Maldives Culture -
Maldives Culture - maldives island
Latest Updates arrow Maldives National Museum arrow WTF at Maldives National Museum
Latest Updates
Advanced Search
Free Dhivehi-English Dictionary
Presidency of Mohamed Nasheed
Gayyoom's Dictatorship 1978-2008
Buddhism and Islam
Ibn Battuta 1343-45
Pyrard 1602-07
Rosset 1885
Maldives 1900-1922
Maldives 1924-1953
Majlis rule 1954-57
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963
President Nasir 1969-1978
Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik
Maldives History
Maldives Art
Scripts of Maldives
Maps of Maldives
Traditional Stories
Magic - Fanditha
Photographs - Modern
Photographs - Historic
Ships of the Indian Ocean
Social Customs
Modern Stories
PDF Print E-mail
WTF at Maldives National Museum

Warhol Vighnantaka

'At sea it is more especially about the time of the solstices that these monsters are to be seen. For then it is that in these regions the whirlwind comes sweeping on, the rains descend, the hurricane comes rushing down, hurled from the mountain heights, while the sea is stirred up from the very bottom, and the monsters are driven from their depths and rolled upwards on the crest of the billow.'
The Sea Monsters of the Indian Ocean
Pliny the Elder, c. 78 CE.

On the morning of Tuesday 7 February 2012, a group of five or six men vandalised the Maldives National Museum's display collection of pre-Islamic sculpture.

This event has been compared with the bombing by the Afghani Taliban of two Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001 and 2005. The comparison is insulting to the Taliban, who had the integrity and confidence to admit what they had done.

Hawwa Lubna for Minivan News and the New York Times' Vikas Balaj have written detailed reports of the vandalism. The text of both articles appears below, with photos added by Maldives Culture.

An article by Eleanor Johnstone from Minivan News in December 2011 about the concept of budhu is also reproduced in full. It discusses the cultural reaction and political background to a recent spate of statue vandalism in Addu atoll, Maldives.

After the new museum opened in 2010, photographs were taken of the statues, relic boxes and sculptural remnants:
Vighnantaka - Male', Maldives
Chief of the Five Thieves - Buddha head, Toddoo island, Maldives
Fighting Monkey and 3 Faces - Male', Maldives
Buddhist head sculpture remnants - Baa, Laamu and Thaa atolls, Maldives
Vajrayana coralstone relic boxes - North Ari, Thaa and Faafu atolls, Maldives

Mob storms National Museum, destroys Buddhist statues: 'A significant part of our heritage is lost now'
Hawwa Lubna, Minivan News, 9 February 2012
[Some errors in the report are noted]

Maldives National Museum, pre-islamic buddhist era sculpture, exhibition hall opening 2010. Now vandalised and many statues, carvings and remnants deliberately destroyed by group of 5 or 6 men on the morning of the coup of 7 February 2012.
Sculpture exhibition room at the Maldives National Museum in 2010.

Several historical artifacts exhibited at the Maldives National Museum, including Buddhist statues were destroyed in a mob attack on Wednesday morning [the statues were attacked on Tuesday morning 7 February, as disturbances were occurring which led to the resignation of President Nasheed several hours later], an act of vandalism that is said to have caused 'unimaginable damage' to the treasured Maldivian heritage.

Speaking to Minivan News, a museum official said that a group of five to six men stormed into the building twice, 'deliberately targeted the Buddhist relics and ruins of monasteries exhibited in the pre-Islamic collection, destroying most items 'beyond repair'.

The official said that the details of the damage cannot be released as the police have asked the museum to withhold the information until the investigation into the attack is pending. 'But I can say that attackers have done unimaginable damage,' he added.

'This is not like a glass we use at home that can be replaced by buying a new one from a shop. These are originals from our ancestors' time. These cannot be replaced ever again,' the official exclaimed.

According to a source, a coral stone head of Lord Buddha, an 11th [should be 6th-7th] century piece recovered from Thoddoo in Alifu Atoll, was smashed up by the attackers, one of the most significant pieces at the museum inside Sultan's Park.

The museum was built with Chinese government aid and opened on July 26, 2010.

