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Maldivians and their history
Michael O'Shea
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963, part 2


Historical, linguistic and archeological research in Maldives since the 1970s has shed light on many of the questions and secrets surrounding the country's past and traditions. The research shows early links with the cultures of the fishing and coconut cultivating people of South India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and their ancient beliefs in Devi, demons, sorcery, male sacrifice and the power of tantric practices. Buddhism assimilated aspects of tantrism and the resulting Vajrayana vehicle was a popular development in latter half of the first millenium. Islam in Maldives would make its own accommodation with traditional practices through the recognition of fanditha. To an extent, Islam's power over personal behaviour could be limited by lack of support from the royal court, but there were regular periods of conservative fervour when holymen and their supporters suppressed traditional beliefs and customs. The quest for an imagined 'purity' was mirrored in the historical records kept by Maldivians. In their minds, Islamisation was a cleansing and civilising process. What had existed before was evil, and deserved to be forgotten.

As in many other twentieth century countries with an identity crisis, Maldivians were embarrassed about aspects of their past, preferring it remained forgotten and hidden. The historical revelations of the last few decades have been disturbing for some, but for many others, especially the young, the discoveries present a more complete portrayal of the rich totality of Maldivian culture. The old official histories need to be revised.


Geography
A low rocky wall stretching out into the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are an 820 km chain of coral atolls lying atop an undersea mountain range called the Chagos Laccadive Ridge which extends from north to south off the west coast of India into the southern hemisphere in the central Indian Ocean. The most northern Maldivian atoll, Haa Alifu, is 600 km south-west of the Indian mainland. Another island further north, Minicoy, has a Maldivian culture but the earliest records limit the realm of the Maldivian monarch to the atolls. Since the seizure of Minicoy by the Ali Raja rulers of Cannanore in the early 1500s, the accepted border with Indian kingdoms and administrations has been been demarcated by the sea between that island and the atolls.

Centrally located in the Maldivian heartland, Male' the capital island is just over 600 km of easy sailing from the west coast of Sri Lanka. The climate in the atolls is hot, sunny and very humid with regular heavy rain averaging around 100 inches a year. Humidity averages 70-75%, while down on the southern atolls straddling the equator it is often over 85% on a clear day.

On the islands, natural ground level never exceeds three metres, and the lagoons are warm and easily navigated saltwater lakes joined to the sea through lower areas of reef. Sometimes gaps in the reef are deep enough to form narrow navigable channels, kandu, giving access into the open sea. On the sandy islands, rainwater collects beneath a porous surface and forms a lens of fresh water easily tapped with shallow wells, or by the roots of plants. Coconut, banana, breadfruit, papaya, lime, watermelon and taro thrive.

maldives and surrounding indian ocean countries
Maldives, Indian Ocean and surrounding countries


The northern and central atolls form a barely navigable barrier for ships travelling west-east across the Indian Ocean, but the southern atolls are separated from their northern neighbours by two very wide and deep ocean gaps, the One and half degree channel between Laamu and Huvadhu atolls, and the Equatorial channel which separates Huvadhu from Fua Mulaku and Addu. South of Addu atoll, there are 400 km of deep ocean until the Chagos Archipelago (also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, BIOT).

Southern Huvadhu ends a few kilometres north of the equator, while Fua Mulaku and Addu lie in the southern hemisphere. Huvadhu is the one of the largest atolls in the world, over 100 km in diameter, but Fua Mulaku is just one island - its lagoon, once open to the sea, has become a fresh water lake which floods after heavy rains. Addu atoll, with excellent deep water access through its two southern kandu and narrow channels on its north, is a small heart-shaped atoll with easily accessible islands, second only to Male' in population.


There were only 100,000 Maldivians in the mid-twentieth century, inhabiting 200 of the estimated 1,195 islands. A quarter of the population lived in Male'. Island communities were gathered in small townships hundreds of years old around mosques and graveyards, and although the total land area was a paltry 298 sq. km., the lagoons, uninhabited islands, sandy reefs and adjacent seas were valued resources.

Ships crossing the Indian Ocean were often wrecked on Maldives until the introduction of ship engines during the nineteenth century. The currents flowed swiftly east-west alternately for six months of the year with the trade winds, and these currents accelerated to four knots as they neared the atolls. Shipwrecked foreigners and travellers nearly always got very ill and often died if they stayed in Maldives. Mosquitoes and other dangerous insects, wary of the salty air along the beaches, thrived in the moist still air of the wooded islands. Disease was a rite of passage for any prospective settler.

European sailing ships feared the islands and avoided them if possible, but other ships from Indian Ocean ports used navigators, sometimes Maldivians, to pass through the atolls. The famous navigator Majid, who guided ships across the Indian Ocean in the second half of the 15th century, gives star directions to particular Maldive islands from Yemen in his book on Indian Ocean navigation. Majid says his knowledge is based on that of his Arab ancestors and of even earlier navigators including the Tamils.

