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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
translated into English in 1887 from the third French edition of 1619 by Albert Gray assisted by H.C.P. Bell

Vol.1 Chapter 16

Of the king's palace - a description of it; of his manner of life, and of the queens, his wives.

King's palace
To come now to a description of the king's palace. It has been mentioned several times above, that the king resides ordinarily at Male', which is in consequence the chief of all the other islands, his palace being there. It is built of stone and consists of several houses well constructed, yet without much ornamental architecture, and of a single story. All around are orchards and gardens, with fountains and ponds of water, enclosed within walls, and paved with large polished stone. These places are guarded perpetually by men appointed to that duty; for it is there the king and his queens bathe, and it is strictly forbidden to all others to bathe there.

palace entrance Male' Maldives 1879

In the close of the palace, called in their language 'gan'duvaru' which is of great extent, there are many buildings, and also courtyards, in each of which is a well, set off with fine white stone. In one of these courtyards are the two royal magazines; in the one the king keeps his cannon, in the other all his other sorts of arms.

At the entrance of the palace there is a guard-house, where you see some pieces of cannon and other arms. The gateway is made like a square tower, on top of which the musicians play and sing on feast days, as I have described.

Proceeding thence, you come to the first hall, where the soldiers attend; further on, another great hall for the lords, gentlemen, and qualified persons: for nobody, be he lord, gentleman, or commoner, man or boy, woman or girl, dare go further than this, saving only the domestic officers of the king and queens, and their slaves and servants.

Hear now how these halls are built. The floor is raised three feet above ground, and is laid with wood nicely joined and highly polished. It is for a precaution against the ants that the floor is thus raised, and it is the same in all the houses of the country, except that, as you may suppose, if builders' work can be done better at one place than another, it will be at the king's palace. The floor is all covered with little mats made at the islands, interlaced of various colours, with figures and other patterns prettily worked, and marvellously fair to see.

King's Court
The walls are hung with silk tapestry; while above, the ceiling is covered also with silk tapestry from which hang pretty fringes as those of a curtain. In the hall of the soldiers and strangers the king had spread upon the ceiling the great ensign and banner of our vessel, which was blue, with the arms of France in gold, beautifully worked. He was greatly proud of this, showing it off as a curiosity to strangers; and often he made me explain what was represented in the arms, as indeed I did, not without causing him to wonder at the greatness of our king.

In these halls, over the place where the king sits, there is another kind of ceiling and curtain of a richer character, under which is a large space raised two feet, and covered with a large carpet, on which he seats himself cross-legged, for they use no other seats. On the mats throughout the hall, the lords, when they come to court, sit in the same fashion.

At this court the order of ranks is strictly observed; for those of lower condition remain standing, unless the king, or in his absence the grandees who may be there, bid them to be seated. (Footnote 1887: According to Christopher, 'The customs and etiquette observed in the Durbar are remarkable for their simplicity. The courtiers and officers take stations according to their respective ranks.' A court regulation requires that all persons wear dress of native manufacture when they come into the Sultan's presence.)

The places next to where the king is sitting are the most honourable, and so on in proportion to the distance. For the gentry of Male', and other regular courtiers, who are bound to come and salute the king every afternoon, tarry sitting in this second hall, and may not proceed further; there they amuse themselves conversing with one another until the king comes forth, or some domestic officer shows himself, whom they bid tell the king that they have come to pay their respects, or convey some special request to him. Such is the manner of holding court in that country. Sometimes, while they are sitting there, the king sends them dishes of fruit and betel, which they esteem a great honour and favour.

Once a week, or fortnight, as he pleases,the king comes to sit in this hall to take part in their deliberations, and to take counsel with them on affairs of state or other. The nobles of the other islands, who are very numerous, often come to court, and observe the same procedure as do those of Male' and the ordinary courtiers; but they never come for a fresh visit without bringing a present: for no one, whether noble or merchant, is admitted to salute the king unless he brings an offering. Likewise, those lords who hold islands of the king, bring the tribute due to him.

By this manner of offering presents a man is soon aware whether he is in his good graces or not, for if the king accepts his present, he is assured of his goodwill; but if not, or if the king says not a word to the messenger who announces his arrival and conveys his respects, it is a certain sign of disfavour and disgrace. When the king receives strangers, it is in the first or large hall, where the guards attend.

Royal living conditions
The king's private apartments and the corridors are also much adorned, and are hung with silk tapestry, worked richly with flower and branch patterns in gold and various colours; this dazzles the eye, as well with the richness of the gold and the colours, as with the wondrous work of it. These hangings come for the most part from China, Bengal, Masulipatan, and St. Thomas, and are also made at the Maldives. The common people use cotton hangings, composed of pieces of cotton cloth of all colours, arranged together in various ways, and upon them figures and patterns in needlework, or other pieces applied and sewn on.

From Bengal comes also another sort of hanging, of fine linen painted and ornamented with colours in a very agreeable fashion: these they call 'Iader' (footnote: probably from 'chadar', sheet). The beds are suspended in air by four cords from a bar supported by two posts; the pillows and sheets are of cotton and silk, the whole covered with precious curtains of silk and cloth of gold. The beds of the king, the grandees, and the wealthy are in this style, as they are thus more comfortably rocked to sleep. (Footnote 1887: Marco Polo states that the wealthier people of the Coromandel coast had bedsteads of light canework, in which they were drawn up by cords nearly to the ceiling, in order to escape vermin during the night.)

They are also accustomed, when they go to bed, to have their bodies handled and chafed, and gently rubbed by their attendants, and to be patted with both hands; they say this is good for their spleen disease, and that it cures the pain; it also puts them to sleep sooner, and makes them forget the pain in the part patted and rubbed. The ordinary domestics of the king sleep on cotton pillows laid on boards fixed on four posts four feet high.

The ordinary habit of the king was a gown, of exceeding white and fine cotton, or rather a cassock, falling to the waist or rather lower, with a border of white and blue, and fastened in front with buttons of massive gold. With this he wore a piece of red taffetas, edged, reaching from the waist to the heels. This taffetas was girt with a long and large waistband of red silk with gold fringes, and by a heavy gold chain, fastened in front by a fine buckle larger than the hand, set with the rarest gems known. He carried also a knife, after the manner of his country, but richly ornamented.

On his head he wore a little bonnet of red scarlet, which is highly prized in that country and permitted to the king alone: this bonnet was trimmed all round with gold, while on the top was a big button of solid gold with some precious stone, signifying in a way his royalty, the whole bound round with a turban of red silk like the waistband.

And although the greatest lords and the soldiers like to wear their hair long, as has been said, yet he was wont to shave every week. He went always barelegged, like the rest, and wore on his feet only gold-sewn leather slippers, 'fai rankolhu', brought from Arabia, and made like sandals. These no person in the kingdom, of whatever rank, would dare to wear, saving the queens and the princesses of his house.

As for the princes, though they might, or could easily get permission, yet they care not to use aught but certain wooden sandals, 'maruvalhi kolhu', and those at home only, leaving to the king this mark of distinction between them and him, though he has another by which he may easily be recognised: for when he goes forth, a white umbrella or parasol, 'hudhu haiykolhu', is borne over him. This is the chief mark of royal majesty; neither is it, nor would it be allowed to any other person whatsoever, except to foreigners, who are permitted to dress as they please, and carry what they like.

Walking by the king on all occasions are pages, one carrying a fan, another the king's sword drawn and a buckler, a third his box of betel and areca, of which he partakes every hour. A doctor of the law also follows, never losing sight of him, reading a book in his presence and admonishing him of his religion.

At table, where he eats alone, he is served by the chief of his household in the same manner as I have related of his subjects, except that he is served with greater care, honour, and reverence. His plate is neither gold nor silver, for that is forbidden by their law; but of porcelain, or of other China fabric, or of copper, neatly fashioned and worked at the Maldives; he also uses the boxes of polished and lacquered wood.

His exercise and ordinary pastime was not to go forth frequently, or to go fishing, as I learnt from the islanders was the habit of kings that preceded him, but to tarry most of his time shut up in his palace, entertaining his queens, seeing his courtiers, and superintending numbers of workmen and artisans, such as painters, goldsmiths, embroiderers, cutlers, bead-makers, turners, joiners, armourers, and various others, whom he kept at his palace, supplying them with materials, and paying them for their work as it was finished; he then stored the articles with care in various places in the palace, and sometimes made presents of them. In this occupation he took much delight and spent much of his time; he also used himself to work, and would say it was a sin to be idle.

He was of quick and ready wit, knowing something of most things; he worked at several crafts and trades, and was ever anxious to learn; he sought out such as excelled at anything; and if he met with any foreigner who knew something that neither he nor his islanders knew, he paid him great attention, to the end that he should teach him his art. When he goes out, he is accompanied by his soldiers, of whom a hundred are on guard daily.

Friday procession
On Fridays, when he goes to the mosque, it is in fine array and in grand pomp, as I have to some extent described above, for the soldiers march in order, one company before and the other behind, his ordinary officers beside him, along with the greatest men of his court, while drums, flutes, trumpets, and other instruments are played with a harmony most pleasing to the ear.