Other pieces vandalised include the Bohomala sculptures, monkey statues and a broken statue piece of the Hindu water god, Makara, while the two five-faced statues discovered from Male' were also damaged – the only remaining archaeological evidence proving the existence of a Buddhist era in the Maldives.

The glass casings holding the items were also destroyed in the attack.

According to the museum official, some of the attackers who returned to the museum for the second time were apprehended by the police who arrived on the scene.

'Around five to six people were taken under police custody. But by then they had already done the damage they wanted,' he observed.

Minivan News could [not] get the confirmation on the arrest from the police at the time of press.

The attack on the museum coincided with the political unrest that escalated in Male' on late hours of Tuesday night [should be 'Monday night'; Nasheed was forced to resign on Tuesday 7 February], after a group of policeman and military allegedly joined the opposition protestors, forcing former President Mohamed Nasheed to resign the following day.

AFP reported Nasheed as saying that the vandals included Islamist hardliners who had attacked the museum because they believed some of the statues inside were 'idolatrous'.

The monuments gifted by the South Asian countries to the Maldives ahead of the 17th summit of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation SAARC, hosted in Addu city were also denounced as idolatrous monuments and vandalised, including the monument gifted by Pakistan.

Removal of the contentious monuments was one of the five demands of the December 23 protesters, including religious groups and opposition, who also demanded that the government prohibit Israeli airlines from operating in the Maldives.

The museum official who spoke to Minivan News earlier said that he cannot comment on whether the attack was connected to fundamentalists.

'We are not trying to promote any religion here. These artifacts are used for the purpose of teaching, archaeological research and showing Maldivian history to visitors,' he explained. 'But a significant part of our heritage is lost now.'

Vandalism at Maldives Museum Stirs Fears of Extremism
Vikas Balaj (Male') and Sruthi Gottipati (New Delhi)
New York Times, 13 February 2012

Ali Waheed, director of the Maldives National Museum, and the pre-Islamic era sculpture being assembled for the new museum opening in 2010.
Ali Waheed, director of the Maldives National Museum, and the pre-Islamic era sculpture being assembled for the new museum opening in 2010.

The broken glass from an attack by vandals on the National Museum here has been swept away, and the remnants of the Buddhist statues they destroyed - nearly 30 of them, some dating to the sixth century - have been locked away. But officials say the loss to this island nation's archaeological legacy can never be recouped.

In the midst of the political turmoil racking this tiny Indian Ocean nation of 1,200 islands, a half-dozen men stormed into the museum last Tuesday and ransacked a collection of coral and lime figures, including a six-faced coral statue and a one and half foot wide representation of the Buddha's head. Officials said the men attacked the figures because they believed they were idols and therefore illegal under Islamic and national laws.

The vandalism was reminiscent of the Taliban's demolition of the great carved Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in early 2001, and it has raised fears here that extremists are gaining ground in the Maldives, a Sunni Muslim country that historians say converted from Buddhism to Islam in the 12th century. The country has incorporated elements of Islamic law into its jurisprudence for years. Idols cannot be brought into the country, for example, and alcohol and pork products are allowed only at resorts that cater to foreigners.

The statues were destroyed on the same day that Mohamed Nasheed, who won the presidency in 2008 in the country's first democratic election, resigned his office. Mr. Nasheed said he was forced to do so in what amounted to a coup; his opponents say he went voluntarily. For nearly a month leading up to his resignation, Islamic and other opposition political parties staged protests. Some of them criticized Mr. Nasheed for not cracking down on brothels that masquerade as massage parlors and for proposing that hotels be allowed to serve alcohol on islands where Maldivians live; under current law, alcohol can be served only at the airport or on resort islands with no native population.

Ali Waheed, the director of the National Museum, which was built by China as a gift to the country, said on Monday that officials might be able to restore two or three of the damaged statues, but that the rest were beyond repair. 'The collection was totally, totally smashed,' Mr. Waheed said. 'The whole pre-Islamic history is gone.'

There were conflicting reports on Monday about whether suspects had been arrested in the case. Mr. Waheed said five men were caught at the museum, but a spokesman for the police, Ahmed Shiyam, said on Monday that investigators were still collecting evidence and had not made arrests.