Navigators crossing the Indian Ocean took their ships through the narrow kandus of Maldives for at least a thousand years before the Europeans arrived, but the first documented proof of maps of Maldives occurs in Pyrard's account of his stay in Maldives at the beginning of the seventeenth century, during the reign of king Ibrahim III, the son of Mohamed Thakurufan. Navigators were important men and could be very wealthy, according to Pyrard. However, western colonisers did not have accurate navigational maps of Maldives until the nineteeth century when the British surveyed the atolls.

Ironically, accurate European mapping of Maldives coinicided with the development of engine powered ships and the construction of large deep harbours for the British fleets. The bigger ships used by these new harbours were uninterested in trade with the atolls,which became an economic backwater visited only by declining numbers of smaller sailing vessels from the ocean's ancient Moslem trading network. Maldives' isolation intensified just as modernisation transformed lifestyles in neighbouring countries. Some Maldivians travelled overseas on trading ships, but as Romero-Frias explains in his book 'The Maldive Islanders - a study of the popular culture of an ancient ocean kingdom', foreigners rarely travelled to the atolls:
'Maldives is a nation with a great seafaring tradition. Life in the Maldivian atolls would be almost impossible without trade. Unfortunately, the communication that existed since the very ancient times between the larger inhabited islands and the trading harbours of Ceylon, South India and Bengal has never been properly documented. One of the features of this trading system was that Maldivians put great common effort in undertaking journeys from their scattered atolls to the main Ceylonese or South Indian harbors. However, trading vessels from those countries rarely, if ever, visited the atolls.

'The reason foreign traders avoided the Maldive atolls lies in the relatively little trading importance these low and small coral islands had, compared to the other large and heavily-populated countries in the area. Besides, no Maldivian island, no matter how far away from the capital, can evade the intense influence of the local administration and there are no places to hide for smugglers. Aware of its grip on the country, the Maldivian monarchy sought to centralize all non-local trade in the capital and did not allow any foreign vessels to touch the long archipelago except at Male'. The king, however, had to tolerate the yearly trips (to foreign ports) from the individuals islands because the heavy-laden local boats found it more hazardous to travel along th elong atoll chai, with its many treacherous coral reefs and shallows, than to venture out into the open ocean. It was certainly much easier for Maldivian traders to sail away from their country and land somewhere in the large landmasses of the northeast after about a week of relaxed navigation, than to hop painfully from atoll to atoll until they reached the capital.'


Life in the islands could be pleasant if the local headman was humane. Otherwise, life was feudal, sometimes barbaric and often severely restrictive: 'The islands upholding a reputation of Islamic piety, or small islands having a tyrannical headman, may be virtually devoid of games and entertainment,' writes Clarence Maloney after his personal research in Maldives in 1975 during the rule of Ibrahim Nasir. 'Meedhoo in Addu atoll is such an island... (also) Male'. In general all the arts are poorly developed and have been stifled by piety. The feeling that joy is somehow unseemly is communicated by parents to their children in subtle ways; parents do not romp or play outside with their children, and after a child is three or four, its father has hardly any physical contact with it. This is not only to maintain respect through distance, but is a means of communicating the ethos of a society in which creative play is not valued. Creative play of course leads to individual creativity but in the Maldives conservatism is more highly valued.'

Outside the capital, education in the atolls during the 1950s was limited to basic literacy in Dhivehi and the Thaana script, and recitation of large sections of the Koran in barely understood Arabic. Maldivian sheikhs trained in Middle Eastern and Indian Islamic universities and were very influential in the islands where they encouraged Arab social customs. Families in the islands would sometimes accumulate considerable wealth from trade and become influential locally, but for all islanders, the controlling and feared institution was the feudal government in Male' and its enforcement officers in the atolls. At the apex of this administrative system were the ruling families in Male'.

Possessing little tradeable wealth or strategic significance, Maldives were treated as a trivial diversion by the UK, the most confident and powerful of Indian Ocean colonisers, until World War Two when Addu atoll became a refuge for British forces withdrawing from Japanese bombing attacks on Ceylon.


Maldivians and their history
Unlike many of its Indian Ocean neighbours, Maldives was never physically colonised by Europeans before Addu's temporary occupation by the UK airforce and navy. The Portuguese in the sixteenth century, then the Dutch and finally the British were all unwilling to sacrifice the health of their officials in Male' for the paltry returns available there. British influences on education, health, infrastructure and administration in the subcontinent were not replicated in Maldives. Small numbers of elite Maldivans were educated in India and Ceylon during the latter half of the nineteenth century, but the court in Male' remained aloof. It's antiquated lifestyle was sustained by atoll taxes funding the traders and travelling entertainers who shared and profited from the capital's aristocratic pretensions. The court shunned contact with Europeans, particularly those with liberal beliefs promoting dangerous ideas such as mass education and parliamentary democracy. This prejudice continued at varying levels among most of the dictators of the twentieth century - Abdul Majeed, Hassan Fareed, Ibrahim Nasir and Maumoon Gayyoom - and kings Shamsudeen and Mohamed Fareed.

Until recently, Maldivian society has been described to the outside world through the lens of local Islamic scholars and foreign researchers who relied on the Male' elite for their sources and inspiration. Most Maldivians knew little of the records in Male' that today form the basis of historical understanding of Maldivian society. The atoll dwellers did not contribute to those texts. Male' records were limited to the actions and interests of the rulers. They usually portrayed the atolls, where the bulk of the population lived, as an irrelevant sideshow worthy of only cursory mention.

Romero-Frias offers a more informed and rounded analysis of atoll culture. A native of Spain, he became fluent in Dhivehi after arriving in Maldives in 1979 and staying for over a decade. As well as the standard English and Dhivehi texts, he uses the country's rich oral tradition to reveal the beliefs and perspectives of the mass of Maldivian fishing and cultivating families:
'I was puzzled by the inconsistent Maldivian attitude to history. A few gentlemen belonging to the educated elite were aware of an obscure and distant Buddhist past which, they would insist, has definitely faded into oblivion. They claimed that the present country had nothing to do with it. Recently, a few Maldivians acknowledge a form of what they call 'mysticism' within the autochtonous culture. However, they treat it as an isolated, purely local phenomenon of 'mysterious' origins. At a popular level things are even more clouded: most islanders didn't want anything to do with their Buddhist ancestors. They preferred to say that other folk had been Buddhist in their country, not them. It sounded as if the people of Maldives had always been Muslim and could not have possibly been anything else. In what looks like a blind form of destructiveness, Maldivians, instead of acknowledging and giving due honour to their ancestral Buddhist heritage in which most of their culture is still rooted, spared no effort to disassociate themselves as much as possible from their own past.'


The suppression of indigenous and Buddhist beliefs and customs by devout Middle Eastern foreigners and Maldivians, anxious to enforce perceived Arab sunni othodoxy, is a recurring theme in Maldivian recorded history, and it is clear that the record keepers, Islamic clerics and judges, agreed with the enforced Arabisation of the country.

However, the storytelling traditions proved to be more than resilient; they bloomed until the suffocating orthodoxy, censorship and restrictions of the twentieth century dictatorships. During Gayyoom's regime (1978-2008), all unofficial public gatherings were banned until the last few years of his rule. Communication technology enabled Ibrahim Nasir and then Gayyoom to impose absolute daily control across the whole country during the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to this, Maldivians of all ages would meet on their islands in the evening to hear ancient stories. Some were highly imaginative magical fiction and legends while others related historically based events: the two genres often mixing freely. These stories were popular entertainments and their cultural influence was pervasive.

Romero-Frias argues that the conversion legends of Maldives are a mixture of both Buddhist and Islamic traditions claiming conversion over the families who inhabited the atolls. He points to the similarities between Maldivians and the castes living on the shores of the adjacent Indian and Ceylonese coasts:
'The original inhabitants of the (Maldivian) archipelago were apparently fishermen and toddy-tappers who, owing to their freedom-loving spirit and their extreme location, probably had no strong form of government of their own. Their coastal ancestors, the fiercely independent fisherman castes of the Southern Indian seashore, like the Mukkavar and the Parava, live on very long and narrow strips of land. Their close identification with their geographical location and with the ocean is bound up with their perception of themselves as fringe-dwellers... The kingdoms of the hinterland, whether in India or Ceylon, considered fishermen to be inferior human beings, coastal barbarians, and left them very much to themselves. For example, in South India, when the king of Venad wanted to sternly punish a nobleman, he had him swiftly executed and ordered that his family be sent to live among the fishermen.'




Pre-Islamic period


early stone scultpture maldives
Sculpture from pre-Islamic Maldives
Photo: Nazeer Jamaal



Research by Dr Bruce Cain into the Dhivehi language proves that Dhivehi is not derived from Sinhala, as scholars have previously suggested, but instead both languages share the same unknown root language which originated in western India and spread down the west coast of India before branching off into Dhivehi and Sinhalese.

Clarence Maloney examined 900 Maldivian islands and other geographical names and found that 'only four have Arabic or Islamic names, so it is clear that the whole country was populated and brought within a single civilisational system before Islam (1153), during the Buddhist period, or even earlier.' The islands were always renowned for their fish, cowry, tortoise shell and coconut products, especially coir used as rope on ships. Communities of villagers built Hindu/Buddhist temples, and the Vajrayana or Tantric cults seemed to predominate. They excelled in sculpture, handicrafts, and ship-building. Ambergris was another valuable export.

