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The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil
Francois Pyrard de Laval
1611
translated into English in 1887 from the third French edition of 1619 by Albert Gray assisted by H.C.P. Bell

Vol.1 Chapter 10

Description of the Maldive islands, of their situation, and the people who inhabit them.

The Maldive isles begin at 8 degrees from the equinoctial line to the northward, and terminate at 4 degrees to the southward. Their length is thus great - about 200 leagues; their breadth is only 30 or 35 leagues. They are distant from the continent - that is, from Cape Comorin, Quilon, and Cochin - about 150 leagues. (The Maldives extend from latitude 7° 6' N. to latitude 0° 42' S., and from longitude 72° 33' to longitude 73° 44' E., a space 470 miles in length north and south, and seventy miles east and west. Ihavandiffulu, the northernmost atoll, is distant about 350 miles from Cape Comorin, and Male' atoll about 400 miles from the nearest port of Ceylon, according to the translator's notes).

Atolls
  Madrepore coral maldives
Madrepore coral
Photo from Kandu Travel



  maalhosmadulu atoll maldives satellite photo
Maalhosmadulu atoll
Satellite photo



The Portuguese account it 4,500 leagues by sea to reach them from Spain. They are divided in thirteen provinces, called by them 'atolu', which is a natural division, according to the situation of the places. For each atoll is separated from the rest, and contains in itself a great number of little isles. It is a marvel to see each of these atolls, surrounded on all sides by a great bank of stone, and no human device could so well wall in a space of land as it does. These atolls are either round or oval, each thirty leagues, more or less, in circumference, and all in a line, end to end from the north to the south, without touching each other.

Between every two there are channels, some broad and some narrow. Standing in the middle of one of these atolls, you see around you this great reef of rock, as I have said, which surrounds and defends the islands from the impetuosity of the sea. But it is a fearful thing, even to the most hardy, to approach this reef, and to see the billows from afar come on and break with fury all around; for I assure you, as a thing which I have seen an infinity of times, that the crests and foam of the breakers rise higher than a house, of the whiteness of cotton, so that you see around you, as it were, a wall of exceeding whiteness, chiefly when the sea is high.

Within each of these enclosures are the islands, great and small, in number almost infinite. The natives informed me that there were as many as 12,000; but my notion is that there is not the appearance of so great a number, and that they say 12,000 to indicate an incredible number, which cannot be counted. Yet, true it is that there is an endless number of little ones which are mere sandbanks, altogether uninhabited. Moreover, the king of the Maldives puts this number among his titles, for he called himself Sultan Ibrahim - 'king of 13 provinces and 12,000 isles'. However that may be, the currents and heavy seas are continually diminishing the number, as I was told by the natives, who also said that the inhabitants were decreasing in proportion, and are not so numerous as in ancient times.

One would say, in looking at the interior of one of these atolls, that all the little islands and the sea between them form but one continuous shoal, or that it was of old but one island, afterwards broken and divided into many. And in fact those who sail near the Maldives perceive the interior to be all white, by reason of the sand of that colour which covers all the shoals and reefs. The sea is calm and of little depth, at the deepest place not being twenty fathoms, and there are but few such places, for nearly everywhere you see almost to the bottom. This bottom is everywhere stone reef, rocks, and sand, so that when the sea is low it would not come up to the waist, and in most places only to the knee; so it would then be easy to go without a boat to all the islands of the same atoll, were it not for two things which prevent that: first, the great fish called 'femunu' (the great white shark), which devour men, and break their arms and legs when they meet them; in the second place, the rocks at the bottom of the sea, for the most part, are sharp and pointed, and these give countless wounds to such as walk thereon.

Moreover, one meets also a mass of branches of a thing whereof I cannot say whether it be tree or stone, only it is like white coral, and is also branched and pointed, but not polished at all; on the contrary, it is very rough, and all hollow and pierced with little holes, and quite porous; nevertheless, it is hard, and in weight like stone. In their language the natives call it 'hiri' (madrepore), and use it for making honey and sugar of coconuts, bruising these with little stones and boiling with coconut water: thus are their honey and sugar prepared.

That substance (madrepore) greatly inconveniences those who bathe or wade in the sea; and it was therefore difficult for me to go from isle to isle without a boat; those, however, who are accustomed to it often do so. Of the islands, an infinite number - that is, as I believe, a large majority - are entirely uninhabited, and have only trees and herbs; others have no vegetation and are merely shifting sand, some being for the most part submerged at high tides, and laid bare when the sea is low, the remaining part being covered with large crabs called 'kakuni', and crayfish, or else with numbers of birds called 'pinguy' (probably manchots, according to the notes) which lay there their eggs and young, and in quantities so prodigious that one could not (and I have often tried it) plant one's foot without touching their eggs or young, even the birds themselves, for they fly not away at the sight of men. For all that, the islanders eat them not, good eating though they be; they are as large as pigeons, and of a black and white plumage.

These islands, which I have said are uninhabited, appear from a distance as white as if they were covered with snow; this is from the exceeding whiteness of the sand, which is as loose and fine as that of an hour-glass, and so warm that these birds' eggs are easily hatched in it.

