Phnom Da is an about 100 m tall hill and an excavation area located in the southeast of Cambodia close to the Vietnamese border. It belongs to the Angkor Borei district in Ta Keo province, about 100 km south of Phnom Penh and 24 km east of Ta Keo town.
Phnom Da is the name used for the first art style period in pre-Angkorian times. Phnom Da and the nearby Angkor Borei were the capital of the so-called Funan empire in the 6th century and continued to play an important role in the following two centuries that are called "Chenla" era (or "Zhenla"). Statues found in Angkor Borei, most of them at Phnom Da, are the earliest examples of Khmer sculptural art. They are astonishing in size and refinement as well. Statues such as the Vishnu of Phnom Da are supple and lively sculptures. They are clad in naturalistic garments. Their perfection is reason to suggest that there must have been earlier sculptures in terracotta, bronze or wood that perished or were not yet found.
Some of the Phnom Da style sculptures are Buddhist, for example a Buddha-head from Tuol Chan, Angkor Borei district. Even the earliest group of statues found in Cambodia is Buddhist, the so-called Angkor Borei group from Wat Romlok near Phnom Da. They were collected by the famous French explorer George Groslier, Director of Cambodian Arts.
Funan was one of the first highly developed Indianized states in mainland Southeast Asia. It dominated the maritime trade in this area during half a millennium, from the 2nd to the middle of the 7th century. The first written account about Cambodia was from the third century, it was written by Kang Tai and Zhu Ying, envoys of the Chinese Han emperors. Their original reports are lost, but they were used in handed down sources from the 5th century. Kang Tai and Zhu Ying described an agrarian society, well versed in metallurgie. They called Khmer rulers „Fan“. A Funan king they called Fan Chan sent gifts to the Chinese emperor, statues and even dancers. The Chinese chronicles mention that the Funan king Fan Shih-man at the begin of the third century was a great conquerer in Southeast-Asia. His nephew and successor Fan Chan sent embassies to India and China in the middle of the century.They also mention that the letter type used in Cambodia was similar to those in India. From the 5th century onwards Khmer rulers bore Indian names, often with the suffix „varman“ meaning „protected“.
The most important town of the Funan maritime empire was the seaport Oc Eo, en entrepot between India and China. It is situated to the south of Phnom Da, a few kilometres away from the coastline, the excavation area is on Vietnamese territory. Oc Eo was connected with Phnom Da by a canal. Oc Eo was an urban agglomerate of enourmous size, people lived in stilt houses along small canals. It is believed to be the seaport Kattigara mentioned by the ancient geographer Ptolemy. Roman coins of Antoninus Pius and Marc Aurel have been found in Oc Eo. Sanskrit inscriptions in Brahmi letters prove the existence of a Hinayana Buddhist sect in this area already in the 2nd century. Oc Eo seems to have been situated at a strategic junction of a canal system that linked the Gulf of Siam with the Mekong delta. But Oc Eo seems not to have been the residence of the Funan kings. The capitals were further inland. One early Funan capital may have been today's Ba Phnom and Banam in Prei Veng province.
In the 6th century, King Rudravarman, the most significant and best known Funan king, resided in Angkor Borei near the Phnom Da hill. He is the only Funan king mentioned in inscriptions. The Chinese chronicle called Liang History describes him as an usurper, born of a concubine. Between 517 and 539, Rudravarman sent several missions to the Chinese emperor's court. Rudravarman was the last king who ruled a united Funan empire. Dupont called the impressive sandstone sculptures from his era "Phnom Da style A" and those from the second half of the 6th and beginning of the 7th century "Phnom Da style B".
Most of the Phnom Da style sandstone sculptures are Vishnuite. In contrast to the Angkorian empire, when Shiva worship dominated the imperial cult, Vishnu was the most significant god in Funan. However, some of Funan’s traditions, such as the cults of sacred mountains and of a Naga princess, were adopted by the Khmer kings of the Angkorian era.
Not much remains from those Funan era in situ at Angkor Borei and Phnom Da, because buildings and temples were made of wood. Impressive sculptures of the Phnom Da style can be studied in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, for example a 157 cm tall statue most probably depicting Parashurama, an Avatar of Vishnu. Some artefacts are exposed in Siem Reap’s Angkor Museum. There is also a small museum in Angkor Borei near the police station.
There are artificial caves from the Funan period on the hill of Phnom Da. A first stone temple on top of the Phnom Da hill was built during a later Funan period called Norkor Phnom period. The well-known Funan King Rudravarman is said to be the founder of this temple in the first half of the 6th century. But maybe a first stone structure was not erected before the 8th century, this means, during the Chenla era, when Angkor Borei, then called Vyadhapura, was a principality's capital.
The Shiva temple on top of the Phnom Da hill that can be visited today is from a much later period, it was reconstructed estimately in the 11th or 12th century, during the Angkorian heydays. The temple is 12 metres square. The temple’s roof is damaged, but it is still of impressing height, 18 metres. The temple is open to the north, it has false doors on the three other sides. It was constructed of laterite in the lower and brick in the upper parts. Doors and false doors also use sandstone, they are framed by richly decorated sandstone colonettes. The pediments show Naga heads. A stone carving depicting the Churning of the Milk Ocean is broken into two parts. A lintel illustrates the sleeping Vishnu creating the world. The temple is surrounded by Frangipani trees, they are in bloom in May.
One of the first stone monuments of Khmer architecture was built in 300 m distance, on the adjoining smaller hill, in the 6th or 7th century. So it is not certain whether this temple is from the end of the Funan era or from the Chenla period. The remarkable structure is called Ashrama Maha Rosei, also spelt Asrom Moha Asei or Asroom Taa Asey. It is 5.5 m square and 7 m high. Remarkably, it is built of quite heavy blocks of basalt stone, a material not used in classic Khmer architecture. The stone blocks had to be transported from a far away region in the north of Cambodia, since the only Cambodian basalt deposit is in today's Kratie province. Some archaeologists even believe that Ashram Maha Rosei is a reconstruction of a temple that was originally built in the Kratie area and later on, stone by stone, transferred to Angkor Borei.
In the 5th edition of her Angkor guidebook, Dawn Rooney suggests that the architecture of the Ashram is "derived from the temples on the Dieng Plateu in Java and from those in southern India fused with Khmer preferences." As in the case of the Indonesian Dieng plateau temples the shape of Ashram Maha Rosei is influenced more by South-Indian Pallava architecture in the Dravidian style than by North-Indian architecture. As mentioned above, it is not certain, that Ashram Maha Rosei is from the Funan era, when Phnom Da belonged to Rudravarman's capital. But in this case this monument would be the only remaining stone construction from the Funan empire, since most constructions were of wood and do not exist any more. Remaining temples, e.g. in Oc Eo, were made of brick. Anyway, the small Ashram Maha Rosei is unique in style and one of the first stone structures in Cambodia.
A 178 cm tall sandstone statue depicting Harihara has been found in the Ashram Maha Rosei. It is from the 7th century. This statue became a hallmark of the Guimet Museum in Paris, Europe's most important collection of Asian art. It is positioned right in the middle of the main hall of the Southeast-Asian collection. Harihara is half Shiva, half Vishnu. This Harihara has Shiva's trident in the right hand and Vishnu's chakra discus in the left hand. Many more Harihara sculptures or parts of them were excavated in Angkor Borei district.
Another remarkable work of sculptural art from Phnom Da is a depiction of Krishna's lifting of Mount Govardhana.
I can offer you to visit Phnom Da privately, you could stay in the house of my uncle near Angkor Borei.