There are records of exile to the islands of unwanted groups and losers in royal family disputes in Ceylon. Maloney says 'in pre-Muslim times, the political system in the Maldives was an adaptation of that prevailing in Sri Lanka, modified by the unique geography. It was a monarchy in which power was highly centralised, the whole realm was methodically administered, and political opponents were frequently exiled. These features have characterised the Maldives' government throughout history.' Travellers in the first millenium describe Maldives as having a single strong government. Sulaiman the Merchant (850-900), Al-Mas'udi (916), and Al-Idrisi (1099-1168) wrote that in pre-Islamic times, Maldives was ruled by queens. Under Islam and its legal recognition of polygamy, this matriarchial influence continued and occasionally queens would rule in Male'. Even in the later period, wives and female relatives of the sultan kings remained politically influential at the highest levels of government, though they rarely held office.

Archaeological and linguistic research in the Maldives reveals close links between the islands and nearby southern India, Sri Lanka and eastern India. Romero_Frias explains:
'The religious and cultural relationship between Maldives and Bengal was made possible by regular seaborne trade with that region of the subcontinent facilitated by favourable winds and currents. The large wooden trunks used by traders in their journeys were known in Dhivehi as 'bangalufoshi' (Bengali box) and in the Maldivian oral tradition there are legends telling that trade with Bengal was very important in the distant past...

Much of the general disinterest in their ancient cultural heritage lies in the coinfusion arising from the lack of definition of Maldive cultural identity. In every Maldivian mind there is a sharp struggle between inherited customs and Muslim ideology. This conflict is unresolved, therefore there is a widespread feeling of guilt and frustration at being unable to conform to the ancestral cultural heritage with the Islamic ideological pattern...

Some authors claim that the old Dhivehi script resembles the medieval Sinhalese Elu alphabet, the fact is that the affinities with the Tamil Grantha script and with the earlier forms of the Malayalam script are much greater from a graphic point of view, even though the Dhivehi language itself is closer to the Sinhala language... The loamafanu (copperplate government records used Maldives from at least the 12th century) were written in the curly Evela form of the Dhivehi akuru or old Maldivian alphabet, which has strong similarities with the Tamil Grantha script of the 7th century Pallava and Pandya dynasties. In certain documents, a form of old Nagari or Protobengali script is present, which shows that there are contacts with the centers of Buddhist learning of Nalanda, Ratnagiri and Vikramasila. These must have taken place from the 8th century onwards, when Buddhist culture revived and flourished in Eastern India owing to the patronage of the Pala kings of Bengal.'


evela akuru script maldives
Eveyla Akuru script from the Bodugalu Miskit Loamafanu 1356-57
Photo: HCP Bell 1922



The traditional stories of Maldives and fanditha magic practices show clear evidence of the Dravidian Devi cult existing in Maldives even before this Buddhist period, according to Romero-Frias: 'The cult is a very very ancient form of religious expression. Unlike relatively more recent religions it is not connected to any form of government or law-making body... Even the term 'worship' itself lacks accuracy when dealing with the rites surrounding the village goddess.'

During disasters such as epidemics, the goddess once had to be propitiated with offerings that included male human sacrifices. Later, cocks were killed instead. Female sacrifices were unacceptable.
'Exactly as in South India, in Maldives the local goddesses looked after their own village in exchange for the unflinching devotion of the villagers. Goddesses can be dangerous and malevolent when, though lack of devotion, their vengeful spirit is aroused. In such an event, when they afflict the village or island with epidemics and famine, blood, fruit and flower sacrifices have to be made to them in order to appease their ill-temper.

It is practically certain, that at some point in local history, the generic name 'handi' was applied to the numerous village goddesses worshipped throughout the Maldive Islands... The Mother-Goddess worship is such a resilient form of religious expression that, in spite of royal patronage, the Buddhist teachings were not able to interfere with the continuity of the original Village Goddess cults. These must have been prevalent in the islands since memorial times when the Maldives was settled by fishermen from the coasts of South India and Ceylon. The stories about dangerous female spirits and about women in aggressive or dominant roles, which form the the core of Maldivian mythology, are but the last remnants of very old pre-Buddhist Devi cult; and despite having almost disappeared from South-Asian coastal territories, it is a well-established fact that Devi (or Mother-Goddess) worship was the ancestral religion of the entire South Indian fisherfolk.'


