Over two decades ago, in the far reaches of Kampong Speu’s Baset district, a group of villagers were excavating a pond when they heard a sound they did not expect: the clink of their shovels on stone.
As they dug further, a slab covered in ancient carvings emerged, then three more. Soon they found themselves excavating the ruins of an ancient temple. The tablets were put under a hut, and for 20 years villagers worshipped them. Little did they know they were sitting on an archaeological find that may reshape a centuries-old historical, religious and political debate – that of the actual location of the fabled “Land of Gold”, the ancient realm of Suvarnabhumi.
Explorers, researchers, theologians and politicians have long puzzled over the whereabouts of Suvarnabhumi, with references dating back to the Jataka tales of the life of the Buddha, and ancient Buddhist accounts from the time of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BC.
Descriptions in such sources suggest that Suvarnabhumi is in South or Southeast Asia, and variants on the term describe anything from a city, to an island, to even a peninsula of gold. However, the exact location has always remained a mystery, and the toponym is mired in controversy.
Last Tuesday, Dr Vong Sotheara, a professor of Cambodian and Southeast Asian history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, went to inspect the tablets excavated in Kampong Speu, now kept on the grounds of the Kiri Sdachkong pagoda, after being tipped off by a former student.
Upon his arrival, he found that only two of the tablets remained legible; one was too faded, the other stolen.
But on one, he read an inscription that praised King Isanavarman I of the Chenla Empire, dated to the year 633. It was written in a sixth-century form of Khmer, which combined the Sanskrit and Nagari alphabets.
“The great King Isanavarman is full of glory and bravery. He is the King of Kings, who rules over Suvarnabhumi until the sea, which is the border, while the kings in the neighbouring states honour his order to their heads,” his translation reads.
Cambodia as Suvarnabhumi?
While Sotheara’s findings have yet to be peer-reviewed and published, he believes the tablets are some of the most compelling evidence to date for the location of Suvarnabhumi. According to Sotheara, there have not been any discoveries of stone inscriptions mentioning the term before. Finding one in Cambodia, he says, is a “game changer” in the debate.
Sotheara contended that the mention of Suvarnabhumi as a place ruled by a Khmer king implies that Suvarnabhumi was evidently in Cambodia, and the term could even be the name of the pre-Angkorian Chenla Kingdom.
“So far, we still do not know the [Cambodian] name of Cambodia before the Angkorian period,” he said. “We have the terms such as Funan or Chenla [coming] only from Chinese records.”
As far as Sotheara can tell, the inscription belonged to a temple built by a man named Vrau Elt, who identifies himself as a “servant” of King Isanavarman I, who reigned over the Chenla Kingdom from AD 616 to 637, and established his capital Ishanapura, known today as the Unesco-listed Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex.
Most of the inscription, like many others found in Southeast Asia, praises the king for his godlike power and dominion over the land, but the mention of Suvarnabhumi directly as being held by a specific ruler is what Sotheara says surprised him the most.
Sotheara makes his case for Cambodia being the actual location of Suvarnabhumi by pointing out that it is one of the oldest known civilisations in the region, and at times claimed vast territorial holdings and a reputation of glory to go with them. The description in the slabs in Kampong Speu says the King’s golden lands extend to the sea, which Sotheara says fits the common idea that Suvarnabhumi is somewhere in mainland Southeast Asia.
“The existing facts and findings, combined with the inscription in Kampong Speu, prove that Suvarnabhumi was the Khmer Empire,” Sotheara said.
And he’s not the first to think so. Supporting Sotheara’s hypothesis is the Funan Theory, first put forward by French scholar George Cœdès, whose analysis of evidence from the first to seventh centuries implies that Suvarnabhumi was the State of Funan, which was subsequently taken over by Chenla.
Adding to that, Cambodians have long referred to their homeland as Sovannaphum (the modern Khmer iteration of Suvarnabhumi). However, the same can be said of many Southeast Asian peoples.
A contested claim
With evidence being sparse, vague, and often little more than an implication, it’s no surprise that Cambodia is not the only country which has claimed to be the “Land of Gold”.
In Thailand, the government and national museum assert that Suvarnabhumi occupied the country’s coast, along the central plain, centred on the ancient city of U Thong, in the western part of Suphan Buri province. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is named to further cement this national identity.
In Myanmar, scholars and politicians have asserted, based on excerpts from the chronicles of Emperor Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries from the fourth century, that Suvarnabhumi was the Thaton Kingdom located in the Tanintharyi region, which existed from AD 300 to 1057.
Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Borneo have also at one time or another been posited as the possible home of Suvarnabhumi.
For Sotheara, the competing claims are just a product of much of Southeast Asia once being a part of the larger Khmer Empire.
“That is why they also claimed themselves to be Suvarnabhumi,” he said.
However, many regional experts and historians have their doubts.
Cambodian historian Dr Michel Tranet said that although Sotheara may be one of the most outstanding Sanskrit and ancient Khmer specialists, his argument rests on “a small shred” of evidence.
“The discovery of the inscription in Kampong Speu is important, but that is far from enough,” Tranet said. “We need more in-depth studies from political, economic and cultural perspectives.”
Tranet contends that the literature points to Suvarnabhumi being larger than just the Khmer Empire. It appears to have comprised Myanmar, the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia, he says, noting the significance of maritime routes referencing Suvarnabhumi in various sources.
Dr Nicolas Revire, an expert on Southeast Asian history from Thailand’s Thammasat University, said he couldn’t comment in detail on the new inscription until it was reviewed and published, but would be “very careful before asserting claims that ‘Suvarnabhumi is ruled by a Khmer King’ or that ‘Suvarnabhumi is in fact Cambodia’”.
“[T]he exact location of [Suvarnabhumi] is a hot topic amongst both specialists and politicians of (mainland) Southeast Asia,” he wrote in an email.
The quest to find Suvarnabhumi is coloured by nationalist agendas, Revire warns in his article Facts and Fiction: The Myth of Suvannabhumi through the Thai and Burmese Looking Glass, “especially in Burma and Thailand, in which each country claimed to be the ‘Buddhist Golden Land’”.
“As expected, this myth has largely shaped the vision and the historical interpretation of generations of archaeologists, historians and art historians, especially in these two Buddhist countries. With such nationalist agendas, it is hardly surprising that the scholarly quest to identify [Suvarnabhumi] has been both controversial and muddled,” he wrote.
According to Revire, the term may have been used by ancient Indian traders to broadly describe anywhere from Lower Myanmar, Central or Lower Thailand, the Malay Peninsula or even Sumatra, as a “place with great wealth and spices”. Indeed, scholars have often compared Suvarnabhumi to the quest for the fabled golden city of El Dorado in the Americas.
Like Revire, Dr Arlo Griffiths, an expert in Sanskrit from École française d’Extrême-Orient, also finds it hard to agree with Sotheara, although he had already read the stone tablets found in Baset.
“I have seen the context of the occurrence of the two words suvarna (meaning: ‘gold’) and bhumi (‘earth’),” Griffiths wrote via email. “The meaning of the verse in question is not perfectly clear, but it seems certain that Suvarnabhumi does not here form the name of any country; rather, the words here just seem to mean ‘golden earth’.”
Local fears, national pride
The tablets haven’t just drawn the interest of scholars.
A day after Sotheara’s inspection of the site, officials came with the intent to move the inscriptions to the National Museum, but locals prevented them from doing so.
Men Sovann, the abbot of Kiri Sdachkong pagoda, said the tablets are sacred and would bring a curse to anyone who attempted to take them away from the original site.
“The man who found the tablets about 20 years ago died soon after they were pulled out of the ground,” Sovann said. A few years ago, when locals tried to move them just a few hundred metres closer to the pagoda, he continued, a long drought afflicted the commune.
“We will not let officials take them away, or there will be a disaster upon us,” he said.
The abbot believes a curse is written into the tablets, however Sotheara says it’s a matter of interpretation of a line of script that says those who care for the tablets will “escape slavery”.
The Ministry of Culture’s Prak Sunnara, the director general of the Heritage Department, confirmed he had sent officials for the tablets after being informed of their significance by Sotheara.
By law, the tablets are government property and must be safeguarded by the ministry.
“The ministry is worried about the security of this national heritage,” Sunnara said, adding “they could be stolen easily”.
Nevertheless, Dom Penh, 68, a retired blacksmith and layperson at the pagoda, said he and his family will protect the tablets “with our lives”.
Expressing a sentiment similar to that of other villagers, Penh said that removing the tablets “means bringing risk to the lives of the people here”.
The ministry’s Sunnara, however, makes clear that the national – and nationalistic – value of the tablets overrides the villagers’ concerns, and for that matter, the scepticism of other scholars.
“Many countries in the region claim themselves as Suvarnabhumi, but they have never had any concrete evidence to prove it,” he said. “Now, we have it, and we must give it the greatest care since it is an important proof of our country’s glory and domination in the ancient times.”
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon