By: Xavier Romero-Frías
Ali Manikfan found a new
fish species while working with a marine biologist who
was highly impressed with Ali Manikfan’s capacity of observation
and his deep and wide knowledge of marine life. The marine
biologist named the fish Abudefduf Manikfani.
Thanks to Ali Manikfan, a Divehi family name
has made it to the scientific classification of
Sindbad's replica ship the Sohar was built using ancient
Divehi technology with the expertise of Ali Manikfan.
In 1981. The Irishman Tim Severin sailed the Sohar from
Sohar in Oman to Canton in China.
Ali Manikfan, son of Musa Manikfan and Fatima Manika, was
born in an aristocratic family in Minicoy Island (Maliku)
on the 16th March 1938. His father was a pious
man, known for his kindness and for keeping the island traditions.
Muraiduganduar Fatima Manika is the good-looking
lady in the middle. She is carrying baby Ali Manikfan
in this ethnographically significant photograph taken
by a visiting anthropologist circa 1939
When his son was barely out of childhood Musa Manikfan sent
him to the continent, to Cannanore (Kannur), for schooling.
Minicoy has a small population and there were no conventional
schools in the island.
But Ali Manikfan was not interested in formal education,
so he left his studies and returned to Minicoy. He claimed
that the way young people are educated was artificial and
pointless. As he saw it, the formal studies were not rooted
in the realities of life and were not preparing youngsters
to face the time of their existence on earth in a way that
would be productive and beneficial for their community.
calls Ali Manikfan Muraduganduar Ali Befanu. Befanu
or Befan is an alternative of Manikfan
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The rules of nature were important for Ali Manikfan. According
to him, getting wisdom by observing our natural environment
is the best way to acquire knowledge. Thus his path in life
was set and he began by studying on his own, going beyond formal
The Sohar which was built with Ali Manikfan's
expertise and Divehi boatbuilding techniques
Fascinated by the abundance and diversity of languages in
India, young Ali Manikfan set out to learn as many of them
as possible. After Divehi (Mahl), his mother tongue, he started
by learning English, Hindi and Malayalam, followed by Arabic,
Latin, French, Russian, German, Sinhalese, Persian, Sanskrit,
Tamil and Urdu. With the passing of the years, he ended up
knowing 15 languages and excelling in many of them. Ali Manikfan
searched always for the best way of getting educated, reading
Owing to his varied investigations and continuous writing
and reading he became a wise, patient, and knowledgeable person
already in his youth. Some of the fields Ali Manikfan chose
to become learned early in life were unusual at the time,
like marine biology, marine research, geography, astronomy,
social science, traditional shipbuilding, education, fisheries,
agriculture and horticulture. This atypical choice of fields
was not without a purpose. Having grown in an island environment,
where many goods have to be imported, his main emphasis was
on self-sufficiency and all his studies lead to that goal
in one way or the other.
Ali Manikfan thinks that there is something in the traditional
island way of life that makes people more spartan and thoughtful
in dealing with their environment. So his main interest was
to search ways for improving this traditional knowledge and
come closer to being self-sufficient. Like a good islander,
Ali Manikfan dislikes waste. He thinks it is very important
to find a use for everything and to treat the environment
with humility and respect, not spoiling it for the others
and preserving it for the next generation. Thus, he became
an ecologist before the word ecology became widely known.
Love for the Sea
In 1956 he began working as a teacher and later he became
a clerk for the Amin of Minicoy (the Amin is the Indian government's
chief civil official on the Island). But his main interests
were related to marine life, for the clear waters that surround
the islands are teeming with all kinds of fish and marine
invertebrates. Thus, in the 1960’s he began to work at the
Fisheries Dept. in the laboratory.