Tantric cults and their rites originating in the aboriginal religions of India were an important element in Devi worship, Romero-Frias explains. Tantrism blended into Buddhist beliefs, becoming the popular Vajrayana form around the period 650-1000 AD. Secrecy was an important part of tantric worship, and important rituals involved five offerings including food, sexual activity and alcohol during hidden night ceremonies. Romero-Frias was told by old Maldivians that they 'still know sites where it (the 'Game of the Goddess') was practised on their own or on other islands.'

Fanditha magic practices are also rooted in the tantric past, says Romero-Frias who describes the Maldivian magic arts as 'essentially a syncretistic remainder of former religious beliefs, a great part of this special knowledge was of hidden nature, suitable only for the initiated... Traditionally the sorcerer had a respectable function in the islands, he was a combination of doctor, shaman and learned man. His position commanded prestige and appreciation in the society and historical records show that most fanditha men were from wealthy and noble families.' The stories about Maldivian fanditha men are 'very closely related' to tales of tantric heroes and rishis of the Subcontinent, according to Romero-Frais, though in social function, fanditha men shared characteristics with Indian Brahmins.

One very un-Brahmin aspect of certain fanditha practices concerns the use of dead body parts:
'Graveyards have great relevance in tantric worship. They are used as the scenario where the initiated are taught to overcome fear, in a spiritual test that eventually would enable them to increase their magic powers and to become familiar with the spirit world. In the Subcontinent, graveyards or cremation grounds were used by ascetics to meditate upon the transcient nature of the material world. In Maldives, even now, burial grounds are fearsome places assumed to be frequented by evil spirits during the long tropical nights. Only the initiated, the fanditha men, dare to go there at late hours to procure themselves bones for their rituals and also, exceptionally, other human parts from freshly buried corpses.'



The coming of Islam
The official conversion to Islam in 1153, although attributed by Maldivian folk tales to the magical potency of the Quran demonstrated by visiting Islamic holy men, in fact should be seen as a top-level decision in Male' based on pragmatic economic realities to align the country with the dominant foreign traders in the Indian Ocean. 'Arabs were welcome along the Kerala coast because they induced prosperity,' explains Maloney. 'The Muslims who settled in port cities represented the widest ranging trade network the world had yet seen, stretching from Spain to southern China... From the eleventh to fourteenth centuries the Zamorins of Calicut gained supremacy of northern Kerala, and this was due largely to their friendship with Arab traders and the Mappilas, whose customs duty was the chief source of income for the Zamorin... The Arab and Mappila trade network served the Maldives well.'

'This king (who converted) must have been very secure in his power to be able to deal with the strains of the country's mass conversion from Buddhism to Islam,' writes Romero-Frias. 'In the Dambidu loamafanu, the king addresses his edict to all islands between Kela in Tiladunmati atoll, one of the northernmost islands in the group, and Addu atoll in the southern end.'

ruins of buddhist vihare on gan island laamu atoll 1922
Ruins of Buddhist vihare on Gan island Laamu atoll
Photo: HCP Bell 1922



The transition from Hindu/Buddhism to Islam was not accomplished without resistance. The earliest surviving Maldivian government record, the Isdhoo Loamafanu, is dated 1194, forty years after the official conversion of the country. It has been translated by H.A. Maniku and G.D. Wijayawardhana, and records that rebellious Buddhist monks from the island of Isdhoo in Laamu atoll were taken in triumph to Male' and beheaded by 'the great king Gadanaadeethiya the Prosperous, the uplifter of the noble Lunar Dynasty... defender of the entire hundred thousand islands'. Pursuing a policy of Islamisation, the king 'refrained from killing those infidels who entered the faith of the noble Prophet Muhammad, got them to utter sahadhath and freed them having performed circumcision on them.'

While the Buddhist monks' choice of losing their heads or foreskins is alarmingly memorable, the significance of this record is in the detail of instructions for the maintenance of the new mosque at the desecrated monastery on Isdhoo. The monastery's former serfs are reassigned to the mosque and their duties continue very much as before. Islands from as far away as Huvadhu atoll are ordered to continue their former offerings as tribute to the mosque, and poor people are released from their taxation obligations. This sophisticated government instruction is witnessed by ten ministers including a commander-in-chief, royal treasurer, administrator of justice, and chief judge.

Records from Addu indicate the conversion process split families and islands. According to a transcription of 'The Book of Ancient Meedhoo History', Meedhoo was the first island to abandon Buddhism for Islam in 1127, twenty-six years before the official conversion of the country:
'Yoosuf Gadir and his family arrived in Meedhoo in October 1125. They stayed in the houses of Elhai Haaru Dhoraaboo and Kalhai Haaru. At that time, the island was Buddhist. Dhoraaboo, the headman of the house where the Gadir family was staying, had travelled to the countries of the world and knew the Arabic and Farsi languages. He had also become a Moslem, converted by Al-Hafiz Amir the son of Yasir Al-Namrizi of Nimrooz (in Persia), although he kept this secret... Yoosuf's work led to the conversion of Chandu Haaru, the son of the island's (female) Buddhist priest, Kalhai Haaru. Chandu Haaru joined Yoosuf's campaign and decided to smash the statues in the temple during the month of Rajab. The people of the island were angry and complained, but Kalhai Haaru kept things under control because his son had led the attack.

