Khmer Empire – Cambodia’s ancient link with India and Mahabharata


Origins : Khmer Empire and the Kingdom of Funan

The Khmer Empire of Cambodia, was a powerful Hindu-Buddhist empire in Southeast Asia from 8th century CE to 15th century CE. The empire originally grew out of the former Kingdom of Funan (68–550 CE). There is much debate about the origins of these people. The name of the kingdom is Chinese as given to them by the Chinese diplomats of 3rd century. However, the kingdom was Hindu-Buddhist by faith. It appears to be an ethno-linguistic melting pot of Indian and Chinese cultures.

Indian influence on the Kingdom of Funan

In the late 4th and 5th centuries, Indianization of south east Asia advanced more rapidly, in part through renewed impulses from the south Indian Pallava dynasty and the north Indian Gupta Empire. The only extant local writings from the period of Funan are paleographic Pallava Grantha inscriptions in Sanskrit of the Pallava dynasty, a scholarly language used by learned and ruling elites throughout South and Southeast Asia.
India was in its Golden Age during this time with the Gupta empire at it’s peak and the Southern Kingdoms embarking on naval expeditions into South-east Asia.

Funan may have been the Suvarnabhumi referred to in ancient Indian texts.


The Brahmin Kaudinya in Funan

The Chinese  Book of Liang records the story of the foundation of Funan by the foreigner Hùntián: He came from the southern country Jiào (an unidentified location) and married the Queen Liǔyè. Some scholars have identified the conqueror Hùntián of the Book of Liang with the Brahmin, Kauṇḍinya.
According to reports by two Chinese envoys, Kang Tai and Chu Ying, the state of Funan was established by an Indian Brahmin named Kaundinya. In the 1st century CE, Kaundinya was given instruction in a dream to take a magic bow (some Astra?) from a temple and defeat a Naga princess named Soma(Chinese: Liu Ye, “Willow Leaf”), the daughter of the king of the Naga. She later married Kaundinya (chin. Hun Tien) and their lineage became the royal dynasty of Funan.
Kaundinya later built a capital, and changed the name of the country to ‘Kambuja’ (Relation to Khambojs of North India?). In reality, the myth has Indian origins: the Pallavas of South India had adopted this genealogy to explain their dynastic origins, for the first Pallava ruler of Kanchipuram was supposed to be the son of a Chola king and a naga princess. The legend somehow reached Cambodia, where it was adopted by the Funan kings to explain their dynastic origins, and a legendary first King Kaundinya came into being.
(The name “Cambodia” is derived from its ancient name Kambuja or Kambujadesa)

Kaudinya’s relation to Mahabharata

The story of Kaundinya is also set forth briefly in the Sanskrit inscription C. 96 of the Cham king Prakasadharma found at Mỹ Sơn. It is dated Sunday, 18 February, 658 AD (and thus belongs to the post-Funanese period) and states in relevant part (stanzas XVI-XVIII):

“It was there [at the city of Bhavapura] that Kauṇḍinya, the foremost among brahmins, planted the spear which he had obtained from Droṇa’s Son Aśvatthāman, the best of brahmins. There was a daughter of a king of serpents, called “Somā,” who founded a family in this world. Having attained, through love, to a radically different element, she lived in the abode of man. She was taken as wife by the excellent Brahmin Kauṇḍinya for the sake of (accomplishing) a certain task …”

Fall of Funan and Rise of Khmer and Angkor

Funan’s dependence on maritime trade is seen as a cause for the beginning of Funan’s downfall. Funan was superseded and absorbed in the 6th century by the Khmer polity of Chenla (Zhenla). Soon the region was a dominion under the Hindu Kingdoms of Java. So the Hindu culture further permeated inside Cambodia via Java.
Jayavarman II (r. 790-850) is widely regarded as a king who set the foundations of the Angkor period in Cambodian history, beginning with a grandiose consecration ritual that he conducted in 802 on the sacred Mount Mahendraparvata, now known as Phnom Kulen, to celebrate the independence of Kambuja from Javanese dominion. He declared himself Chakravartin, in a ritual taken from the Indian-Hindu tradition.