One day, Dr. S. Jones, an important marine biologist went
to Lakshadweep to do research about the great variety of fishes
and rare species that are found there. Ali Manikfan, who had
been always fascinated by nature and ecology, had been doing
investigations on his own, so he helped Dr. Jones a lot. His
approach towards research attracted Dr. Jones. When Dr. Jones
wrote the book Fishes of the Laccadive Archipelago
This very book bears testimony to
the part played by Mr. Ali Manikfan of Minicoy Island. He
collected the maximum number of species and ascertained their
local names. Ali Manikfan is a very knowledgeable person and
his dedication to the research of marine species is total.
He has the best qualities of a scientist in him. This young
man has been such a great help and encouragement for me in
my studies that I am greatly indebted to him.
As a result of Dr. Jones’ gratitude, young Ali Manikfan was
appointed field assistant of the CMFRI (Central Marine Fisheries
Research Institute of India) and was sent to Mandapam, Tamil
Nadu where the Institute’s headquarters were formerly located.
His main job then was to collect and identify marine specimens.
Ali Manikfan found this new fish species while working with
Dr. Jones, who impressed with Ali Manikfan’s capacity of observation
and his deep and wide knowledge about marine life, gave this
fish Manikfan’s name to perpetuate his memory. Thanks to Ali
Manikfan a Divehi family name has made it to the scientific
classification of species.
Abudefduf manikfani Jones
Abudefduf manikfani Jones and Kumaran, J. Mar. boil.
Ass. India, 10, 324, fif.5, 1968.
Abudefduf sp., Jones, Bull. Cent, Mar. Fish. Res.
8, p. 19, 1969 (Cat. No. CMFRI LA-F. 67/518)
Specimens studied: Kavarathi (4), 40 to 46 mm. Minicoy
(5) 31 to 53 mm.
D. XII. 16-17; A. II, 14; P.ii, 16, V. I. 5 LI, 20-21+8-9;
2.9-3.2 in standard length, 3.8-4.2 in total length.
Depth of body 1.8-2.0 in standard length. Eye 3.0-3.3
in head, 0.7-0.8 in snout and 1.0-1.1 I interorbital
space. A single series of slender, compressed teeth
in jaws. Preorbital, suborbital, prepopercle, opercle,
subopercle and interoppercle without any serrations.
Scales on head reaching to nostrils. Preorbital naked.
First spine of dorsal slightly. Shorter than eye diameter,
third or fourth dorsal spine longest, slightly shorter
than snout and eye together. Second anal spine as
long as third dorsal spine. Pectoral fin equal to
or slightly shorter than head. Ventral shorter than
Colour: Chocolate brown, breasts
and lower sides of head lighter. Four vertical white
bars on sides, the first from nape across hind border
of opercle, second from base of 4th to 5th or 6th
dorsal spine down to front of vent, third from base
of last dorsal spine and first dorsal ray to base
of middle of anal and the fourth on caudal peduncle.
A broad dark brown ring on caudal peduncle immediately
behind the fourth white transverse.
Environmentally friendly Agriculture
While living in Southern Tamil Nadu, Ali Manikfan realized
how privileged the coral islands of the Arabian Sea were.
In Minicoy it rained often and vegetation was lush, but here
in the semi-desertic area of Tamil Nadu where he lived now,
there was almost no rainfall and agriculture presented heavy
problems. Almost every plant growing naturally in that place
seemed to be thorny or bitter. Intrigued by the agricultural
possibilities of arid areas, Ali Manikfan bought a plot in
the village of Vedalai in order to study and make research
in agriculture. This research he undertook became so important
for him that in the year 1980, while he was the CMFRI’s museum
assistant, he quit the job on his own decision. He wanted
to dedicate himself full-time to agricultural research and
he is busy with it until now.
Ali Manikfan’s plot in Vedalai was in an arid region, the
Ramanathapuram District in the coast of Tamil Nadu. He built
a house and stayed there with his family. In his opinion houses
built with materials that are naturally available in the region
are more environmentally friendly.
His agricultural methods take nature in consideration, preserving
existing tree clumps, letting some areas with the natural
vegetation and growing crops that would need little maintenance
and no wastage of water and pesticides.
