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The truth about cats and folklore
by Khilath Rasheed (writing in English)
Haveeru 19 Nov 1998

If a black cat crosses your path, rest assured the day would turn ugly. If one of your loved ones sneezes just as you are about to leave on a voyage, you can expect a journey that is far turbulent than that of the Titanic. On the other hand, if a butterfly enters your room through an open window, then expect a brighter horizon for the rest of the day.

The insatiable taste to explain the inexplicable, the undying curiosity to find answers for which there is none, has stemmed folklore that draw fuel from the supernatural forces.

Maldives has its own set of folklore, both real and fantasy. But those that centre on fantasy outweigh others, for the simple reason that our culture is heavily influenced by mysticism that shrouds much of the beliefs of South Asia.

"Dhivehi (Maldivian) folklore centres on the unknown. It has its roots in the Bhuddist culture that was prevalent here until Islam's advent 1,100 years ago," said Habiba Hussain Habib of the National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research. "When we look at culture of our closest South Asian neighbours, folklore is based on superstition and the supernatural," said Habiba who is presently researching into Maldivian folklore.

Folklore started with the defining characteristics of island life; the interactions of nature with human lives. Stories told by word of mouth got blown out of proportions, and by the time it reached the present generation, legends and myths were created; of beings and spirits that is far beyond the comprehension or realism of the human mind.

"The legends and myths must have some truth in it. Their roots will have stemmed from some incident that actually happened. But the tale got so twisted that by the time it reached us, there is a mixture of fantasy and magic interwoven in the stories," 76-year-old historian Mohamed Ibrahim Luthufee said. Luthufee, one of the top researchers into the subject of folklore, has had his own share of experiences concerning the unknown.

Once, during the days of the Second World War, a younger Luthufee and a group of young men were sitting on the wall of the cemetery adjoining Thakurufuaanu Mosque in his home island of Addu Atoll Hithadhoo. Suddenly, they were snapped out of idle talk by the crash of planks right behind them. They heard it, but nothing was to be seen. Only the empty silence of the tombstones answered them.

The skin crawling crash was what is known to many as "Kaddevi Elhun". With Kaddevi follows the sure death of a person who happened to hear it. And however far he or she lived, the dead will be brought for burial at the particular place where the Kaddevi was heard.

Sure enough, the next day, Luthufee found a funeral at the Thakurufaanu mosque cemetery. An aunt of his told him that Kaddevi was common in that area, and that within 40 days of a particular Kaddevi, exactly three people would die during that period. Her prediction ominously proved true.

In Islamic culture, on of the basic principles is the belief of the world of jinni, a spiritual being living parallel along with other creations like angels and humans. Those jinn which strayed and became evil were believed to be responsible for evil happenings and affliction that victimised human beings. Further it is believed that these beings haunt uninhabited places. Hence, cemeteries and places of dense vegetation are believed to be the favourite whereabouts of spirit beings.

Maldives has its own version of sylphs but these are not the gentle and feminine type found in Greek folklore. Rather they wantonly seek to harm those unfortunate who accidentally come across them. Kandholhu plants, a kind of wild lily that grows in the islands, is linked to these tree spirits.

Once a girl in Laamu atoll, Fonadhoo, picked a Kandholhu flower during sunset and put it in her hair. (Old folks warn that to pick Kandholhu flowers during sunset is to bring the wrath of the spirits who inhabit these plants.) She immediately had a headache, and by the time it was around 8:00 p.m. that evening, she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her limbs twisted at grotesque angles. By coincidence, Luthufee witnessed the incident.

"Only black magic saved her," he recalled. Black magic. Another means of communicating and interacting with the spirit world, but this time making use of the good side of the supernatural to straighten things wronged by evil spirits. Magic countered with magic.

"Aligulha" or fireballs are another of those inexplicable phenomena from the spirit world. Countless sightings and tales have been told, even in our own times.

Take an incident which is once again related by Luthufee. He and a group of friends were fishing off the coast of Dhaalu Atoll, Maa-Emboodhoo, when on consecutive nights, they were disturbed by one of these beings that appear as fireballs. The fireball splashed on the sea, seemingly being playful with the dhoni's crew.

Luthufee tried to hit it with a stick, but struck nothing solid. In the wake of the thing's apparent anger at the open animosity displayed by Luthufee's group, it constructed illusions of great dimensions.

"Suddenly we found ourselves in shallow water. Then on the horizon, a whale suddenly surfaced, its mouth wide open, with glowing teeth. It was coming straight at us, no doubt, to swallow our dhoani.

"We steered towards the direction where the island was, and narrowly managed to dodge from the beast by making it into the sanctuary of Maa-Emboodhoo's lagoon," Luthufee related. Then, just as soon as it had appeared, it vanished. There was no further sign of either the fireball nor its illusion of the gigantic whale.

Many fishermen have told tales about these fireballs, and there's a pattern of similarity in the fireballs' behaviour. They tend to suddenly appear out of nowhere and sit calmly on the mast.

A technique has been discovered to get rid of these naughty beings; dip a cloth in rihaakuru (local fish paste) and offer it to the fireball. It will immediately jump onto the deck with a thud and roll away overboard, not to appear further that night again.

Another phenomenon commonly experienced among seafarers is "Kandumathi Elhun". Many have claimed to have been victims of "Kandumathi Elhun" where your dhoani appears to be travelling for hours but actually stays in the same place. Or the dhoani may be travelling in circles although the compass indicates otherwise.

During these experiences, people claim to see dead bodies and coffins floating nearby. A place notorious for this phenomenon is the channel around Hanyaameedhoo and Eriadhoo in Ari Atoll.

"These things just cannot be explained with existing scientific explanations. It depends on what you believe and what you want to believe. Fantastic things may materialise if you wish or expect it to happen," a folklore expert said. "Because there is magic inherent in all of us."

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