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The discovery and destruction of the big statue of Thoddu in 1959 - Statue smashed a second time at Mulee-aage
by Adam Haleem
Haveeru, 30 May 2009
translated by Maldives Culture
Photos from A New Light on the History of Maldives and captions added by Maldives Culture editors.
Dr S. Paranavi-thana's English report is taken from A New Light on the History of Maldives

buddhist statue found on Thoddu island in Maldives 1959
Found carefully buried on Thoddu in 1959, this statue had been preserved underground for nearly 800 years. To hide it after Buddhist Maldives was declared an Islamic kingdom by royal decree in 1153, islanders removed the statue from a higher position and placed it upright on the floor of the temple where sand had been spread. It was then surrounded by hewn stone slabs and more sand and rocks. A protective slab was placed over the statue and additional rocks and sand were added to the pile until the temple had become a mound. The heap was then covered in soil.

They began digging and when they found a statue and everyone began to shout and yell at the statue. 'Chief of the Five Thieves [from the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves], you are the motherless one!', one of them bellowed as he pointed a finger at the carving. 'The thief was hiding!' yelled another man even more loudly.

By sunrise next day, a group of people had broken the head off the statue. It was put back on and the statue was placed under a roof. People began to yell, 'The religion of worshipping statues has begun!' And later in Male', people who were similarly gripped by anger attacked the huge statue and further damaged it. This is the story of the second destruction of the statue found in the ruins of a Buddhist temple in Thoddu in 1959.

According to the book 'A New Light on the History of Maldives', Mudhin Ibrahim of Thoddu went to collect stones from a large pile on the island known locally as the 'Sea Ghost's big stone mound', and as he dug into it he noticed something unusual. A special expedition was sent to Thoddu to explore the area. On this expedition were Mohamed Ismail Didi and Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik. In addition two other men, photographer Ali Najeeb and Thulhaadhoo Hassan Manik Dhon Manik accompanied them. They are all dead now; the last to die was Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik at the age of 90 in 2003.

The digging was conducted with the help of 76 men who were paid a daily rate of Rf2.50 each. The mound was covered in coconut palms and sea hibiscus trees. It was photographed, the palms were felled and digging began. First they discovered the foundations of an ancient stupa and smaller constructions, and a wide stepped staircase. Several days later, they found a rectangular sandstone slab. When they lifted the slab, underneath was a large statue.

'Chief of the Five Thieves, you are the motherless one!' yelled the man who first saw the statue, according to the history book.

Abdul Hakeem said people working at the site began to shout when they saw the statue and wanted to destroy it. 'The statue was very beautiful,' he commented in 2001. Hakeem said the statue looked very much like one at the end of the Havelock road in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in fact there was no difference. According to the history book, the statue had the robes a monk similar to the Gotama Buddha statues in Sri Lanka.

The view of the history committee is that when news reached Thoddu that Maldives had become Islamic and the practice of Buddhism outlawed, the people of Thoddu went to the extreme trouble of burying the Buddhist sculpture before officials came to destroy the temple. Therefore this must have happened in 1153, when Maldives was proclaimed Islamic, or soon after that. 'It may be that they hid it in hope of the eventual return of Buddhism,' said Hakeem.

coin found in Thoddu island in 1959 Roman coin minted 90BC found in Thoddu island Maldives in 1959
Photographs of two coins found in Thoddu island Buddhist ruins in 1959. The coin on the right was identified by the British Museum as a denarius from the Roman Republic of Caius Vibius Pansa, minted in Rome in 90BC. It could have been circulating in the Roman Empire for up to 100 years. All coins found on Thoddu were later stolen in Male'.

On the instructions of the expedition team, the digging commenced again and people started shouting as they found something else. Others went running to see. It was a round casket made of coral stone. Inside was a metal container and laying around it were three rings and some coins. Inside the silver container was a golden container and inside that was a gold cylinder.

'With the coins was a piece of hip bone [in 'History of Maldives in a New Light', the term 'hip bone' is not used, instead the object is described as 'an ingredient for herbal medicine'] . The silver coins had some sort of engraving and people said they were coins of Alexander the Great,' said Hakeem. 'While people were absorbed in looking at these things, Mudhin Ibrahim came running up and claimed that it was a place that he had discovered and the gold belonged to him. Mudhin was jumping up and down for a miniscule piece of gold.'

According the history book, when the statue and the curved coral container were found, people became almost hysterical. Everyone wanted to make claims to what had been found. One said, 'I found the diamond treasure trove', and another claimed he saw a nest of local snake eggs. 'Mudhin threw his arms in the air and told me that whatever people found, it was from a place that he discovered, and the reward rightfully belonged to him,' said Hakeem.