The Kalhai Haaru family were originally from India. Kadu Kumar, a man from Patna in India, married a Meedhoo woman called Kaman Haaru who was a high level member of the Buddhist religion... Two days after the statues were smashed inAugust 1127, Kalhai Haaru embraced Islam. Because Dhoraaboo interpreted the conversion arguments of Yoosuf Gadir, he was given the title of Abu-el-Lisan. The name he was using before referred to the name of town of the person who had originally converted him to Islam, Yoosuf Al-Namrizi... In 1144, the two Yoosufs set out for Male' and other places. During this journey Yoosuf el-Namrizi (Dhoraaboo) died, and Yoosuf Gadir returned to Meedhoo in July 1166. As the islands embraced Islam, Gan was the last island in Addu atoll to be converted (around 1300).'


The change to Islam was abrupt as far as the temples and the monks were concerned, but Buddhist beliefs and customs remained among the population, along with the older tantric practices.

The Islamic kingdom of Maldives
Official Maldivian history asserts that a fifteen year Portuguese-backed regime during the sixteenth century was the first serious threat to the kingdom's Islamic identity. Folktales from the period record that after encouragement and threats from the Portuguese garrison and Christian members of the Male' elite, almost the entire population of Male' converted to Christianity. Although it was a time of economic prosperity, some Maldivian historians consider the Portuguese occupation as a period of servitude and brutality. Many Maldivians have believed that the hostility of the fanatically Christian Portuguese towards Islam prompted their 'liberator' Mohamed Thakurufan to revive and enforce religious observance. This belief has been used to enshrine Islam as an essential symbol of Maldivian ethnicity and national independence, as well as the official ideology of its government.

The supposed Christian threat to Maldivians has always been far more myth than reality. The official history of Maldives, the Tareek, claims that Maldives was taken over by a Christian part-Maldivian in 1558 and liberated in 1573 by a coalition of local Islamic forces with the Ali Raja of Cannanore, led by Mohamed Thakurufan.

Although it is quite likely that Christian proselytizers were allowed into Maldives during this short period, the Portuguese-backed ruler in Male' and his fellow agent in the northern atolls were both moslems according to other Maldivian sources. However, king Hassan of Maldives had been baptised as a Christian and dethroned as a result. He supported the successful Goan expedition and it is likely that other members of the aristocracy converted in some way during the fifteen years of Portuguese influence.

It was a time of vigorous and successful missionary activity along the coasts of India and some Christian monks must have travelled to Male' at least, but as HCP Bell discovered almost a hundred years ago when he asked southern India's Portuguese Christian monasteries for any records of Maldives they might have - there is no surviving mention of Christian missionaries in Male' or the atolls. Nor are Christian missionaries or holymen mentioned in Maldivian records. Any reverence for Jesus and his mother were based on Islamic traditions of Christ as a great prophet.

After victory in 1573, the Thakurufan clan moved into Male' from their home island Utheemu. They reorganised and strengthened the administration of the atolls, drawing on their personal experiences operating from outlying atolls during the war. The southern atolls previously known and administered collectively as Suvadive were separated into Addu, Fua Mulaku and Suvadive (Huvadhu).

Mohamed Thakurufan was no saint and he did not establish an Islamic paradise. The corrupt feudal system emanating from Male' was simply more organised than ever before. Other Maldivian records, such as the Buraara Mohamed Fulhu's 'The Story of Bodu Thakurufan' portray Thakurufan as a strange, calculating and ruthless man who trained in the martial arts in India. He was also adept at black magic.

Thirty years after the Utheemu families took control, the shipwrecked Frenchman Pyrard records disapprovingly that judges were also tax collectors, functioning as feudal overlords: 'The Naibs, or chiefs of the provinces, are priests or doctors of the law, who have an eye as well to all matters of religion and education... the administration of justice... giving their orders to the priests under them.... The Naibs four times a year go the circuit of the islands in their several governments... This brings them great revenues, for it is then the people pay their dues, besides which they receive many presents from a multitude of people, and of such they are very greedy.'

Whatever the grim realities of their rule, the Thakurufan clan characterised their assumption of power as the glorious return of Islam to the Maldives after the dark night of Portuguese Christian rule. The Arabic-style script Thaana was created and introduced to provide easy literacy and enable the comfortable assimilation of Arabic words into written language. An even more potent symbol of the government-sponsored Islamic renaissance was the heralded return of an indigenous scholar and navigator Jamaludeen from long residence in Yemen to take responsiblility for Islamic law and learning. After training judges in Male', he retreated to the ancient island of Vaadhoo in Huvadhu atoll and established a small but enduring tradition of education in Islamic law and navigation which spread among the southern atolls.