Artist rendition of the Angkor Wat temple

Later, Suryavarman I (reigned 1010 – 1050) gained the throne and established diplomatic relations with the Chola dynasty of south India. Suryavarman I sent a chariot as a present to the Chola Emperor Rajaraja Chola I. After surviving several invasions from his enemies, Suryavarman requested aid from the powerful Chola Emperor Rajendra Chola I against the Tambralinga kingdom (from Malaysia). After learning of Suryavarman’s alliance with Rajendra Chola, the Tambralinga kingdom requested aid from the Srivijaya king Sangrama Vijayatungavarman.This eventually led to the Chola Empire coming into conflict with the Srivijiya Empire. The war ended with a victory for the Chola dynasty and of the Khmer Empire, and major losses for the Sri Vijaya Empire and the Tambralinga kingdom. This alliance somewhat also has religious nuance, since both Chola and Khmer empire are Hindu Shivaist, while Tambralinga and Srivijaya are Mahayana Buddhist.

Mysterious Common Links

  • Cambodia was once called KAMBHOJA, which might be named after the Indian city in ancient Gandhara in today’s Kabul region. Are they the same Khamboj people who migrated from North West into India?
    It is also conceivable that two Kambojas existed. There was also a Kamboja-Pala dynasty ruled parts of Bengal in the 10th to 11th centuries CE. Now which Kamboja were they?
  • Kaudinya used a magic spear. Was it a kind of an Astra (like Brahamastra) similar to the ones used in the India epics of Ramayan and Mahabharata.
  • The connection of Kaudinya with Mahabharata (see above)
  • Many future Funan and Khmer kings have Sanskrit names.
  • The Angkor Watt temple is the largest Hindu temple in the world and is dedicated to God Vishnu.
  • The Nagas have generally been described in Indian history as dark and “less cultured” people (without knowledge of the vedas) who worshiped snakes. They were usually “the others”. When Arjun in Mahabharata traveled east, he married the Naga princess Ulupi. The Khmer culture appears to have originated from the same Naga clan. Below is a picture of a Naga (serpent) guard at the entrance of Angkor Watt temple.
  • It appears that their was some link between Drona’s son Ashwatthama and the founder of Khmer culture Kaudinya. History is written by the victors, it might be a case that the Naga’s are demonised in India becuase they were allied to the losing side. But the same might not be true in Cambodia. For it says above “…Aśvatthāman
    , the best of brahmins” . Far-fetched. I am just speculating.
  • Indrapura was the capital of an early Kingdom of Ankor ruled by Jayavarman II. Inspired by Indraprastha? Again speculating.

Mahabharata #1: Draupadi

The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic of epic proportions. To put things into perspective, it is the longest poem ever written with over 200,000 verse lines with additional prose passages and 1.8 million words in total. It is about ten times the length of Illiad and Odyssey combined.

Mythology or true story? Maybe we will never know. But this work of historical fiction is so huge, that it is difficult to comprehend everything as a single linear storyline. It has sub-plots, side-stories and sub sub plots. My curiosity of the antiquity era and ancient scriptures lead me into reading different versions of this epic along with varied analysis by renowned scholars. In my effort to expose myself to myriad of interpretations and opinions, I found some characters in the Mahabharata, which were far more complex, far less documented and in some cases, grossly under-rated in popular culture.

In this series, I will do an illustrated analysis of some of the most interesting, complex and mystical characters of the Mahabharata. The analysis is in an abridged narration format, so I am sure that the people who have never read the Mahabharata will enjoy the story.

I would like to start with one of the most widely known (to anyone who has heard of Mahabharata) and one of the most controversial characters of the story. I would like to start with a lady.

“Draupadi has five husbands — but she has none
She had five sons — and was never a mother”

The Fire born Princess 

Draupadi born out of fire

Draupadi born out of fire

Draupadi was the daughter of King Drupad of Panchala. Drupad lost a battle to his childhood friend Drona, who, with the help of his disciples captured North Panchala. Drupad could never forget this defeat. His current 3 sons were incapable of defeating the powerful Drona. Thus, he conducted a sacrifice (a Yajna) in order to get blessed with a son. Out of the sacrificial fire came Dhrishtadyumna, the son who was destined to kill Drona and avenge his father. But soon afterwards, a young woman also emerged from the flames, the twin sister of Dhrishtadyumna and daughter of Drupad, she came to be popularly known as Draupadi. Both the twins were born as fully grown young adults.