These islands but rarely have fresh water; the others which are covered, whether inhabited or not, have it, excepting some, whose inhabitants have to go to the neighbouring islands to fetch it; they have also contrivances for catching that which falls from heaven (Bell says that 'the natives use two simple contrivances for catching the rain: (1) a cloth is stretched horizontally, with a stone in the centre of it, under which vessels are placed to catch the water as it filters through; (2) coconut leaves are tied tightly round coconut tree trunks near the ground, and the rain as it runs down is conducted into vessels); and though they have water on these islands, it is not all alike, being better in some places than in others. All their well water is not good and wholesome. They make their wells in this fashion: by digging for three or four feet, more or less, they find fresh water in abundance, and what is a very strange thing, at four paces from the beach, even in places that; are often washed by the sea. I have observed that the water was quite cold by day, especially at noon, and at night was quite warm.

But to return to the thirteen atolls. Hear their names, commencing from the most northern, which is at the head of the rest, and on that account called by the Portuguese 'Cabexa de las ilhas', and in the Maldive language Thiladhunmathi, with the same meaning, that is, 'the highest point'; it is under the eighth degree from the line to the northward, at the same altitude as Cochin (the northernmost island of Maldives is 7 degrees 6 minutes North, while Cochin is 9 degrees 55 minutes North, according to the footnotes), and no more.

So the first atoll is called Thiladhunmathi; the second, Miladhunmadulu; the third, Faadhippolhu; the fourth, Malosmadulu; the fifth, Ari atoll; the sixth, Male' atoll, which is the principal one, having in it Male' island, the capital of all the others; the seventh, Felidhoo; the eighth, Mulaku; the ninth, Nilandhoo; the tenth, Kolhumadulu; the eleventh, Hadhunmathi; the twelfth, Suvadu; the thirteenth, Addu, and Fua Mulak, which are two little ones, distinct and separate like the others, but so small that they are only counted as one. Generally Addu, being the chief, gives its name to the other. During my sojourn I was in all the atolls and sailed about them with the natives.

Map of Maldives from Gray and Bell's translation - 1887
Map of Maldives from Gray and Bell's translation of Pyrard, 1887.


Each of these atolls is separated from its neighbour by a sea channel, and these vary, some being narrow and some wide; but whichever they be, you cannot pass them in large ships without disaster. Albeit, there are four much wider than the others, which the largest ships can pass; but even these are very dangerous, and it is hazardous to go by them, especially by night; for then you are infallibly lost, as we were, for you must meet with some shallows and reefs which ought to be avoided.

Sailing within Maldives
I have seen at the Maldives many marine charts, in which all this was very precisely laid down. The people also were wondrous clever at avoiding them and in getting out of the most dangerous passages without harm. I have often seen them pass through the midst of reefs, shoals, and rocks, by channels so narrow that there was room only for the boat, and sometimes so tight was the fit that she would scrape both her sides on the rocks, and for all that the natives would go with confidence through these hazards, and with all sails set, while I, travelling under their conduct, suffered the gravest apprehensions: this often happened to me.

But I was never so afraid as on one occasion when I was with some of them in a little boat of not more than four arm-lengths, in a sea towering above me two pikes high, more stormy and swollen than ever was. Every moment it seemed that a wave would carry me off the boat, wherein I had much trouble to hold myself, while they recked nothing of it, and only laughed; for they fear the sea not a whit, and are exceedingly adroit in managing their barques and boats, being brought up to it from their youth, as well the great lords as the poorest of the people: not to understand these matters would be esteemed a disgrace.

So it would be impossible to tell the number of barques and boats upon all the islands, for the poorest will have a boat of his own, and a rich man will have many. They never navigate by night, wherefore they fetch land every evening; they steer only by eyesight and without compass, except when they go beyond their own islands on a long voyage. For the same reason, they take not much provisions, buying from day to day whatever they require at the several islands.

A great number of the islands within an atoll are also surrounded by a shoal, with only one or two openings, very narrow and difficult to notice, and therefore much need for them to know how to manage their barques dexterously; otherwise, if they made the least mistake in the world, their barque would be upset and their merchandise lost. As for the men, they can swim so well that in these sea passages they always save themselves; and, in truth, they are half fish, so accustomed are they to the sea, in which they pass their days, either swimming or wading or in boats. I have seen them many a time within the reefs where the sea is calm - I have seen them, I say, swim after fish, which they have suddenly caught sight of while bathing, and catch them in their course. That is quite a common thing.

Winds and Currents
And yet they often lose their barques, with all their dexterity. They are most troubled by the currents, 'oyivaru', which run now to the east, now to the west, through the island channels, and in other parts of the sea, six months one way and six months the other; and not six months for certain either way, but sometimes more and sometimes less, and this is what deceives them, and usually causes the loss of their vessels.

The winds are often steady, like the currents from the east or the west; but they vary even more, and are not so regular, sometimes veering to the north or south; while the current always keeps its accustomed course until the season changes. This, as I have said, is variable, and is the cause of disasters to the shipping. I shall note some instances hereafter. In connection with this, there is also a feature well worthy of note. It is that the atolls, which, as I have said, are all in a line and end to end, separated by the sea channels, have openings or entrances opposite each other, two on one side and two on the other, by means of which you can go and come from atoll to atoll and have communication at all times: in which thing is to be observed an effect of God's providence, which leaves nothing imperfect.

For if there were only two openings in each atoll - that is, one at each end - it would not be possible to pass from atoll to atoll, from opening to opening, owing to the strength of the currents, which run six months to the east and six months to the west, and suffer you not to cross, but carry you down. And in cases where the two openings were not opposite each other, but one on towards the east and the other towards the west, you could easily get across and enter, but you could not return until after the six months were past and the current changed. As the entrances are disposed, you can go from one atoll to another, notwithstanding the current, at all seasons, and traffic and communicate freely, as in fact they do.