As the centre of trade and lucrative shipwrecks, the Male' kingdom was considered a prize for pirates and raiders sponsored by covetous kingdoms from India. Within the Maldivian court itself, family disputes often led to factions recruiting foreign allies. The learned and virile Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century quickly found himself enmeshed in petty politics and treachery when he accepted the position of chief judge in Male'. Two hundred and fifty years later, Francois Pyrard survived shipwreck on Baa atoll and disease, and then spent a few years trading in Male' as an unwilling guest of the king. Along with detailed observations of Male' court life, Pyrard portrays Ibrahim III, the son of Mohamed Thakurufan, as a paranoid, capricious, violent and lecherous ruler. Pyrard's Male' of the early seventeenth century is a busy commercial centre trading successfully with Bengal and Acheh in Sumatra, as well as southern India and Sri Lanka. The perceptive Frenchman does not exclude the sordid details of autocratic and family rivalries which, along with the wealth of its trade and the constant threat of sea-borne attack, gave Male' politics an aggressive and violent form unmatched in any other atolls.

Encouraged by government regulation and violent punishments, the islands assimilated Islam into their customs and superstitions. There were regular visits by Islamic traders and holy men, and Maldivian pilgrims sailed to Arabia to visit Mecca and Muhammad's tomb at Medina. Shia and Sufi Islam were popular and worship at the grave sites of prominent saints or other legendary figures was common and often linked to rituals for success in fishing or giving birth. Inter-island pilgrimmages to famous tombs within Maldives was a popular practice.

Maldives in the nineteenth century
Maldivian independence survived serious raids on Male' by Portuguese and Indian forces until a period of extended calm began with the establishment of Pax Brittanica in the Indian Ocean from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Sheltered by the bemused British, who with their occupation of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) inherited the annual tribute from the Male' court, the long reigns of kings Mohamed Mueenudeen (1799-1835), Mohamed Imadudeen (1835-82), and Mohamed Shamsudeen (1903-1932) were periods of government ossification and indolence.

village township on Mulaku island, Mulaku atoll Maldives 1922
Village on Mulaku island, Mulaku atoll
Photo: HCP Bell 1922



The government continued to function as a tax collection agency and the people were treated as serfs of a privileged ruling clique operating above the law. There was no investment in long-term infrastructure, education or health. Maldivian historian Mohamed Nasheed (now the President of Maldives) describes the route to power in nineteenth century as dependent on the king's patronage. Acceptance as a member of the royal court was usually by birth or marriage, though palace slaves and their descendants were also influential. Personal friends of the kings were often particularly powerful.

Only the office of chief judge, demanding some impartiality and training in Islamic law, was outside the king's direct control but his approval was required before appointment.

Nasheed explains in considerable detail the formation of the rival political clans allied to the competing Athirige and Kakaage families. Each family's wealth depended on the amount of money its members earned from royal grants of the produce of uninhabited islands, waqf taxes from mosques, and produce from rented government coconut forest near villages. Everything collected was exported and Nasheed claims aristocrats defined their status in Male' by the number of loaded sailing vessels they could send to Sri Lanka.

Unlike its colonised neighbours India and Ceylon, the Maldives was relatively unaffected by the British Raj and the atoll kingdom entered the twentieth century without hospitals, schools or harbours. The Maldivian government had paid a ritual annual tribute first to the Portuguese, and later to the rulers of Ceylon - the Dutch, then the British. This tribute was purely ceremonial and often ineffectual, but it was not until 1887 that the Maldives was forced to accept formal protectorate status, and only after the government had been crippled by bankruptcy, politically motivated arson campaigns in Male' and blatant gunboat diplomacy from the British.

Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik uses eyewitness accounts in his record of the final negotiations:
'The United Kingdom, which always wanted to colonise Maldives with the co-operation of the Athireege family, finally came to Male' in the form of the HMS Britain on 22 Feb 1887. The captain of this ship was Rodney M Lloyd. As a representative of the Governor of Ceylon came Rear Admiral Fredrick W M Richard. Accompanying them were Athireege Annabeel Ahmed Didi, and Abdul Kareem Mudhuliar.

'The delegation went upstairs in the palace and asked king Mohamed Mueenudeen III, the Prime Minister Sumuvvul Amir Mohamed Rannabandeyri Kilegefan and the chief justice Naibu Thuthu to write an agreement between the English and Maldivian governments which would provide 'protection' to the Maldives. According to this agreement Maldives would become a colony of the English. The whole of Maldives opposed this. The proposal to become a protected servant of anyone other than the Great Allah was rejected by the king, the prime minister, the chief justice Naibu Thuthu, the military, and the people.