Naseema Mohamed, a historian who retired from the museum last year, said the loss was particularly devastating because many of the country's ancient artifacts, dispersed across the archipelago, had been lost or destroyed over the years by local people and rulers. 'There was very little left,' she said.

Mr. Waheed said that typically, two or three artifacts of the country's Buddhist heritage are discovered a year, generally during construction of homes and other buildings.

Both Ms. Mohamed and Mr. Waheed said that in recent years, some conservative Muslims had suggested removing the statues from the museum, but that there had never been any threats made over the statues. Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari, who was minister of Islamic affairs for the Maldives until last week, said that the country's laws specifically exempt ancient figures from the regulations governing idols. 'This is our heritage, and it has to be protected for future generations,' he said.

Officials of Adhaalath, an Islamist political party that took part in protests against the Nasheed administration, condemned the vandalism of the statues. Though the party has criticized what it called Mr. Nasheed's anti-Islamic policies, it said it had never objected to the presence of the statues in the museum.

'We are very concerned about it,' Mohamed Iaad Hameed, president of the party's trade and economic development committee, said in an interview on Monday. 'And we as a party are fully against extremism.'

Mr. Waheed, the museum director, said scholars and museums in a number of countries had already offered help in restoring the damaged statues.

The burden of budhu - a new age for Dhivehi
Eleanor Johnstone, Minivan News, 24 December 2011

Budhu Brain

'Does language follow a democratic movement, or does a movement follow the language?' queried a source educated in rhetoric and journalism.

Many changes have come to the Maldives in the last twenty years, but some wonder whether Dhivehi is opening the door for political maneuvering.

'In the past, everything in the king's palace had a word,' said Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid. Listing wooden nails and coil ropes named for their specific purposes, he explains 'it was a king-centered, palace-centered community. The people lived for King. But it has changed very little over hundreds of years.'

Today, Dhivehi leaves gaps of understanding which politicians have been using as public pressure points, Shahid claimed. Those gaps are sometimes filled with superstition, running deep in time.

A Superstitious Past
According to folklore and historical research, the Maldives is the only island group in the Central Indian Ocean to have supported indigenous culture since ancient times. As such, its people have a fairly isolated and protective heritage.

Certain sayings and practices exemplify the fear that isolation engendered.

'Traditionally Maldivians didn't think that it was good for a person to look too much at the sea, because one's 'heart would turn to stone', wrote Xavier Romero-Frias in The Maldive Islanders. He advises that the Dhivehi meaning conveys a loss of memory and focus, rather than a loss of mercy.

Romero-Frias also explains that the winding streets on islands were not only attractive - they also prevented kaddovi, malevolent spirits of dead ancestors, from walking about. Replacing them with straight paths at the king's order in the 1900s was unpleasant, to say the least.

The advent of Islam in 1100 AD tried to dispel indigenous superstition. The Sunni tradition in particular strongly discourages aniconism, or the depiction of religious and living beings. Signs of the Buddhist culture as well as 'all type of Dhivehi cultural expressions deemed un-Islamic', were destroyed, including budhu, or any carven image of a living being.

Some say the new regulations had a positive effect on Maldivian culture. 'Wahhabism removed suspicions and freed the psyche,' said one source familiar with the issue. With numerous demons and windowless architecture, he said, Buddhist culture leaned heavily on superstition and deterred progress. 'There were ill-omen days, and on those days people might not go fishing, for example,' he said.

While physical evidence of a Buddhist past has more or less vanished, words and their superstitious connotations linger.

Budhu is one example. Lacking words for 'doll' or 'monument', Dhivehi speakers generally refer to such objects as budhu - a habit that can lead to confusion.

In one story from Gan island, Laamu atoll, a statue is remembered as a human being.

Naseema Mohamed, a history consultant at Dhivehi Academy, told the tale of a big man who always stood near the island's stupa, no matter the weather. He never sat down. Naseema said the story was about a standing man, but infers that the 'man' was a Buddha statue.

