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Maldive Studies: Language and Epigraphy
Chapter 30 from
H.C.P. Bell, Archaeologist of Ceylon and Maldives
by Bethia N. Bell and Heather M. Bell
Wales 1993
Archetype Publications


H.C.P. Bell
(1851-1937)
Archaeological
Commissioner
of Ceylon
(1890-1912)

Maldives history and writings - H.C.P. Bell
Bell never provided a systematic treatment of the Maldive language, ancient and modern. Instead, we shall see that his writings arose from the work of other men, which he was moved to draw on, to criticise, to edit. When the most complete treatment of Maldivian, 'Maldivian linguistic studies' by Wilhelm Geiger, was published in 1919, as an extra volume of the JRASCB, Bell edited this. He added, of his own composition, four Appendices, and some of the Plates of Maldive characters.

Also he constantly turned to the language for the light it threw on history, and valued and studied all the written records he could find. Thus in the 1881 report, in the Early Period section of his Historical Sketch, he had taken the affinity between Maldivian and Elu, the oldest form of Sinhalese, as evidence of common Aryan racial origins. There could have been a colonisation of the Islands at a date 'synchronic with that of Ceylon itself', or subsequent immigration. Geiger, going on the evidence of sounds in Maldivian and Sinhalese, thought they diverged about A.D. 900.

Bell referred in the 1881 report to Gray's early article on the Maldives for the JRAS, which drew on Pyrard's vocabulary of the language, but at this time went into little detail himself. Gray, in his review of the 1881 report, wrote that 'Bell reserves for the learned societies his examination of the Maldive grammar and vocabulary'.

Bell in 1881 did briefly contrast the modern Maldivian script, gabuli tana, written from right to left, with the older script, Dives Akuru. The latter was still used at the time of Lieutenant Christopher's visit [1830s], for orders to the Southern Atols. Bell said that it contained twenty-five letters, was syllabic, capable of some hundreds of vowel mutations and was written from left to right.
He added:
The letters bear some resemblance to old Sinhalese, as Mr. Gray has shown, but would seem rather to be modifications of the old Vatteluttu character, once used throughout the South Tamil and Malayalam districts of India.

Maldives akuru script
From The Maldive Islands, by H.C.P. Bell 1940,
reprinted 1986
National Centre of Linguistic and Historical Research, Male', Maldives


For light on Dives Akuru from an earlier source than Gray, Bell looked to Lieutenant Wilmott Christopher, on whom he wrote an interesting footnote in his edition of Geiger:
Lieutenant Christopher met the travelled French savant, M. Antoine d'Abbadie, at Tagarrah in 1841. D'Abbadie later wrote: 'I never saw Christopher, for I was blinded by ophthalmia when he called on me. He promised to send me a copy of the Old Maldive syllabary, and I thanked his messenger warmly the following day, a few hours before Christopher set sail to receive his death-wound by the Indus (1848). When I recovered my eyesight, I saw with regret that he had sent me a list of consonants (34) vocalised only in A, followed by a tantalising "etc.". I boarded the Indian Navy warship, but Christopher was then gone.'

The correspondence from which this note is drawn survives in the Colombo Archives.

Fortunately, that same year, characters of the syllabary were communicated to Dr. John Wilson, and they appeared in a Plate in Geiger's article. Bell called Christopher's characters 'valuable but incomplete' as they comprised eighteen letters only of the Alphabet; and therefore treated them fully. In the Appendix A to Geiger he set out Christopher's descriptions of each character. On Plate II in columns he gave for each the name, value, tana character, Christopher's Dives Akuru equivalent and a corresponding Sinhalese twelfth century character.

Bell's own most complete treatment of Dives Akuru was in his Appendix C to Geiger, 'The Old and Modern Maldivian Alphabets'. He followed Gray and Christopher, though differing from the latter on the effect of vowels on consonants. Some years later, in 'Excerpta Maldiviana. No.3.' he summarised this, saying:
...supplied a Table (Plates VI and VII) in which are set out the basal forms - 26 in all, inclusive of the sukun as nasal and reduplicator
a) of the letters ('vowel consonants') commencing with H and ending at Y and the sukuri;
b) some variants; supplemented by
c) the five initial vowels, short and long, and
d) their medial signs; with the addition of
e) the consonant H, as modified by all its vowel inflections, as well as
f) a few compound letters.

The aksharas were given both in
i) the purer form ruling in the Southern Atols, and
ii) as now modified in Male.
iii) Short specimens of the Dives Akuru writing, by modern hands, were also offered (Plates VII and IX).

He had derived material on the dialect of the Southern Atols from Ahmad of Fua Mulaku, and for Male' language from Ibrahim Didi.

Some terms in the above were elucidated in Bell's last treatment of the old script, in the Appendix to 'Excerpta Maldiviana. No.9.'. He recalled its affinity, in the older Evela Akuru form, with mediaeval Sinhalese, and with the yet older Ariya Eluttu of Malabar, South India. He referred to additions he had made to Geiger's study in 1919; the Syllabary, the Plates VI and VII, and explanations. He added that his own researches in Male' in 1922 had suggested some amendments. He therefore briefly tabulated a fresh alphabet, and in his comments defined the akshara ('a vowel-consonant') and the sukun (an undulating stroke drawn diagonally upwards to right above the akshara, which has three uses). He drew distinctions between the vowel signs of Male' and those of the Southern Atols. He also called attention to likenesses to Sinhalese symbols. This was Bell's last account of the ancient script.

Geiger's research for his 'Maldivian linguistic studies' had been assisted in January 1896, when he was unable to visit the Islands, by Ibrahim Didi, then living in Colombo. Geiger acknowledged the nobleman's kindness in giving him information during three intensive mornings. Geiger believed:
I not only acquired a fairly extensive Maldivian vocabulary, but also examined in some detail the grammar, inflection of nouns and verbs, and so on. I wrote down a number of sentences too.

Bell regarded Geiger's work as full and valuable, but questioned one of his sources for Maldive vocabulary. This was 'The London Vocabulary' of Persian, Hindustani and Maldive words from the library of its author John Casper Leyden, which had been printed in Calcutta in 1808. Bell had seen this back in 1890, and both he and Ahmad Didi, son of Ibrahim, and Abdul Hamid Didi, believed the characters to be pure inventions of Leyden's Maldive source, Hasan-bin-Adam of Hamiti.

Geiger thought the Maldivians who wrote off 'The London Vocabulary' did not possess the necessary knowledge of Persian and Hindustani, and that they took no pains to consult Bell. On these points Bell commented in Appendix B that Ahmad Didi knew Hindustani and had a travelled friend who knew Persian. As for the consultation, Bell was at Anuradhapura from 1890 onwards, so that the 'pleasant walk and pleasant talk' required of a dweller in Colombo 'would have met with success equally that of the cynical introduction by a certain Walrus and Carpenter to the luckless oysters, when "answer came there none!"'

Bell's critical, almost hostile, attitude arose partly from his warm regard for his Maldivian friends. Geiger was not, he said, sufficiently grateful to Ibrahim Didi, whom he had bombarded for three days with wearying linguistic questions. Still, Geiger and Bell shared a romantic feeling for the Maldives. Geiger wrote that every student had, within his field, a special province to which he always returned:
Such a province to me, at this time, are the distant Maldive Islands, surrounded by the blue waves of the Indian Ocean.

While Bell quoted lines in which the island-dwellers might express their destiny:
'Green Earth has her sons and her daughters,
And these have their guardians, but we
Are the wind's and the skies' and waters'
Elect of the Sea.'

Ibn Batuta, visiting the Maldives in 1343-4, is the first source of our knowledge of their vocabulary. In Bell's Appendix A to Geiger's article, he noted that the Traveller used about forty Maldivian words, rather disguised as Arabic. He quoted Gray's comment, in his 1878 study of Pyrard's vocabulary, to the effect that the Frenchman's spelling of Maldivian words sometimes indicated his own pronunciation.

In this early treatment Gray had compared Pyrard's vocabulary with Christopher's much fuller and more recent one of nearly 1,100 words. Both sources provided the Dictionary in the last volume of Gray and Bell's edition of Pyrard's travels, and in the list Bell compared old and new Maldive words.

A country's language grows out of its social and economic life. As dried fish was one of the most important exports of the Maldives, its name interested Bell. In 1882 in the Indian Antiquary he wrote on Cobily-mash, the Maldive term for the boiled and dried bonito [tuna]. Mash in its variants clearly meant fish. Donald Ferguson, following Louis De Zoysa, had regarded Cobily-mash as Kebali-mas, 'piece-fish', from the cutting up of the bonito. However, Pyrard's translation had been 'poisson noir', accepted by Albert Gray, and Bell derived the term from 'Kalu bili mas'. For Kalu meant 'black' in Maldivian and Sinhalese alike; bili (the balaiya of the Sinhalese) was the bonito.

In his report of 1881, Bell noted the borrowing in Male' of Hindustani words from Indian traders. It was religion that had promoted the importance of Arabic, which since 1830 had been used for Sultans' Missives. The influence of Arabic was also responsible for the change in the mode of writing, from the older left to right, to the right to left method of gabuli tana. These newer characters had been in use for more than two and a half centuries. The first nine letters were merely the Arabic numerals from 1 to 9, the last nine probably simplifications of the corresponding letters in the old alphabet. Bell treated the gabuli (the 'composed') tana more fully in Appendix C to Geiger, considering its origin, and in a Postscript wrote of its evolution even during the last two hundred years.

In Bell's work on Maldivian Epigraphy in the Monograph of 1940 and in articles for the JRASCB, he dealt with inscriptions on stones, particularly gravestones; with grants on Copper Plates, and with Board and Paper Grants. He was interested in the languages and scripts used, and found value in the epigraphs as footnotes to history, political and religious. In 'Excerpta Maldiviana. No.3.' he noted that Male' had had a multitude of burial grounds, attached to the twenty-nine Mosques. He described the shapes of the mainly grey headstones and their pattern of a tall central arched panel, the border often covered with beautiful, varied and perfectly carved arabesques. Though since the beginning of the eighteenth century epitaphs had been incised in tana, about thirty gravestones and other slab records survived in Male in Dives Akuru, with some Arabic characters; others were wholly in Arabic.

Bell chose to consider one old gravestone in Arabic from the graveyard of the Bandara Miskit. Like all, it was dated in Muslim chronology. The date of this one corresponded to 1692, and it commemorated an attendant on Sultan Iskandar Ibrahim I (1648-87). For this and the other stones Bell supplied text, transcript, translation and a photographic plate. The other headstones he dealt with were inscribed in Dives Akuru. Two undated ones were at the Etere-Kolu Miskit, and recorded the burial of princesses. The epitaphs praised, however, not the ladies but their fathers, for example:
Be it remembered that (Sanfa) Rendi Kabafanu, born to the Great King, a Kshatriya, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, endowed with beauty, of the great glorious race (of the Moon and Sun), rich in gold and great elephants, strong as a lion, famed like the nine gems, accomplished (in arts and sciences)... Mighty Monarch of the Universe, passed away on...

This Sultan reigned 1721-50.

When thanking the Government for the services of Husain Takurufanu (Khatib of Hitadu, Addu Atol) Bell noted that his intelligent copying of three inscriptions had showed that two, never before verified, were not what had been supposed. The discoveries were naturally accepted reluctantly, and only when the Acting Qazi, Husain Didi, had personally examined the stones. Husain Takurufanu had discovered that a slab in Dives Akuru at the Hukuru Miskit, honoured by the descendants of Sultan Hasan Izz-ud-din, actually belonged to his half-brother. The real grave of the Sultan was eventually traced, with its original beautifully worded Memorial Brass Plate, which, having deteriorated, was later replaced by a copy.

Husain Takurufanu, the copyist, had also discovered that one of the slabs at the Etere-Kolu Miskit was not a gravestone at all, but a record of events in 1752. It was very similar to two at the Palace entrance and one near a gateway of the Fort. Bell outlined these in his 'Excerpta Maldiviana. No.3.':
These record the capture of Male' in 1752 by Malabars, the deportation of the Sultan Muhammad Imad-ud-din III, the nominal regency of his daughter Amina Rani Kilegefanu, and the administration of the realm by Hasan Manikufanu, raised later to be Masnad as Sultan Hasan Izz-ud-din 1759-67.

Of the other versions the Palace doorway ones show that Male' was actually recaptured by Hasan Manikufanu, the hero whose tomb was lost and found.

'The appalling redundancy of graveyards' induced in Bell a melancholy scarcely consoled by lines from Thomas Hardy, 'They've a way of whispering to me - fellow-wight who yet abide... Fear of death has even bygone us: death gave all that we possess.'

Bell called attention to how the Maldivians, like other nations, softened on their gravestones the bald word for 'died' (maruvejye) with euphemisms: niau-vi, 'extinguished'; avahara-vi, '(life) abandoned'; filara-midi, 'released from the body'; fura-uttara-vi, 'coming out, crossing, landing'.

In the Monograph of 1940 Bell began his Section on 'Epigraphy' with Inscriptions and Grave Epitaphs, and described twelve such. Only two had been seen outside Male'. One example he saw was on April 8, 1922, on Guraidu Island in South Male' Atol, at the Ziyarat of Sultan Husain II, who died there 1620; the successor of Ibrahim III who had been killed in an Indian raid recorded by Pyrard. The stones in Arabic also bore the Muslim kalima.

