Maldives Minicoy Mahl Dhivehi
Maldive history- an outline

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 to Islam.

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.

The books written by Pyrard and Maloney are not freely available in the Maldives in their original versions.

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 only' arrangement

Excerpts of those books have been translated and published in other publications.

A pre-Islamic Maldive icon

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 Maldives.

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 translation.

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 obsession.

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