After these discoveries, the expedition team kept searching. One morning while they were at the digging site, the statue was bashed with a rock and damaged. According to Hakeem, they didn't think the people of Thoddu would get angry enough to destroy the statue. 'Before when the head of the statue was broken off, when it put on, it was fine,' said Abdul Hakeem.

The people who went at dawn to destroy the statue, appeared to be afraid of it. After the vandalism, the pieces were put together, wrapped in a hessian bag and put in a box. Banana leaves were used as padding and it was taken to Male' and placed in Mulee-aage [an important official residence]. The statue was under a verandah at the southern side of the building. Ministers and high officials went to see it. Although almost all officials viewed the statue, prime minister Ibrahim Nasir did not.

Some high officials had great suggestions about what to do with it. Ahmed Hilmy Didi said that if advertised as a statue found washed up at the beach, Sri Lankans would pay a high price for it. Sheikh Rushdie said not to do that. He suggested placing the statue on public display on a nice wall, and it would attract people from Sri Lanka who would pay dollars to see it. It was not good idea to sell it, according to Rushdie.

Despite all these ideas, the statue remained at Mulee-aage. News of the Thoddu statue had spread all over Male' and some people became very angry. About six days after it arrived, a group of people went in and smashed the statue to pieces. The only part remaining was the head section.

Next day, the most widely discussed topic was that the worship of statues had begun in Male' and some people had converted to Buddhism. People gathered at various places in Male' and shouted about their concerns. 'Nasir was unable muster the courage do anything about it,' said Hakeem. 'He certainly had no wish to investigate the destruction of the statue.'

An object that would have given insight into the ancient history of Maldives was destroyed while it was in Mulee-aage, and historians, including Hakeem, believe the statue was destroyed by disapproving government employees from that building.

The head of the Thoddu statue is now in the museum in Male', the coral stone casket went missing and Thoddu's temple has been buried again.

from 'A New Light on the History of Maldives'
Male' 1958-1966

ruins of Buddhist temple/stupa on Thoddu island maldives 1959
Thoddu island Buddhist ruin excavation, 1959

The photographs furnished are not accompanied by any information with regard to the identity dimensions of the remains unearthed and the relation of one to the other. It is, therefore, difficult to arrive at accurate conclusions with regard to their character.

Judging from the photographs, there appear to have been exposed the remains of a stupa of no great size, but intersting on account of its many unusual features. It is also not possible to say from the photographs the material out of which the stupa and relic-casket found in it were made; but it is presumed that they are of coral stone, the material readily available on these islands.

Railing pattern used around temple base on Thoddu island ruins
The railing pattern on the base of the Thoddu temple - 'this architectural ornamentation has not been found in the corresponding position at any old stupa in Ceylon or India.'

The photograph No.I shows the general view of the base and the lower part of the drum of a stupa on stepped circular platform against a background of coconut palms. The upper moulding of the base is ornamented with the railing pattern. Photographs numbered II, III and IV taken to be details of the monument of which a general view is given in No.I. One of these shows the mouldings at the base in considerable clearness. The cyma and the torus mouldings recognisable at the base and fillets in the cornice are familiar enough in the old stupas of Ceylon. But the vertical face between the mouldings of the base and the cornice at the base which is invariably plain in Ceylon stupas is here ornamented with the railing pattern, so common in the early Buddhist architecture of India as well as Ceylon. To my knowledge this architectural ornamentation has not been found in the corresponding position at any old stupa in Ceylon or India.

pit for sacred objects in Thoddu Buddhist temple ruins
The pit in the centre of the temple is used to bury sacred objects during construction. The other pits give the four main directions.

Photograph No.V is taken to be the interior of the stupa, the garbha in which the sacred objects were deposited. We have here a rectangular pit in the centre with four similar but smaller pits at the four sides The arrangement clearly indicates the centre of the universe and the four directions. In corresponding positions in Ceylon stupas we have nine, instead of five pits, four being added at the corners. The arrangement in this Maldivian stupa is clear evidence that the so-called yantragalas in Buddhist stupas originated as a directional symbolism which is quite obvious here. The stupa consequently has preserved a very archaic feature in its internal arrangements which is of great importance for a proper understanding of the significance of early stupas.

Photographs Nos.VI, VII and VIII are taken to be of relic-caskets, the larger one of coral stone and the smaller one which from photograph VII is shown to have been found inside the first, is taken to be of metal. These relic-caskets are miniature stupas and are almost identical in shape with similar caskets found at ancient stupas in Ceylon. In fashioning the upper portion as a lid to this casket shows similarity with Ceylon examples. The cubical portion above the dome of the caskets is ornamented with the railing pattern - a feature common in Ceylon stupas.

The discovery is of unusual interest for the study of Buddhist art.

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