She was born out of the fire of vengeance and passion. Yet, she was not wished for by her father. She was a by-product of the Yajna.

Draupadi is also known as Panchali (Princess of Panchala), Yajnaseni (born out of fire) and Krishnaa (dark complexioned). She was a divinely beautiful woman with shiny black locks, a compelling complexion and lotus petal eyes. It was said that her fragrance wafted over a mile. She was one of the most beautiful women of her times.

Of eyes like lotus-petals and of faultless features endued with youth and intelligence, she is extremely beautiful. And the slender-waisted Draupadi of every feature perfectly faultless, and whose body emitteth a fragrance like unto that of the blue lotus for two full miles around


From Swayamvara to Polyandry

A Swayamvara is a self-choice event where a girl chooses her husband from a group of prospective grooms. Yes, The Bachelorette was popular in India 3000 years ago. King Drupada held a Swayamwara for Draupadi and invited kings and princes from all over India. It was a era of small kingdoms which were frequently at war with each other and one way to secure an alliance with another kingdom was through marriage. Panchala was a powerful kingdom, so the swayamvara was attended by many opportunistic princes including Karna, the loyal friend of Duryodhana and the five Pandava brothers accompanied by Krishna.

A contest was arranged to find the most suitable groom. On top was a mechanical rotating wheel with a fish mounted over it. On the floor was a pool of water. The task was to hit the eye of the rotating fish with an arrow by looking at its reflection in the water. Only two archers were skilled enough for completing this task — Karna and Arjuna (the 3rd eldest Pandava). While Karna was the first person to step forward, Krishna candidly signalled Draupadi not to choose Karna. Draupadi received the signal and prohibited Karna from entering the contest. She refused to marry him because he was of a lower caste. Karna was the son of a charioteer and thus, beneath the status of royal kshatriya caste.

How could she do that? Because she had the power to do so. It was up to the girl to choose her husband. In a world with a history of oppression of women in almost every society, this was a striking example of women empowerment. And this story was written around 2300 years ago.

Arjuna hitting the fish-eye with an arrow

Arjuna hitting the fish-eye with an arrow

She rejected Karna and humiliated him. Arjuna then came forward and successfully completed the task. Draupadi then chose him as her husband. Arjuna was the disciple of Drona and was instrumental in Drona’s campaign to defeat Draupadi’s father. His future wife took birth as a direct consequence of his past actions.


The history is filled with violent successions to the throne, with brother killing brother, son killing father, kings ending entire bloodlines to secure their thrones. The story of the Kuru clan was no different. There was animosity and jealousy between the two cousin factions : Kauravas, the hundred sons of Dhritrashtra (blind king of Hastinapura) and Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu (brother of Dhritrashtra). There had been an assassination attempt on the Pandavs and they had gone into hiding. It was during this time that, with the help of their friend Krishna of Dwarka, they reached Panchala to take part in Draupadi’s swayamvara. A marriage to Draupadi meant an alliance with Panchala, and a strong millitary backing. Draupadi was thus used for political gain. Even her beloved friend Krishna may have manipulated her by signalling her not to marry Karna.

The Pandavas (from eldest to youngest — Yudhishtira, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahdev) then went to see their (step)mother Kunti. She was the mother of Yudhishtira, Bheema and Arjuna and the step-mother of Nakul and Sahdev who were born of Madri. Arjuna introduced Draupadi to her mother like a prize that he had won in a contest. Without giving much thought, Kunti ordered him to share the prize equally among the five brothers. Kunti knew the importance of unity among the brothers if they ever wanted to defeat their cousins and become Kings. In this one command, she successfully secured the unity of her sons as well as an alliance with Panchala.

Krishna, Draupadi and the Pandavas

Krishna, Draupadi and the Pandavas

Even though she loved and chose Arjuna, Draupadi was married to all five Pandavas. She was the glue that binded the Pandavas together (Kunti’s children and Madri’s children), she also provided Pandavas with strong allies and hopes of regaining their lost glory, uplifting their social stature. Such was the power of that woman.