The most archaic writing met with, called Evela Akuru rather than Dives Akuru, was on a slab near the Ma Vego tank in Male. The word Fashiyama was followed by a few syllables, probably numbers to aid the masons. A more recent wall-slab, in Arabic, in the wall of a North-West Bastion of the Old Fort, recorded its being built by Sultan Ibrahim I, 'as a defence to repel the accursed Portuguese', probably in 1686-7.

Arabic was also the language of most of the six inscriptions at the Hukuru Miskit, the most striking being in blue, all round the white Minnaru, or Minaret Tower, the call to prayer, 'that impassioned heart-searching appeal... indescribably impressive when heard in night's stillness or the silence of dawn'. Others recorded good works: the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, establishment of a religious school, donating provision for reciting the Quran at royal tombs, or the construction of a Mosque. There was also a typical denunciation: 'If any Muslim takes but the weight of a grain of corn from the property of the Mosque theftuously, his prayers will prove futile even were he a Prophet of God.'

Epigraphs of a second type were grants on Copper Plates, issued by Sultans. In the Introduction to the 1940 report Bell wrote of the objects attained on his visit in 1922:
Photographs were taken, and provisional Roman transcripts (so far as the text survives) made of four sets of ancient Copper-Plate Grants (M. Lomafanu) long laid aside in the Islands as quite illegible, owing to the want of knowledge by any Maldivian of the particular archaic form of script (M. Evela Akura) in which these plates are inscribed.

Bell, however, could decipher them, tentatively, from his acquaintance with not very dissimilar characters in old-time Sinhalese lithic inscriptions. The epigraphs were taken down from his dictation in modern Maldivian tana, and the copies entrusted to the Acting Qazi in the hope that he might be able to work out so much of their phraseology as resembled modern Maldivian. However, apart from the help he gave in 1922, M. Husain Didi could not assist. Because of this and other handicaps, Bell never completed his work on these Lomafanu, but it was accomplished after his death by his assistant of many years, W.L. de Silva, who faithfully rendered Bell's own translations and spelling of Maldivian texts.

In the 'Epigraphy' Section of the Monograph, under 'Copper-Plate Grants' are ranged in a table the four main sets of Lomafanu studied. Three of these were in the most ancient script, Evela Akuru. Some plates were missing from each set, and only one set retained the uniting ring to go through holes on the left of each plate. The datings and/or namings of Sultans placed a set from Haddummati Atol at 1195-6, one found in Male' at 1196-7, and another from Haddummati after 1232-3. Muslim chronology was of course used in the dates.

The characters gradually developed towards the less archaic Dives Akuru, and it was in an early phase of this that the fourth Lomafanu was inscribed. This Bodugala Miskit Lomafanu bore on its front cover the record of the erection of the Mosque, the date A.H. 758 (1356-7), and the Arabic seal of Sultan Uma Vira Jalal-ud-din. He was the father of the Queen, Rehendi Khadijah, who made the grant in the 16th year of her reign. Her identity was confirmed by the Tarikh and by the narrative of Ibn Batuta; Isa, the Qazi whom he replaced, was named on one plate. Many usual features of Lomafanu were present: the list of former rulers, praise of the Queen, details of the sources and purposes of the income granted to the Mosque, and the religious benefits or evils accruing to those who upheld, or interfered with the grant.

When Bell in 1930 wrote on Lomafanu in 'Excerpta Maldiviana. No.9.' he showed in a note how the meaning of the term, 'metal-made leaf', could be traced back to Pali and Sanskrit. He also thanked M. Husain Didi, Abdul Hamid Didi, Ahmad Didi and his son, A. Muhammad Amin, for revising the translations, for he felt himself 'a pioneer ploughman of a lonely furrow in a fallow field'. He was not now writing on the sets of Copper-Plate Grants, but on certain 'singleton' stragglers.

No.1 of these had some connection with the Bodugala Miskit Lomafauu. Besides other links, a high post of Henevi Ras Kinage (or Kilage) was named in both, and the learned Fadiyaru or Qazi mentioned on the single plate could have been Ibn Batuta himself, or the venal Isa whom he was asked to replace. In this paper Bell fully transcribed and translated the texts on the plates.

The second single plate studied was strung with the Bodugala Miskit set, but was an interloper. It granted revenue from twelve islands to a Mosque. The inscription also spoke of certain islands as being the Sultan's own property. This Janman or proprietary right no longer held in the Maldives, for they were a Constitutional Monarchy:
'Broad-based upon (the) people's will,
And compassed by the inviolate sea.

So Sultans could not claim dejure personal as distinct from Government right to land or produce, though in the past they had sometimes defacto acquired it.