For each atoll has an opening at four places, corresponding to its two neighbours; for example, there is an opening toward the east, which is almost directly opposite the entrance to the other atoll; and on the western side there is another, which is likewise over against that of the neighbour on that side; so that if the current is running from east to west, you cannot cross direct from opening to opening; but in this case you set out from the eastern opening, which is the higher up the current, and using this current, enter the other atoll by the western opening.

And so you can speedily return at all times without awaiting the change of season; but then you must set out from the eastern opening, which is opposite the one you started from, and, using the current, make the western opening of the other atoll. When the current changes, and runs from west to east, you must do the opposite to what I have said: that is, set out from up the current, and enter by the opening of the other atoll, which is down the stream, that will be towards the east.

The utility and necessity of these openings further appear in this, that notwithstanding them, barques and boats are very often lost, being carried out of their course by the currents, and chiefly when they are caught by calms or contrary winds on their passage; but if these openings were not where I have described them, it would be much worse, and you could not navigate from atoll to atoll.

For the rest, these entrances to the atolls vary in size, some are broad, some narrow; the broadest is not more than two hundred paces or thereabouts; while some are hardly thirty, and even less. At each side of these entrances to each atoll are two islands, and you might say that they were for the very purpose of guarding the entrance; for, in fact, it would be easy with cannon to prevent ships from entering in, seeing that the broadest is no more than two hundred paces.

As for the channels, called by them 'kandu' which separate the atolls, four of them are navigable for large ships passing the Maldives; all sorts of foreign craft use them, but not without danger, and many are lost every year. It is not that men choose to pass through: on the contrary, they avoid them as much as possible; but these islands are so situated in the midst of the sea, and are of such extent, that it is difficult to avoid them; the currents, more than anything else, carry the ships out of their course during calms and contrary winds, when sails are of no avail to escape the currents.

The first channel to take from the north is that at the entering in where we were wrecked (Baraveli kandu) on the reef of Maalhosmadulu atoll. The second, nearer to Male', is called Caridou (Kashidhoo kandu), in the midst of which is the largest of all the islands, surrounded by reefs, as I have described. The third is beyond Male', to the south, and is called Addu (Ariadhoo kandu, north of Nilandhoo atoll). The fourth is called Suvadu (Huvadhu kandu), which is directly under the equinoctial line (incorrect, the equator runs between the bottom of Huvadhu atoll and Fua Mulak), and is the widest of all, being more than twenty leagues broad.

The islanders, while going among the islands do not use the compass; but only on long voyages beyond, and on crossing this wide channel (Huvadhu), they use it. All the other channels between the atolls are quite narrow, and full of shoals and flats, and can only be crossed in small barques; and even then a good knowledge of the ground is required to escape danger.

I have been surprised, while sailing with the islanders on the channel which separates Male' and Fulidhoo (Fulidhoo kandu is seven leagues broad or thereabouts), to find the sea as dark as the anchor; and for all that, if you put it in a pot, it was just like other water: I saw it ever bubbling in dark eddies, like water over a fire. The sea does not flow at this place as elsewhere, and this was fearful to behold: it seemed I was in a whirlpool, as I did not see the water flow one way or the other. Nor can I assign a cause for this; but I know well that the natives are afraid of it: they often meet with storms there.

Climate
As I have said that these islands are so near the equinoctial line on each side, you may imagine what is the quality of the air namely, that it is very intemperate and the heat excessive. The night and the day are of equal duration at all seasons; the nights are quite cool, and bring an abundance of dew. It is on account of this coolness that this country may be lived in without inconvenience, and herbs and trees abound, notwithstanding the heat of the sun. Winter begins in April, and lasts six months; summer, in October, and likewise lasts six months. There is no frost in winter, but continual rain. The winds then are stronger from the west; on the other hand, the summer is extremely hot and there is no rain; the winds are then from the east.

The People
It is believed that the Maldives were formerly peopled by the 'Singala', Singalese, (for so they call the people of Ceylon); but I find that the Maldivians do not in any way resemble the Singalese, who are black and ill-shapen, while the former are of good form and proportion, and differ but little from ourselves, saving in their colour, which is olive. Yet it may be believed that the climate and lapse of time have rendered them more fair than were those who first peopled the islands. Add to this, that a large number of foreigners from all parts meet there and make it their home; besides many Indians who from time to time are wrecked there, as we were, and remain at the islands.

This is why the people living at Male' and the neighbouring parts toward the north are more polished, genteel, and civilised, while those toward the south are ruder in language and habits, and also are less well-formed in body, and darker; and you see many women, chiefly the poor, go about naked without any shame, with nothing on but a little cloth to cover their private parts.

The northern parts, therefore, are more frequented by foreigners who usually marry there. There, too, pass all the ships, which enrich the country and tend to civilise it, and so people of quality and means go there more willingly than to the south, to where, as I have said, the king sends those whom he would punish with banishment; albeit the people of the south are no less well-informed and clever than the rest, perhaps more so in some ways; but as for the nobles, they are all in the north, where, too, the soldiers are obtained.

In short, the people are exceeding adroit, much given to the manufacture of all kinds of things, and excelling therein, even in letters and science, according to their notions; but more especially in astrology, of which they make great business. They are a prudent and circumspect people, very cunning in trade and in social life. And while they are valiant, and courageous, and skilled in arms, they live under a complete system of law and police.