'To some, even a photograph is considered a budhu,' Shahid said. Shahid was in prison for the first 16 years of his daughter's life, and saw her only 12 days a year. To remind their daughter of him, his wife kept a picture at eye-level in the house. The gesture was reportedly disdained by Shahid's sister, a pious woman who only took photographs for her passport.

The burden of budhu
Given the many meanings and uses of the word budhu, it seems reasonable that statues and monuments would be considered a public cultural threat in the Maldives. However, as the recent vandalism and theft of monuments in Addu illustrates, gaps in language could be 'one of the most serious problems, especially at this time', as Shahid claims.

Officials have suggested that the attacks on the SAARC monuments have a political base. Shahid believes they were engineered because the public was pre-disposed to accept the destruction of images. Without separate, secular terminology for 'monument', people fell back on the religious argument.

'This is just one of the factors of how the religious and political groups were able to blow things out of proportion,' said Shahid. 'Nobody wants to argue about budhu, they don't want to be labelled a non-Muslim, so it's better to stay quiet.'

The SAARC monuments were first criticised by the Islamic Ministry on religious grounds. Soon after, opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) hailed the vandals as 'national heroes' and filed a case against Customs for allowing the statues into the country. When Nepal's statue was stolen on December 7, Addu City mayor Abdullah Sodig asserted that the theft had a political base.

Recalling acquaintances who asked whether people would start worshiping new idols in Addu, Shahid concluded, 'my opinion is this whole thing has gone out of proportion because of the language problem.'

When asked about Shahid's assessment, Naseema pointed out that Pakistan's monument was a historical illustration. 'There was nothing for anyone to be angry or annoyed about, although I could understand how some people would have that reaction,' she said.

Editor of Michael O'Shea said most Maldivians harbor suspicions, but many make distinctions. 'Because budhu has a wide range of meanings, getting upset about some forms of it and not others is a personal choice,' he observed.

However, politics prevail. 'You can't have a cultural discussion without it turning into a political swinging match,' said O'Shea.

Recent events support his claim.

On the day before the nation-wide protest to 'Defend Islam', a religious rally at which key speakers pledged to defeat President Mohamed Nasheed in the 2013 presidential election, Afghanistan's monument was broken from its mount and sunk in the sea. Addu councilor Hussein Hilmee said the monument was an image of Afghanistan's Jam minaret, which features Quranic phrases and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As printed slogans at the 'Defend Islam' protest reminded the public, statues – even of the Jam minaret – offend the national religion.

The destruction of the Addu-based monuments was one of several demands made by the protestors, who came close to clashing to with MDP protestors late Friday night.

De-politicising Dhivehi in a democratic era
Politics govern most conversations in both manner and practice, said one source familiar with linguistics and media. He said the evolution of journalism illustrates the pressures of a democratic revolution on Dhivehi language.

'The language of journalism is now less formal than it was before. But, as it becomes less formal it also becomes less neutral,' he observed.

The democratic revolution of the previous decade pushed Dhivehi to its limits. 'Under Gayoom, we didn't have a word for 'protest'. Instead, we said 'express displeasure'. Previously, there was no word for 'detainee,' only 'convict'. You were either a political offender or a convict,' he said.

Dhivehi evolved quickly 'because the movement was happening very quickly,' but the source said it could learn from Arabic media, notably Al Jazeera, which developed new words instead of adopting English terms.

Pointing out that 'freeze' in Dhivehi only refers to objects, the source queried, 'When the western press talks about unfreezing assets, we haven't even got a word for freeze. How do we keep up with that?'

However, the source claimed, journalists are falling short of their duty.

'Journalists are passing the buck. They are saying it is not their job to change Dhivehi, but this is a responsibility of journalism. You can't just copy the politicians because it narrows the discussion and alienates the people, he said. 'There should be some strong face of journalism. At the moment it seems like the entire discussion is in the language of politicians.'

What are the consequences?
'It is not just a constitution that will bring democracy and human rights and civil society. In Maldives, it's everything. From language, to religion, to the population size. The language issue is a problem here. It has to be overcome.'

top of page

Maldives Culture, Powered by Joomla!; free resources by SG web hosting