The third solo Copper-Plate was presented to Bell by his friend Ismail Didi, the Harbour Master and his Interpreter on his 1922 voyages to the Atols. Bell deduced, with the help of the Chronicles, that it emanated from Muhammad Shuj-ai Imad-ud-din I (1620-48) who built the Fort and breakwater at Male', for on the plate his great-uncle Al Ghazi Ibrahim Farina, who died in 1609 fighting against the Malabars, was named as martyred. Pyrard gave lively detail of this galley fight, and the event also appears in an old Fat-Kolu.

Some of Bell's extra insights into Dives Akuru came from his study, in 1922 at Male', of Fat- Kolu, Board and Paper Grants. Of eleven seen, one from the sixteenth century, four from the seventeenth and six from the eighteenth, only one was in tana. Of this type of Grant Bell wrote in the Monograph of 1940:
When Fat-Kola (pronounced 'Fai-Kolu') Grants made under the Sultan's Seal, written usually on Paper but occasionally on Parchment, e.g. Kuda Huvadu, South Nilande Atol (A.H. 1164) or even Wooden Board, e.g. Gan, Addu Atol (A.H. 1063) - first superseded 'Lomafanu', Copper-Plate Grants, at the Maldive Islands is unknown.

But, with much probability, the period may be assigned to the late 16th century, and the reign of Sultan Ghazi Muhammad Bodu Takurufanu (1573-85), that resuscitator of Muslim religious zeal and learning; after the Portuguese had been finally expelled from the Maldives mainly by his action, and the Realm settled down to nearly a quarter century of peace and order.

Almost all the Fat-Kolu studied came originally from islands outside Male', as appeared in a Table provided, showing origin, grantor, grantee, date and script. Bell chose three for study as fairly representative.

The first selected, preserved at Male', was claimed to be the oldest extant, from between A.H. 981 and 993 (1573-85). It was a donation to the Hukuru Miskit on Kolofuri Island in Mulaku Atol from the hero whose relics were exhibited there, the above-mentioned expeller of the Portuguese. He had rebuilt the Mosque and assigned for its upkeep three islands as Waqf (benefaction granted, bequest for religious or charitable purposes). Bell was rather doubtful of this document as the original, though the Maldivian authorities accepted it.

Three seventeenth century grants came from Addu Atol: one from Gan and two from Hitadu Islands (all from Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar I); and a late seventeenth century one from Funadu Island in Haddummati Atol, from whence also one in the late eighteenth century.

The second Fat-Kolu studied, found on Gan Island on February 13, 1922, was the unique Fila Fat-Kolu or Board Grant, 5 ft. 7 in. by 1 ft. 9 in., sawn from a bread-fruit tree. Dated 1652, it made arrangements for the upkeep of the Mosque just erected by the Sultan (not named, but receiving a stream of honorifics). The Mosque must receive cadjans for thatching, oil for lights, mortar for repairs, sweepers for the floor, ladles for drawing from the wells; and the Five-Period Services of Prayer be observed.

The finest of the others was that from Kuda Huvadu, which had fifty-nine lines on fine goatskin parchment. The islanders, 'approaching (His Majesty's) most compassionate auspicious feet', had petitioned to have an older grant renewed. Besides the Seal of the Grantor, Sultan Muhammad Mukarram Imad-ud-din (III), (1750-2), there were five seals of later Sultans, including that of Hasan Izz-ud-din, the recapturer of Male' in 1759; also seals of Qazis. One of these officials later betrayed the grant or Sultan to the Malabars. Among the provisions for the Mosque appeared a tax (in cowries) for gathering cowries.

An interesting footnote to Bell's researches on the Maldives may be found in the files of the Colonial Office. When the 1940 Monograph was published in Ceylon, copies were sent to England, only to be put away in 'the confidential cupboard' for the duration of the war as being of potential 'interest to the enemy'. At first, in 1941, it was accepted as a conspicuous contribution to knowledge of the Islands, and plans were made to send copies to learned societies and libraries. One was accepted with appreciation by the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty.

Then doubts arose as to whether the detailed maps would not give away information to an enemy, and although it was known that the report had already been published in Ceylon, it was decided not to distribute copies in England, and to request that the Ceylon Government should withdraw copies from sale and prevent the exportation of any already on the market.

At this point a clerk notes: 'File reverently buried'.

As soon as the war was over the Ceylon Government wrote on October 31, 1945 asking if the book could be released for sale; and on November 24, 1945 the Colonial Office readily agreed.

No one seems to have noticed that the maps in the 1940 Monograph were identical with those included long ago in the 1881 Report.





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