As for the women, they are pretty, for all they are of an olive complexion; and yet you find some as fair as in Europe, albeit their hair is always black; but that they esteem a beauty, and many make it come so by keeping the girls' heads shaven up to the age of eight or nine, only leaving them a little hair all along the forehead, to distinguish them from the boys, who have none at all, except the eye-brows; and from the time the children are born they shave their heads every week, and this makes the hair very black, though it would in some cases have been otherwise, for I have seen some children with it almost fair.

Their hair, then, is in general black, and the blackest is the most admired, as well in men as in women. This blackness, as I have said, comes from their being shaved every week from their birth.

It is a beauty among women to have the hair very long, thick, and black; they dress and bathe it often, and clean it with water and washes made on purpose; and after bathing and cleaning their heads and hair, they let it all float in the wind (that is, within their own house-yards) until it be perfectly dry, then they apply oils, very odoriferous, in such wise that their heads are always soaked and oily. (Footnote: Mr. Bell informs me there are at least four descriptions of hair oil (1) plain coconut oil; (2) the same, scented with jasmine; (3) the same, with champak (Michelia champaca); and (4) a fish oil.)

For they never wet their bodies, men or women, but after they have oiled, i.e. two or three times a week for the hair, and for the body sometimes more often than once a day. They are not obliged to wash their hair except when they have company, and especially every Friday, which is their Sabbath, and on all the other great feasts; the men on the Fridays, and the women on the great feasts only, and besides then as often as they like or require.

The women also perfume their heads, however small their means, and so, after washing, oiling and perfuming the hair, they dress it, and that is by taking all the hair from the front behind, and drawing it as tight as possible, so that not a hair strays hither or thither; then they tie it up behind and make a large knotted bunch; and in order to enlarge that they use a hair piece of man's hair (but as long as a woman's), in form like a horse's tail. To hold this, they fix it in the thick end of a kind of thimble, to which all the rest of the hair is fastened. This thimble, of gold or silver, is set with pearls or precious stones, according to their means; and some of them wear two of these false tresses, which serve to form the knot of hair behind, and to enlarge the bunch. Sometimes, but not always, they insert the sweet-smelling flowers of the country, which are never wanting. And all this is so well managed that not a single hair stands out beyond another.

As for the men, it is only allowed, as I have said, to the soldiers, officers of the king, and nobles to wear their hair long, as these do for the most part, and as long as the women. They take just as much trouble, too, as do the women, in washing, cleaning, oiling and perfuming it with flowers; and there is no other difference except that the men tie theirs on one side or on the top of the head, and not behind, as the women use; moreover, they never wear a false hair piece. Nevertheless, they are not obliged to wear their hair so, but short or long, as they think fit, as moustaches or whiskers are worn with us French.

I have seen there the king and the princes and most of the lords and soldiers wear their hair short, and some of those who generally wore it long, when they got tired of it, or when it ceased to grow, cut it off and sell or give it to the women; for the false hair pieces are only those of men; the women never have their hair cut, alive or dead.

Most of these false tresses come from the mainland, from Cochin, Calicut and the Malabar coast where all the men grow their hair long, and then cut it and sell it to the women of their own country and to foreigners. Their hair grows much faster than ours, because, as I fancy, they wash and oil it so often; also by reason of the excessive heat, which makes the hair grow more thick and strong: never, however, curly, as among us French.

The men are very hairy in their bodies: one could not imagine a covering more thick; they pride themselves in it, as in that in which the strength of a man is. This is not, however, true of them all; and if a man be not thus hairy, they say he is more like a woman than a man, and despise him accordingly. The women are not so, and have hair only on the ordinary places.

There are in that country no regular barbers, and every man knows how to shave himself, as well men as women. They use a razor only for that, and they have no combs; but they have scissors of copper and of iron, and mirrors also of copper, which they use for guiding the razor, which is of steel, but not made like ours, which they do not value.

They shave themselves in the same way as we Frenchmen do; but the king and the great lords have men who are proud to do this for them, not for gain, but from affection, being men of quality; albeit the king makes them some presents at the end of the year. So, throughout all the islands there is no person, man or woman, rich or poor, gentle or simple, who after the age of fifteen has not a private set of implements for treating the hair, which they are very careful to brush aside when it teases them but a little.

As for the girls, they are shaven in youth every week; but to distinguish them from the boys, they have a small fringe left. They wear no clothing up to the age of eight or nine, save only a cloth reaching from the waist to above the knees, and this is first worn when they begin to walk; the boys, however, do not wear it till the age of seven, and until they have been circumcised. They say, with regard to their daughters, that there is no need for them to wear clothing before the time mentioned, for it is then that the breasts begin to swell and rise, and it behoves them to cover them, as parts which they take as much shame in exposing as we here other parts. Then, too, they let their hair grow, and cut it no more.

They are dressed and decked out, as being then eligible for marriage. Before that they are considered children, and no one, man or boy, may talk to them of love, inasmuch as, up to that time, they are not recognised nor attired as girls. The men, when they grow old, are covered with hair, as I have said; not being clothed from the waist upwards, they shave only as far as the chest and stomach, but in such fashion betimes, cutting it in one place and leaving it in another, that it looks like a slashed doublet (a close-fitting body garment once worn by men, with or without sleeves and a short skirt.)

