on the Mekong River, whose ruler Pushkaraksha proclaimed himself king of all Kambuja in 716. According to the Chinese chronicles, in the early 8th century there were two Chenlas, a ‘land Chenla’ and a ‘water Chenla’; the former was united and centered around the ancient territories of Chenla, while the latter consisted of several fiefs in the area that once constituted Funan. The son of King Pushkaraksha, Shambhuvarman, and his heir, Rejendravarman I, maintained control over most of ‘water Chenla’ up to the end of the 8th century, when the Malayans and Javanese gained dominion over many Khmer principalities.
Four artistic styles are ascribed to this period, the first of which, the Sambo Prei Kuk style (600-650), was named after the capital of Bhavapura, 22 miles (35 km) north of Kompong Thom and 87 miles (140 km) southeast of Angkor. This style laid the foundation for future Khmer architecture. The temple or prasat consists of a rather squat square or oblong cella (the space within the temple walls) with a single access and slightly protuberant pilasters on the outside walls, and surmounted by a pyramidal top with symmetrical steps. The play of recessed and protuberant elements gradually increase, thus augmenting the number of external pilasters. Besides the access, which almost always faces east, there are other false doors on the other sides of the prasat. The cella is covered with a structure made up of progressively smaller levels, each of which reproduces the façade of the temple.
The doors and lintels are made of sandstone. The openings framed by round colonnettes in which the upper bulb is in the shape of a turban fringed by garlands, are a legacy of Indian architecture. The lintels – fundamental in tracing the evolution of Khmer art – consist of an arch emerging from the jaws of two makera, aquatic monsters with a trunk and horns.
Inserted in the arch are three medallions with animals or divinities in relief, and in the lower register there are garlands of flowers and festoons of stylized leaves, as well as necklaces and pendants. In some cases the arched motif of the lintel is a naga or many-headed serpent and the makara is replaced by knights riding fantastic animals, while the lower register is filled with figures.
The sculpture production of Sambo Prei Kuk is noteworthy for the rendering of some anatomical features; the male figures have slim bodies and round faces illuminated by a faint smile. Here for the first time female figures make their appearance; with ample bosoms, they are wrapped in long dresses fastened under the navel, with or without a central series of folds. Prevailing among them are the portraits of Durga, the consort of the god Shiva, who in the Khmer civilization was also considered to be the sister of Vishnu.
The number of female images increases in the Prei Kmeng style (635-700), which takes it name from the temple on the southwest corner of the West Barray (a array is an artificial reservoir), while new elements are the first images of Brahma and the widespread use of mobile metal attributes that the gods hold in their hands. The colonnettes become larger and are more heavily decorated and in the lintels the makara are replaced by large figures at the ends or in the middle of the composition, which is dominated by more rectilinear arches.
The Prasat Andet style (7th-8th century), named after a locality near modern Kompong Thom, is marked by the development of the sculptural elements of the previous periods: great attention is paid to the anatomical details of the bodies, which are executed in the round without sustaining arches, and the faces of the male statues have thin moustaches. Vishnu, Harihara and Devi, the Great Goddess, are the most common figures represented.
The following Kompong Preah style (706-800), centered near Pursat, shows a decline in the aesthetic quality of the statues: the limbs become heavy and the faces are rendered rather coldly. In architecture there is an increase in the rings of the cylindrical colonnettes that are decorated with delicate petals, while in the lintels medallions are no longer used and the garland dominate the carved surface, with a central knot of vegetation among rows of leaves that become protuberant pendants in the lower register.
This real history of Chenla and the first khmer kingdoms, a ‘land Chenla’ and a ‘water Chenla’ remains important to the Khmers nowadays. It’s also important to tourists which they can understand Cambodia.