'About six days later, the ship returned to Colombo. There in Ceylon, the British and their Maldivian friends arranged for Abdul Rahman Alim Sahib to write a letter of agreement in Arabic in which Maldives would become a full colony, or at the very least, a country which came under colonial authority. It was written in such a way that the Maldivian king seemingly requested British protection on his own initiative and made the annual tribute ceremony the formal recognition of this new relationship. In the document, the king was given a voice of abject humility, admitting weakness and an inability to stabilise the country.

'The delegation, this time with the addition of Abdul Rahman Alim Sahib then returned to Male' in two large warships. The British delegation went upstairs again to Mathige. This time the document, which the chief justice had refused to write, had already been written and only needed signatures. The king, the prime minister, the military, and the peopleā€¦ all refused. The delegation returned to their warships and the guns were lowered and aimed at Male'. People ran to the edge of the reef. The British and their friends came ashore once again and said if the agreement went unsigned, then Male' would be blasted to pieces. To escape death, the king and other prominent people agreed to sign. The chief justice Naibu Thuthu said that Maldivians should prefer to be martyred rather than accept such a thing.'


Isolated on their atolls, Maldivians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a culturally self-sufficient people who cared little for the outside world. Although Maldives had once been a busy trading centre for Indian Ocean sea traffic, the age of the large steamer ships and the giant ports, and the decline in value of cowry, coconut, and fish products, had left Maldives a trading backwater. Education was suppressed by Maldivian rulers, slavery common, malaria rife, and an age-old government system exercised bureaucratic control in the atolls, insisting on elaborate rituals for the holders of high or privileged position. Existence in Maldives was medieval; many of the descriptions of life rendered in such intriguing detail by Pyrard at the beginning of the seventeenth century still held true, three hundred and fifty years later.

The beginning of democratic government and World War Two
In 1932 the feudal regime briefly flirted with democratic reform as king Shamsudeen's reign collapsed under the stress of his son's unsuitability for the succession, British-sponsored constitutional reform, and the conspiracies of Abdul Majeed. Majeed was the real powerbroker in Male' and he actively undermined what he considered to be premature British attempts to democratise the country. Abdul Majeed lived almost continuously in Egypt after 1933, but through his son Hassan Fareed and then his nephew Mohamed Ameen, and aided when necessary by long and close links with the Indian Borah traders who controlled commerce in Male', Majeed was able to maintain such strong influence over the Maldives that he was selected as an absentee-king in 1943.

The dictatorship of Majeed and his proxies combined with WW2 to bring great suffering to Maldives. German and Japanese submarines and warships disrupted trade in the central Indian ocean, and there was starvation on many islands. Male' was spared the worst of the famine because all imported goods had to pass through its harbour, and for several years the government remained inactive despite the reports of death and social disintegration which it was receiving from the outer atolls, particularly in the north.

Abdul Majeed stayed in Egypt, and his favoured son Hassan Fareed fled to Ceylon with 60,000 rupees in 1942 and was killed in a Japanese submarine attack in 1944. Mohamed Ameen, his cabinet and their British advisors were often inept and superficial people who cared little about the suffering and starvation that most Maldivians experienced.

Mohamed Ameen's historical myth was promoted during the much of the Gayyoom era. Ameen was portrayed as energetic, intelligent, convinced of the need for action and his own dynamic and central role at the head of the administrative machine. Ameen carried out a mini-cultural revolution in the Maldives, according to his myth promoters, revitalising its bureaucracy, education system and literature.

However, the reality of Ameen's rule was a horror story for many Maldivians. Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik estimates that half the population of Maldives died of starvation, and he is scathing about the well-documented ineptitude, corruption and scandal that surrounded Ameen. The British were shocked when Ameen was overthrown, they had found him very personable, but it was the end of a nightmare for most Maldivians.

The mid-1950s saw the beginnings of genuine constitutional government in Maldives. From 1954 king Mohamed Fareed ruled as a constitutional monarch with an influential and experienced prime minister, Ibrahim Ali Didi. The majlis was also given real power, and open discussion was encouraged at least within the Male' elite which controlled majlis membership. Though the legislature was partially reformed, the bureaucracy lacked education and expertise. Maldivians in the atolls experienced continuing neglect and incompetence, and the construction of the new British base at Gan in the late 1950s highlighted these shortcomings.

As it grappled with the diplomatic and logistical details of negotiating the establishment of a sophisticated foreign military installation on its soil, the government in Male' suddenly faced the dilemma of a series of separatist revolts and the creation of an independent state in its southern atolls. Allied with the British base, this new state could be a serious and possibly fatal challenge to Male's power.



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