Polyandry is a rare practice which seldom finds mention in history. Yet, the marriage of Draupadi stands out as a controversial example in a patriarchal society.


The first Feminist and her doom

Mahabharata is full of noble men, their virtues and principles. The greatest Hindu book on Dharma (duty of a human being) is a chapter inside the Mahabharata. We have the likes of Bheeshma — the patriarch of both the belligerent clans, Yudhishtira — the poster boy of Dharma and Karna — The epitome of loyalty and generosity. But one event that lies in the heart of the Mahabharata, that puts even the greatest of these heroes to shame was the Vastra Haran, the disrobing and humiliation of Draupadi in front of the entire court.

Vastra haran of Draupadi

Vastra haran of Draupadi Painting by Arun Prem

After her husband Yudhishtira lost and gambled her away in the game of dice, Draupadi was dragged into the court by her hair and was disrobed. She kept arguing about the semantics and technicalities of her wager. Not to mention that she was being disrobed and humiliated. Yet, instead of begging for mercy or decency, there she was, arguing that the wager was invalid. Since her husband had lost himself first and had become a slave, he had no right to wager her afterwards. Her argument was that a slave had no right to his wife and thus, the wager was invalid.

In a way, Draupadi was the first feminist

Unlike the majority of girls during that era, Draupadi was educated. She was taught by sages on subjects such as political science. Her argumentative skills were evident in the court where she continued to debate about the validity of the wager. When that did not work out, she questioned the elders present in the court about morality. Her words were filled with sarcasm and contempt. They were directed at the so called flag bearers of Dharma who did nothing to help her and hung their heads in shame. When this too was to no avail, she threatened them with vengeance, for she was Panchali, the princess of the mighty kingdom of Panchala. She warned Dhritrashtra of dire consequences. This finally worked and her humiliation was put to an end. A woman, spoke up, raising her voice in the court of men, in front of patriarchs who hung their head in shame. She questioned their laws and their wisdom. She questioned her own husband.

But this fiery eyed warrior princess did more. Not only did she save herself, she saved her husbands on multiple occasions. As reparation for her humiliation, Dhristrashtra offered Draupadi three boons. Draupadi simply asked that her husbands should be freed from slavery and that their weapons should be returned. She did not ask anything for herself. Her words were no less than weapons, for when she was asked what her third boon was, she politely declined and said that her husbands were capable enough to acquire the rest.

In a single sentence, she admonished and humbled the male dominated society. She had five husbands, yet she was alone.


Krishna , the Sakha

Krishna and Draupadi

Krishna and Draupadi
Illustration by Uttam Ghosh

Another thing unheard of in the ancient times and still very rare in the popular culture of today is a friendship between a man and a woman. A male-female relationship that is not from marriage or from blood. Mahabharata presents a unique example here as well. Draupadi had a very special place for her Sakha (male friend) Krishna. He too reciprocated those feelings towards her Sakhi. Krishna was her companion and protector right from the time of the Swayamwara until after the end of the war and until the end of his life. Krishna was a demigod (incarnation of Vishnu) and is one of the most complex characters in the Mahabharata. He was also the closest friend of Arjun, the love of Draupadi’s life.

Once, Krishna was wounded in a battle and Draupadi tended to the wound by tearing a portion of her cloth and tying it over the wound. Krishna was forever in debt to her and promised her that he will always be by her side. Krishna kept his promise. He was the one who helped her when she was getting disrobed by extending her saari cloth so that it would never end, thus protecting her honor. He was always with her during trying times.

The love of Bheema

One of the most underrated aspects of Mahabharata was the unconditional love that Bheema had for his wife Draupadi. Even though she favored Arjuna, Bheema was always there for her. It was Bheema who was most furious during her humiliation after the game of dice. He took a vow to kill all the hundred Kauravas. He vowed to kill Dushasana and bring his blood to Draupadi. He vowed to break Duryodhana’s thigh for Draupadi. He did fulfil all his vows in the Mahabharata war.