They wear their beards in two styles; the one, which is allowed only to the Fandiyaru, naibs, katibs and other clerks, and to all who have made the journey to Mecca and Medina-el-Nabi in Arabia (where is the tomb of Muhammad), is to wear the beard as long as possible, and only to shave it under the throat, and above and below the lips: for they would not for the world have anything that they eat or drink touch their hair, that being one of the most disgusting pollutions: therefore they have no hair around the mouth; nay, I have sometimes observed that when they found a single hair upon a dish of meat, they would not touch it, and would rather remain fasting and give the food to the birds and other animals, no one else caring to touch it.

The other kind of beard for all other people and the commonalty is to wear it small, in the Spanish style, shaved round the mouth and under the throat, but without moustaches; on the cheeks they cut little spaces with the scissors, quite close to the skin, but so, however, that some hair is seen. At the chin it is pointed, as with us Frenchmen at present.

Moreover, they keep with care the cuttings of their hair and nails, without letting any drop; these they are careful to bury in their cemeteries with a little water; for they would not for the world tread upon them nor cast them in the fire, for they say that they are part of the body, and demand burial as it does; and, indeed, they fold them neatly in cotton.

Most of them like to be shaved at the gates of temples and mosques. They are very handy in this matter, and use no warm water for shaving; their razors cut exceeding ill. They only pass a little cold water over the surface, and however bad a business they make of it, they make no complaint, and claim it gives them no pain. I used to take greater precaution and had the water warmed, and soaked my hair a long while; but sometimes I thought they would rasp all my skin off and tear up my hair by the roots. It is a matter of habit with them, for otherwise they would be as sensitive as we French.

Islands
But it is time to come to a particular description of these islands. The Maldives are very fertile in fruit and other commodities necessary for human life. There is millet in abundance, which they call 'uraa' (Italian millet, Setaria Italica), as well as another small grain called 'binbi' (finger millet, Cynosurus corocanus) , which is like millet, except that it is black like turnip seed.

These grains are sown and reaped twice a year. They make of them a kind of flour, whereof they concoct a gruel with milk and coconut milk, and also cakes and fritters and many other comfits. There grow there also roots of diverse kinds, on which they live; among others, one called 'hitthala-fuh', Indian arrowroot flour (Dioscorea oppositifolia), which is plentiful without being sown; it is round, and as large as the two fists, or thereabouts.

They crush it upon a very rough stone, then they put it on a cloth in the sun to dry; it then becomes very white, like starch or flour, and keeps as long as is desired. They make it into thick soup, cakes, and biscuits, which are very good eating, except that they are too filling for the stomach, and must be eaten fresh, to be wholesome. (From the footnotes: Ibn Battuta (1330s) says, 'the natives prepare a flour, with which they make a kind of vermicelli, and this they cook in coconut water; it is one of the most agreeable dishes in the world. I had a great taste for it, and ate it often.')

There are also other kinds of roots called 'alu', yams, good to eat and plentiful, which are sown and cultivated; one kind red, like beetroot, others white, like turnips; they are in general larger than a man's thigh. They are cooked and served in several ways; and to preserve them the year round (for they are ripe only at the end of winter, in the month of September), they mix them with honey and coconut sugar, and that compound forms a great part of the food of the people.

Wheat, which is called 'godhan', and rice, called 'han'doo', do not grow at all; but plenty of rice is brought from the mainland by the merchants, and therefore they use it much, and it is cheap. It is served and eaten in diverse ways: it is cooked by itself in water, and eaten with other viands in place of bread, or else mixed with spiceries; sometimes with milk and coconut sugar; sometimes cooked with chickens or fish, which dishes they serve with great neatness and propriety. They also cook it, and then dry and pound it; and with this flour, along with eggs, honey, milk and coconut butter, they make tartlets and other very excellent cakes.

Herbs and trees abound everywhere in the islands; a large number bear fruit, others not at all; yet of these latter the leaves are eaten, being sweet and delicate (Footnote: Bell says Maldivians 'eat the leaves of the manga and the kullhafilaa (launeaea sarmentosa) trees'); others are applied to every sort of use. I shall describe them in detail in another place: it will suffice to have made this mention of them here.

As for fruits, there are limes, pomegranates, and oranges, in the greatest possible abundance; bananas, which the Portuguese call Indian figs, but the Maldivians 'keyo'. It is a large fruit, which multiplies fast, tasty and very nourishing, so much so, that they feed their babes upon it in place of pap. There are ever so many more which I cannot name, some of which resemble our plums, pears, figs, cucumbers, and melons, though they grow on trees. None, however, is more useful than the coco or Indian nut, which they call 'ruh', and the fruit 'kashi', which is more plentiful at the Maldives than elsewhere. The islands supply many neighbouring countries, and the natives there know better than others how to extract its substance and the commodities it yields.

It is, indeed, the most wondrous manna imaginable; for this single tree can supply everything necessary to man, furnishing him in plenty with wine, honey, sugar, milk and butter. Besides, the kernel or almond is good to eat with all kinds of viands instead of bread: there, they neither make bread nor ever see it; indeed, I was five years or more without tasting it, or even seeing it, and I got so accustomed to that style of living that it seemed not strange to me.

Moreover, the wood, bark, leaves and nuts provide the greater part of their furniture and utensils. But I had rather not tarry in its description here: that were too long a tale, and would take me from the course of my story. In another place1 I will more conveniently give a particular description of this mar- vellous tree, which will perhaps be more ample than any previous accounts; for I knew it thoroughly; I lived upon it, and had a large number in my possession for a long time.

