The area of present-day Cambodia was already occupied in the 3rd millennium B.C, but it was not documented historically until the beginning of the Christian era, when there rose up along the Gulf of Siam a kingdom that Chinese chronicles describe as Funan, from the Khmer word bnam, or “mountain”
The foundation of Funan (Khmer empire) may be ascribed to a certain Kaundinya. He was inspired by a dream, so he presumably went from India to Cambodia, where he married Soma, a local princess who was one of the Nagas, mythical beings that were part cobra. The son of Soma and Kaundinya was supposedly the founder of the first Kaundinya dynasty of Funan.
In the 5th century a second Kaundinya arrived from India to revive the Indianized customs that had gone by the wayside, and beginning with King Kaundinya Jayavarman (478-514) the rulers of Funan became more defined in a historical sense.
Vyadhapura, their capital, is considered by some scholars to have stood at the foot of Ba Phnom. In 514 Rudravarman ascended the throne and chose Angkor Borei as his capital, where he probably lived until after 539. In the most distinguished artistic production in this period is sculpture, which was part of the so-called Phnom Da style (540-600), named after the sacred rise near Angkor Borei, south of Phnom Penh.
In schist or sandstone, for the most part the sculpture works consist of portraits of Vishnu and figures connected to him, since Vishnuism must have been the religion of the sovereigns. However, Shivaism is documented by numerous lingams. This period witnessed the first representations of Harihara, half Shiva and half Vishnu. However, the arch and fillets (that support the head and arms of the portraits) betray the lack of confidence the sculptors had in the stability of their work.
The first Buddha statues make their appearance in this period; he is depicted standing, with his garment flowing down to his feet, which guaranteed stability to the piece and allowed the sculptor to avoid using supports. Of the 32 particular signs that according to the sacred texts distinguish Buddha, the ones most represented in Khmer art are the ushnisha, the cranial protuberance rendered by means of a roll or knot on the top of the head and which is the symbol of nirvana, and the elongated lobes of the heavy earrings Buddha wore before he renounced all worldly things.
Side by side with Buddha there were also the bodhisattvas, enlightened figures who remain in the world to help humans liberate themselves from suffering. The most famous of these is Avalokiteshvara, “He who looks from high, ” known in the Khmer world as Lokeshvara, the “Lord of the World, ” and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.
Bronze Head of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (8th century)