The plight of Draupadi in the court of king Virata

The plight of Draupadi in the court of king Virata

After losing in the game of dice, the Pandavas were forced into exile for 13 years (Vanvasa) with the last year to be lived incognito. During the last year, they took refuge in the palace of king Virata in the kingdom of Matsya, where each of them took up one servile duty. Draupadi became the hand maiden of the Queen. But her beauty made her a target of the Queen’s pervert brother, Keechak. Draupadi was molested and humiliated by the Keechak. She sought justice in the court of the king. The king found no reason to take action against his brother in law because of a hand maiden. Yudhistira and Arjuna asked her to calm down and not blow up their cover. She accused her husbands for not protecting her honor. All this while, Bheema stood in a corner hissing in anger. Late on, he secretly killed Keechak on Draupadi’s persuasion.

During their final journey before ascending to heaven, Draupadi was the first to fall down and it was Bheema who was the first to turn around and reach out to her.


Not a Goddess but a Human

Draupadi was the epitome of patience, compassion and truth. She was bold, intelligent and argumentative. She was a champion of morality and always raised her voice to criticize its defaulters. But unlike many other mythological heroines, she is not a goddess.

Painting by Kavya Reddy

Painting by Kavya Reddy

Like a human, Draupadi was prone to error and fits of temper. She rejected Karna in her swayamvara and humiliated him for his lowly birth. She also mocked Duryodhana for slipping and falling. She laughed at him and said “Andhasya Putra Andhaha” (A blind man’s son is blind). She sought revenge and uttered words of contempt. She took a vow of not tying her hair until she washed them with the blood of Dushasana, such were her words. She gloated on the death of her enemies. She cursed and clenched her fists in rage. She was not perfect but she was real. Her troubles were more human. She was smart and manipulative. She manipulated Bheema on many occasions and used his strength and temper to seek retribution against those who wronged her.

Draupadi is also the role model for an ideal woman. She performed all duties expected from a daughter, a wife and a mother. She had all the feminine qualities desired in a woman. She showed compassion and forgave her enemies. In matters of love, she was still more human than her mythological contemporaries. She was married to five brothers, but she favoured Arjun. On the other hand, she could not realize and reciprocate the unconditional love that Bheema had for her.

When the Pandavas were forced into exile for 13 years (Vanvasa), she accompanied them. When all the other wives of the Pandavas went to live with their parents along with their children, Draupadi volunteered to remain with them. She performed vedic rituals, fed the brahmnis and continued to motivate her husbands to re-capture Hastinapur and regain their lost glory.


The Lady of Substance

Many people attribute the Mahabharata war to Draupadi’s wrong doings. But Draupadi’s wrong doings are dwarfed by the actions of her own husbands. She was treated by Arjuna as a prize that he won in a contest and was distributed equally among the five brothers. She still remained an ideal wife to all of them. Each Pandava took atleast one other wife. When Arjun was sent away on a 13 year pilgrimage, she was forced to stay away from the person she loved the most for 13 years. And when the wait was over, her favorite husband brought with him three more wives. She was furious, she shouted at Arjun in rage and clenched her fists. But she also understood the need to form political alliances and approved of the marriages.

Draupadi was used by everyone. She was not wished for by her father when she came out of the fire. She was desired for marriage for political gains. She was treated like an object to be distributed equally among the five brothers. She was humiliated after the game of dice, was almost abducted in the forest and was molested in the last year of exile. All her sons were murdered in their sleep which was against the norms of the war. Even after diligently performing all her duties towards her five husbands, Draupadi was criticized in the end by Yudhishtira for favoring Arjuna. After going through so much in her life she had it in her to remain not only sane but also compassionate

The Mahabharata stands out in this aspect even against the Greek and Roman epics, it gives so much “screen time” and depth of character to the women. If Mahabharata becomes a movie, it would definitely pass the Bechdel test.

Happily Ever After?

The Mahabharata is not your typical fairytale. It is not concerned with happy endings. Rather it is concerned with the lessons it teaches. Like all other characters of Mahabharata, especially women, Draupadi’s life was full of highs and lows, and with sorrows and frustration.

She is this iconic proud heroine, who stood an equal among some of the greatest men ever to walk this earth. Thousands of years later, she is not referred to as someone’s daughter or someone’s wife, she is her own person, she is Yajnaseni, the fire born princess. She is Draupadi.

Artwork by Abhishek Singh

Artwork by Abhishek Singh