As for firewood, there is so much that it is not bought and sold, the country being quite covered with all kinds of trees, which give capital shade and a pleasant freshness to the air. People are free to go and cut such trees as are only fit for firewood at their pleasure. Some of the islands, too, are entirely covered with such timber, which people send their servants and slaves to fetch for their use.

With all this abundance of fruits, as I have said, it is a remarkable thing that each of the thirteen atolls yields different produce: for though all are under the same sky, yet each hath not everything needful, and the growth of products cannot be spread from one to the others. You would say that God had willed that these people should visit each other, such diversity is there; what is plentiful in one island is rare in another. I have often wished that some plant which grew abundantly in one place should grow elsewhere; but it will hardly do so, and is not so good or so natural as is growing in those atolls and islands proper to it; in other places it is a forced production.

The people, too, in their domiciles have followed a similar rule, for the craftsmen are collected in different isles - for instance, the weavers in one, the goldsmiths, the locksmiths, the blacksmiths, the mat weavers, the potters, the turners and the carpenters in others; in short, their craftsmen do not mingle together; each craft has its separate island.

They communicate with the other islands in this way. They have boats covered with a little deck, whereby they go from isle to isle, working and dealing in their goods, and it is sometimes more than a year ere they return to the island of their home. They take with them all their male children from the age of four or five upwards, to teach them the business. At their halting-places they always sleep, eat, and drink in their boats, and generally work there too. I remember seeing the tinkers' boat thus going from village to village.

I might here specify the atolls and islands which produce peculiar fruits and commodities, but that would be superfluous. Among their animals are poultry in great plenty, which cost only the catching, for they are wild; and in the market they are sold at a sol apiece, and about thirty-six eggs for the same price. It is the flesh they use the most, next to fish.

There are also quantities of pigeons, ducks, rails, and certain birds ('dhivehi koveli', Asian koel) most resembling sparrow-hawks, spotted with black and grey, which do not, however, live on prey but on fruits; there are other different species, all wild and undomesticated. The crows annoy the natives much, for they are so bold that they will enter houses to take anything, though people are there, and are not a whit afraid; this seemed very strange to me, and at first I thought they were tame. They are so numerous as to be beyond counting, and the people do not kill them. The bats there are as large as ravens.

Much annoyance, too, is suffered from the mosquitos or gnats, which bite keenly. They are as much or more of a nuisance there than at the island of S. Laurens (Madagascar), or anywhere in the Indies. But what trouble the people most are the rats, mice and ants, which are everywhere, with other kinds of animals and vermin, which come into their houses and eat and spoil their grain, provisions, fruit, and soft goods; so that they are constrained, in order to obviate this, to build houses and granaries on piles in the sea, at 200 to 300 paces from shore, and thither for safety they convey in boats their grain and fruit. Most of the king's magazines are built in this wise.

There are no venomous animals, except some snakes. There is one kind of snake in the sea which is very dangerous. (Footnote: Bell says two kinds of water-snakes are much dreaded by the natives, the 'fen harufaa' (Hydrophis spiralis), and the 'maaridaa' (Pelamis bicolor))

One sees numbers of cats, polecats, and ferrets ('mugari', mongoose). That is all I have to say of the animals native to the islands. I have seen others of all kinds, but they came from abroad. There are no beasts of burden, nor other large animals, either wild or tame.

It is true there are about four or five hundred cows and bulls, but they belong to the king, who keeps them at his island of Male'. They had been brought from the continent as a curiosity, and had multiplied to this number, as they are never eaten, except four or five times a year at the great feasts when the king has one killed, and sometimes to give to foreign ships which the king desires to gratify. I have also seen some sheep, which also belong to the king. (Footnote 1887: The few sheep and cattle at Male' all belong to the Sultan or great men, and are still kept for the purposes stated. Mr. Bell was presented with a kid on the occasion of his visit.)

He has no dogs: the people have a horror of them. While I was there, the Portuguese of Cochin sent him two, as a curiosity, which he incontinently drowned. If a native had been touched by one of them, he would go and bathe at once to purify himself.

The sea yields fish in wondrous wise, of all kinds, great and small: chiefly on account that it is shallow and calm within the atolls, and for other reasons peculiar to those shores. The fishery is of great yield, and it is the chief employment of the islanders; so their principal food is fish, either fresh, with rice or other viands, or fried with coconut oil, or cooked in sea water and dried as a preserve; and they are daily despatching ships with cargoes of this to Acheh, in Sumatra, and elsewhere.

Among the fish are some large ones which trouble them, seeing that they devour men when they come to bathe or fish. I myself was within an ace of being devoured by them. One sees many people who have lost arms and legs, or are otherwise maimed. This great abundance makes living easy and everything is cheap. You get 400 coconuts for a larin, which is of the value of eight sous (footnote: in the 1880s the price for 90 coconuts was 1 rupee); 500 bananas also for a larin; for about the same price, 100 large fish, a dozen fowls, or 300 pounds of roots, and so on; so that there is not a country in India where foreigners enrich themselves so fast, for the trade is good, and living costs but little. So they have a proverb, that they themselves will never get rich, but only the foreigners. In my opinion, it is the easy means of living which renders them indolent and negligent, and this prevents them getting rich; for most of them care only for the wherewithal to live, without ambition, desire, or trouble for aught beside.

