By Xavier Romero-Frías
A Maldive Buddhist sculpture in bas relief
The Maldives were populated perhaps
many thousands of years ago. The oral tradition of the
Maldives doesnít have any reference concerning how or
where the original inhabitants came from. But itís most
likely that the first settlers came from the coastal
regions of India and Sri Lanka.
The oldest legends tell us that some people came from
the North and became kings, but in all these legends
Maldivians were already living in their islands, when
those events happened.
Thanks to a great number of archaeological remains,
we know that there was a prolonged Buddhist period in
the Maldives. The Buddhist ruins are massive and reveal
a great deal of the skill and craftsmanship of their
makers. This Maldive Buddhist civilization reached its
height during the 9th century AD, and by
then the Divehi culture, as we know it now, was already
formed. The Divehi language, its script and the cultural
values and practices that are the foundation of present-day
Maldive culture were a product of that period.
A Maldive Buddha head
Islam came relatively late to the Maldives.
Sind and the Malabar Coast already had Muslim communities
by the 7th century AD. However, the Maldivians
remained Buddhist still for a long time and it would
be more than five hundred years later that they converted
Islam, however, is given the star role in all Divehi
chronicles. When one reads books of Islamic history,
one of the most common assertions is that in a particular
country "before Islam there was Jahiliya,
the age of ignorance." According to this manner
of interpreting facts, history is rewritten in a manner
where truth and serious historical inquiry become irrelevant.
The only crucial guideline is to make Islam appear victorious
and beneficial for the country, tarnishing the non-Islamic
past as much as possible. This is done whether by hook
or by crook.
In this way history becomes something flexible that
can be tampered with at will. Facts are rewritten in
such a manner that no other period of the nationís history
seems more glorious than the Islamic one. Hence in Maldive
"historical" chronicles, the first settlement
of the country, spanning millennia of a background of
fisher folk who were probably of Dravidian origin, followed
by the arrival of a kingly Buddhist dynasty, which ruled
the country for over a thousand years, bringing influences
from the North of the Subcontinent, are dealt with in
a few sentences
A Maldive cross-legged Buddha
This incredibly reduced summary is
invariably followed by the following sweeping statement:
"ÖAnd the King and all the inhabitants of the Maldive
Islands became Muslim." Officially only then the
"real history of the Maldives" begins: The
history of the Islamic Nation. This history of the Maldives
as an Islamic nation is given so much importance, that
all the previous periods of Maldive history are made
to become irrelevant.
The flourishing of a genuinely Maldive Buddhist civilization,
on which the present-day Divehi language, customs, manners
and ceremonies are still largely based, is deliberately
ignored. Solid historical evidence goes unheeded, even
though ancient Maldive ruins plainly testify that none
of the buildings built after the twelfth century is
anywhere near as grand as the stupas that were built
by Maldivians in most inhabited islands towards the
end of the first millennium AD.
Still, some of the old skills were allowed to continue
for a few centuries, well into the Maldive Islamic period.
Thus, mosques built in a syncretistic style, with beautiful
woodcarvings and lacquer work still manage to give us
a glimpse of the ancient cultural splendour of the Maldivians.
But during the centuries that followed, even those few
remainders of the wealthy cultural past were deleted.
The main emphasis was on giving the Maldives an Islamic
appearance. The history of the Maldive Islands had to
be emphasized in Islamic terms, and in the new framework
national heroes had to be heroes of Islam. After all
the Maldive Islands are a "100% Muslim country."
During the last few centuries there are no known instances
of Maldivian scholars of integrity having openly challenged
the falsehoods imposed by this trend. On the contrary,
many historians have pandered to this sheer Islamisation
of Maldive history, and have rewritten the stories of
historical Maldivian figures in order to make them appear
even more Islamic. On the other hand, accounts that
challenged this view have been suppressed with determination.
A pre-Islamic icon
One example is the contrast between
the stories regarding Bodu Takurufaanu as they appear
in Pyrard de Lavalís book, written in the seventeenth
century, and the recent versions of the same story endorsed
by the Maldive government. This distortion of history
is widely propagated in all Maldive schools and via
the government-controlled media, so that it has deep
effects on all Maldivians.
Books that straightforwardly tell the
truth about the Maldives, like Voyage de Pyrard
aux Indes Orientales, both in its original edition
and in its English translation, as well as Clarence
Maloneyís anthropological survey People of the Maldive
Islands are forbidden in the Maldives by the government
and local students have no access to them.
written by Pyrard and Maloney are not freely
available in the Maldives in their original
A highly placed Maldive official who contacted
this site stated, under condition of strict
anonymity, that the few copies existing
in the Maldives are restricted. In public
libraries they are allowed for the perusal
of certain people- a kind of 'for insiders
Excerpts of those books have been translated
and published in other publications.
Maloney's book is never
openly on sale in Maldive bookstores, even
though it is quite easily and cheaply available
in India. If someone gets caught with copies
at the airport, they would be confiscated.
These books are forbidden in a quite way.
The authorities do not want to be overt
about it in order not to draw more attention
upon them. But it is quite obvious that
distribution inside the Maldives is forbidden
and that now they are not openly available
either in bookstores or in libraries in
The same well-placed official once pointed
out in a government meeting that everything
written about the Maldives should be published
as it is- good or bad. However most of the
intellectuals and writers in government
positions favour bowdlerization and censorship.
Pyrard's book in its original French edition
candidly exposes some very tough things,
which were bowdlerized even in Gray's English
Lacking a balanced view of their own
history and being fed only Islamic propaganda, Maldivian
people are made to believe that the history of their
nation is at its most glorious height during its Islamic
period. This "glorious" period includes the
present days and in which the Maldive nation is portrayed
as being constantly under the threat of foreign influences
that are seen through the narrow prism of Islamic religious
As a consequence, the well being of this island country
is attached to its ability to preserve Islam, and thus
the men and women of the Maldives are put on guard against
any influence that may upset the "triumphant Islamic
period the nation is enjoying." In such an atmosphere,
openness of mind is thwarted in its root. Therefore,
the display of hostility against other religions, especially
Christianity is seen as a patriotic duty in the Maldives.
Santo Antonio Church built in 1546 and now called
St Francis Church in Cochin, India where the
Maldive King Siri Dhrikusa Loka (Hassan IX)
was baptised on 14 January 1552