The service done, he returns to his palace in the same order, the soldiers marching to the sound of the instruments, and dancing and capering in front of the king with their arms, and with their swords striking the shields of one another: in this they show their address, for to avoid confusion they strike not all together, but two at a time only, and one after another continuously. The residents of the island who have taken part in the festival escort him back, and it would be a shame for any not to go.

Arrived at his palace, the king keeps the Fandiyaru, the naibs, katibs, and mudims, as well as the chief lords, gentlemen, and soldiers, or such as he selects on each occasion to dine at the palace, and after dinner he sits to administer justice.

When the king used to go out, he went always on foot (since on none of the islands are there any horses or other beasts for riding), except when he was carried in a chair on the shoulders of his slaves; but that happened rarely or never, for, being strong and healthy, he liked better to walk; besides, the island is of but little extent.

At Male' the streets and roads are not paved, and still less elsewhere, wherefore the inhabitants, to prevent weeds growing upon them, are obliged to sweep them; this they do principally at the festivals, for then they know that the king or the queens must come and walk about the island, and on that account they are careful. When the king walks in the street, the people quit that side and leave it free, and go to the other, so that there be none where the king goes; for the king never passes between two persons, and great care is taken not to touch him. The great lords are treated in the same way in their own islands by their inferiors.

It is also to be remarked that when one speaks to the king or the queens or their children, or to the princes of the blood, or when one speaks of them to others, it is in terms applied only to them, and such as one dares not apply to others; as, for example, when you say of a man that he sleeps, of the king you would say he slumbers, or takes rest; and these terms are never used but with respect to the king. (Footnote: Same in Sinhala).

Royal wives
The king's wives are dressed in the same style as I have described the great ladies, save that they are more profuse with gold, pearls, and gems, in the richness of their ear pendants, gold chains, and bracelets, and in their carkanets on the neck, arms, and legs. The ladies that are wives or daughters of the grandees of the island are expected to go and visit them in the evening, to pass the time with them and to take them presents.

Sometimes the queens go abroad, but that is rarely, and then they have women and slaves who go far ahead to warn men to keep out of the way, and not show themselves on the road: only women are allowed. Indeed, the women assemble from their several wards, and come forward with little offerings, such as flowers and fruits. Four chief women bear over the heads of the queens a silk curtain reaching to the ground, in such wise that they cannot be seen. When they are with child, they also go out to bathe in the sea, like all the other women, for it is a custom of the country, and esteemed healthy. For this purpose a little shed or enclosure of posts and sticks is erected in the sea, and covered all round with cloths. There the queens and grand ladies bathe at their ease, after which they come out into another little house built on purpose, where they have another bath of fresh water nicely served.

In the apartments of the queens, princesses, and great ladies, no daylight is admitted, but only lamps are kept burning continually. They withdraw to a part of their chamber where they are shut off by four or five several curtain hangings, which have to be raised one by one before a person gets to where they are; but no man or woman, domestic or stranger, whoever it might be, would dare lift the last, although they might not be asleep, taking their meals, or doing anything.

One must first cough and say who it is, and then the ladies call to him, or send, according to their pleasure. By the way, I omitted to say that all women and girls when they go to bed take off only their robe, and wear their waist-cloths; but these are cloths solely for night use, and men have the like, and they would not think of doing otherwise.

Footnotes 1887:

The meaning of the word is not quite clear. 'gan'du' is 'piece', or 'part', as in 'mas gan'du', the best cut of fish; 'reygan'du', 'the night part of the day'. It also has an honorific sense, as in 'alhugan'dumen', 'I', when used as our royal 'we'; 'fen gan'du', water for the Sultan's use; 'vedun gan'du', said of the present annually made to the Governor of Ceylon. The 'varu' is, perhaps, only a plural suffix, as in oyivaru, 'currents'; cf. 'varu-veri', above.

Sultan's palace
The Sultan's palace seems to have been rebuilt or enlarged since Pyrard's time. Christopher gives the following description of it: 'The Sultan's palace is a large, upper-roomed house, with a peaked roof, covered with thick sheet-copper, in a walled enclosure, which is surrounded by a shallow moat, comprising an area of about a square mile. Within this space there is also a well-built magazine, besides several other houses, and a neat building raised on stone arches, from which the ladies witness the games exhibited before the court on festivals. One of the above-mentioned buildings is said to contain a variety of arms and relics taken from wrecked vessels; and it is currently reported and believed that there is a tank near the palace filled with ambergris' Christopher was not admitted to view the interior, nor was Mr. Bell.

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