Male'
The principal island, as I have said, is called Male', which gives its name to all the others; for the word Dives means a number of little islands collected together. It is about the middle of the other islands, and is about a league and a half in circumference. It is the most fertile of all, and the emporium both for them and for foreigners. It is the residence of the king and of the court: for this reason it is the most thickly peopled; but it is also the most unhealthy, for which they assign this cause, namely, that, time out of memory, the kings have resided here, and there have died a vast number of people who have been separately buried, so that the whole island is full of corpses, and the sun beating down upon the soil, has caused noxious vapours to arise. The water, too, is very bad, wherefore the king is compelled to send, for the use of himself and his house, to a neighbouring island, where it is better, and no one is buried. The nobles and people of means at Male' do the same. (Footnote 1887: Mr. Bell informs me that the water is not good. He does not know of any neighbouring island from which a pure supply could be obtained; but the Sultan and great men do occasionally have it brought from Kurendhoo, in Faadhippolhu atoll, where it is of excellent purity.)

Throughout the islands there are no walled towns - not even in the island of Male'; but over the whole island are scattered here and there houses and buildings, both of the lords and of the commonalty; and so at the other islands. Sometimes the houses are separated by streets and into quarters, with neat arrangement; and everyone knows his own parish (footnote 1887: Male' and some other islands have these wards, called 'avaru').

The houses and buildings of the common folk are of coconut wood, cut from the trunks of the trees; they are thatched with the leaves of the same tree, plaited together double. The nobles and the rich build houses of stone, raised from the shallows of the sea, where they get as much as they want, both as to length and thickness. It is polished, and of good grain, very white, but a little hard in some cases for cutting and working; in time it loses its natural hardness and whiteness, and at length becomes quite black, after being beaten with rain or soaked in fresh water.

The manner of drawing up this stone from the sea is remarkable. There grows, in these countries, a kind of tree called 'kandu' which is as large as the walnut here, with leaves like the aspen, and as white, but extremely soft. (Footnote 1887: It is now used precisely as Pyrard describes. There are two kinds, 'mas kandu' and 'varu kandu'. Only the former is sawn into planks; it has a larger leaf, and is the heavier. Varu kandu (which Pyrard evidently intends to describe) has leaves like the suriya (Portia tree, Thespesia populnea). The fruit is small; the nut is not eaten, but is useful for furnishing an oil with which the native boats are caulked. The timber, light as cork, is used for rafts, etc.
The species is certainly identical with the Sinhalese kenda, of which Moon in his Catalogue gives the following five varieties: An - (horn), alu - (ashy), lunu - (salt), savu - (sago), and ul - (pointed) kenda).

Kandu bears no fruit, and is not even good for burning; when dry, it is cut into planks, which are used as a piece of sawn timber is with us. It is the lightest wood possible, more so than cork. On espying, in the sea, a stone which they would have, they make fast a cable to it. That is a common thing for them; for, as I have said, they are half-fish, and very adroit swimmers; their women even swim as well as, or better than, the men of these parts : so that any will, at the slightest need, dive to the bottom of the sea, be it fifteen or twenty fathoms of water, and will remain there a long time surveying the bottom, very often to see if it is a good place for an anchor; and sometimes, in place of throwing an anchor, they choose some big rock at the bottom of the sea and belay a cable to it. So, when they have chosen the stone they want, and made fast their cable to it, they take a piece of this kandu wood, and fasten it to the cable close to the stone, or if the wood is pierced, run the cable through it, and above that they add as many more like pieces of wood as may be necessary. That wood being marvellously light and buoyant, floats up the stone or other heavy substance, even though it may be of the weight of 100,000 pounds.

male harbour maldives 1879


I have seen this done nearly every day. The cannons of our ship, which were at the bottom of the sea, also the anchors and other heavy things, were got up in this way, in the presence of all of us, who thought to give the people some advice, but they knew how to do it much better than we. By the same means, which is common and ordinary with them, I have seen the harbour of Male', which was formerly so full of big rocks that ships could not sail nor anchor there in safety, to be cleared and improved and rendered navigable, with a good anchorage, in less than fifteen days. (Footnote 1887: Bell writes of Male': 'An unbroken reef, just awash, renders its south side inaccessible; but the rest of its circumference has a lagoon or harbour, formed by an artificial bank of coral, 3 to 4 feet above water, and 6 to 8 feet in width, roughly renewed from time to time, which serves as an effective breakwater against the monsoon storms. As the depth of the water inside is from 6 to 14 feet, this harbour gives excellent shelter to both the trading and fishing boats of the natives.)

With this floating wood they drew the stones ashore and took them out to a deeper place, and then, cutting the cables, which are made of a certain fine bark ('digga-vakka': i.e. the bark of the digga tree, according to Bell), let them fall to the bottom. Stones for their building are got in the same way; but when the wood is soaked with water it must be dried in the sun, otherwise it would not float.

I will add two other uses which this kandu wood serves, since I have said so much about it. This is one: they take five or six large pieces of wood, and lash them together in a row, and then place upon them sawn planks of the same timber, so that it makes a level and well-fitted raft; all around the surface they put little benches in front, behind, and at the sides and in the middle, to sit upon. This serves them to go upon the sea, and to pass from island to island. I have been one of ten on board, and it is chiefly with this craft that they do their big fishings. Each man has his own, for it is very handy, and requires only one to manage it, whatever the weather may be, - I mean within the atolls and channels, and not upon the high seas. No need to fear that it will capsize, for that wood always floats; and, moreover, in making the raft, they know the proper measurements of wood, and the ordering and balancing of the pieces, so that it never is upset; all they have to fear is lest the pieces should become detached. This raft is in their language called 'kandufathi' from the tree of which it is composed. ( Footnote 1887: Bell says these rafts are still made and used. It is provided with benches and worked with an oar at the stern, but without sails, and will carry ten persons.)

The kandu tree has another property, namely, that by rubbing small pieces of it one against another, fire is generated, and so they light their fires, using it as we do steel. (Only the mas kandu is used for this purpose, the varu kandu being too soft, according to Bell). Thus is their stone for building obtained from the sea in the manner described; as for lime, it is made from the shells found on the seashore, and binds exceeding well.

But, since I have spoken of the people, it is meet, before going further, to add a word about their language and what it is. There are two languages in use. The first is peculiar to the Maldives, and is a very full one. In the five years and more which I spent there, I had mastered it as though it were my mother tongue, and was quite familiar with it. The second is the Arabic, which is highly esteemed, and learnt by them as Latin is with us. It is also used daily in their prayers. There are, besides, extraordinary languages, such as those of Cambay, Gujerat, and Malacca, and even Portuguese, which some learn for the sake of commerce and of the intercourse they have with that nation.

In Huvadhu atoll, and towards the south of the Maldives, a language is spoken difficult to understand, rough and barbarous, but still it is the common tongue.


Footnotes 1887

Southern Maldivian dialects
The language of the Suvadiva group still preserves more of the Sinhalese character than that of the northern atolls, and the natives of the north have considerable difficulty in understanding those of the southern atolls; but Mr. Bell considers the difference to be no more than exists between our own provincial dialects.

Huvadhu atoll
Our knowledge of the southern atolls is, unfortunately, very limited. One authority, however, the captain of the S.S. Consett, wrecked on Suadiva atoll in 1880, gives a pleasant picture of the islands there. He describes the people as 'very obliging, kind, and friendly', not ignorant, having books in their own language, and carrying on manufactures of coir yarn and rope, fine rush mats, fans, and tatties. The children are taught to read; the women are prettily dressed, and morality is good.

Hair
No false hairpieces are now used; but where the hair is insufficient for an ample konde', or chignon, a pad of a certain root is inserted, and the hair dressed over that. No gold or silver hairpins are used, nor other ornaments, except flowers; and these, in the atolls as far south as Male', must be concealed by the head-kerchief, of which, by the way, Pyrard says nothing. Whether in obedience to the custom of Indian moslems, or to convenience, as the author's subsequent remarks seem to indicate, the universal practice of Maldivians at the present day, from the Sultan downwards, is to shave the entire head.

Personal items
Copper scissors and mirrors and Maldivian razors have long since given place to the wares of Sheffield (British metalware manufacturer). Glass mirrors, combs, and brushes are in common use.

Cereal crops
Bell says uraa is grown in the south, the binbi in the northern atolls. Bell also says a second kind of millet, 'kudhibaiy' (common millet, Panicum miliaeceum) is found in the south.
Ibn Battuta (Maldives in 1330s) 'All the Maldive islands are destitute of grain, except that in the province of Suvadiva there is a cereal like the 'anly', which is brought thence to Male'.'

Caste and locality
This is, to some extent, the case still; thus, two islands of Nilandhoo atoll, Ribudhoo and Hulhudheli, are exclusively occupied by men of the jeweller caste and craft. Three islands of Thiladhunmathi atoll, Uligamu, Berimmadhoo, and Theefaridhoo, are occupied by toddy-drawers, and Thakandhoo, in the same atoll, by tinkers. Mat weaving is confined to the islands of Huvadhu, and the manufacture of cotton cloth is carried on chiefly in Maalhosmadulu, Addu, and Huvadhu atolls.
In the remoter parts of Ceylon, villages are exclusively peopled by distinct castes; all are now cultivators of the soil, though they to some extent also pursue their hereditary calling. There, a potter or a blacksmith village would be but a few miles off.
At the Maldives, where the island of a particular craft was probably leagues away beyond the channels of ocean, the segregation of trades is remarkable evidence of the endurance of caste after four, and now nearly seven, centuries of Islam.

Housing
The general use of stone has not been maintained. Mr. Bell, in 1879, found only one house built of it at Male', besides the Sultan's. The dwellings of the well-to-do natives are now of wood; those of the poor of coconut thatch, or wattle and daub, with thatched roofs, resembling the 'lines' of Tamil coolies.
Pyrard may be going too far in saying that the houses of the nobles were built of stone; if this were so, some of them would probably be standing still.
Ibn Battuta states that stone was used in his time for the foundations, and the Indian surveyors of 1835 found only the ruins of a few houses built of madrepore.
The following account is still true: 'Their houses are ill-built and dark, having at most only one small window, and frequently none at all; in fact, they are but large-sized huts with a peaked roof, in general about 28 feet long by 12 broad, and 15 feet high to the top of the roof. They are made of a substantial frame-work of wood, thatched all over with coconut leaves; the floor is plastered, and the sides are sometimes boarded; a partition near the middle divides the house into two rooms, one of which is private and the other open to visitors. In this public room there are two ranges of seats; the one on the right side on entering is considered the most honourable, and the other on the left (carried across the house) is appropriated for the common people.' (Christopher and Young report).
Mr. Bell supplies the Maldive names for this description. The inner or private room is the 'etherege' or 'mavalge'; the outer, or public room, is 'beyruge'; the range of seats on the right is 'kuda ashi'; the other is 'bodu ashi'.




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