Palmyra grove within
Ali Manikfan’s Do Nothing Farm near
Tamil Nadu, India
His respect for the natural landscape is so great that he
tried to interfere with it as little as possible. He admires
the Palmyra tree, so common in the Tamil landscape. He says
that it can grow in very arid areas, but that it provides
many useful things: good wood, strong and durable fan-shaped
leaves, palm-sap to make sugar, fruits that taste different
at every stage, among other things. He laments that Tamil
people are not valuing this strong and hardy tree now. It
doesn’t grow easily and it takes many years to produce fruit.
Ali Manikfan tried to grow Palmyra trees in Minicoy, but he
Nowadays Ali Manikfan has 13 acres of land in Valioor (Tirunelveli
Dist.). He produces his own electricity and tries to grow
crops that are adapted to the semi-desertic climate. He names
this place ‘Do Nothing Farm’.
He says that trees should be left to look for water with
their roots. At the beginning the yield may be low, but patience
is very important in agriculture.
Ali Manikfan claims that the abuse of artificial irrigation,
pesticides and fertilizers produce fruits that are less healthy.
He is satisfied with the results of his research. His gardens
produce more natural fruits at less cost.
Ali Manikfan is not the type of fanatic ecologist that is
only interested in nature. He is also fascinated by technology
and likes bicycles, cars, shipbuilding and electric machines,
so he tries to learn more about those things whenever he can.
Sometimes he has revolutionary opinions which are not generally
Living in an isolated spot Ali Manikfan was tired of waiting
for an electricity connection. He refused to bribe corrupt
officials, so he thought about producing his own electricity.
He designed windmills and experimented with them. He doesn’t
like to cut trees, so he used palms whose tops were spoiled
and a car dynamo, and he managed to charge a car battery,
so he began getting electricity. This was a proof of his will-power
and interest in self-reliance.
He also built a refrigerator that worked with the kitchen
heat. He used simple materials, like pipes, a box and sawdust.
Afterwards he built a roller-driven motorcycle out of a bicycle
with an attached old power sprayer motor. It was started by
pedalling until the motor got going. He went with his son
Musa from Tamil Nadu to New Delhi, doing an average of 60
to 70 Km a day. Though its maximum speed is only 35Km/h, Ali
Manikfan claims it’s far cheaper and efficient than a petrol-driven
In 1981 the Irish adventurer Tim Severin wanted to build
a replica of the ships that sailed the spice route 1,200 years
ago. When he was looking for a reliable supervisor, Dr. Jones
recommended Ali Manikfan to Tim Severin. Thus Ali Manikfan
was given the responsibility of making the ancient Arab trading
ship a reality. Ali Manikfan took this mission as a challenge
and went to Oman to direct the team of carpenters. It took
one year to build the 27 metres long ship and four tons of
coir were needed to sew the planks of its hull, in the same
way that ancient Maldivians had built ships.
Sindbad the Sailor's replica ship the Sohar
The design was found in a 16th century
Portuguese document and was built to ancient Maldive
naval architectural specifications in Oman under the
supervision of Ali Manikfan
This ship sailed over 9,600 km from Oman to China and its
8-month long journey is described in Severin’s book ‘The Sindbad
Voyage.’ Nowadays the ‘Sohar’ is on display at a Museum in
Ali Manikfan always was very interested in island formation.
He studied the way the coral islands have a capacity to hold
fresh water. He claims that the vevu (tanks) and ponds that
were formerly found in the Maldives and Lakshadweep, were
necessary to provide a back-flow to replenish the water table
during the seasons of abundant rain. He says that not a single
drop of water is wasted in the world; the water is evaporating
and coming back in a cycle and ancient islanders had developed
ways of replenishing the water table. Unfortunately the vevu
baths and most ponds were filled with earth during Mohamed
Amin Didi’s rule in the 1940’s in the Maldives.
Ali Manikfan says that humans are destroying nature with
their actions; that ecology is not taken seriously. Action
should be taken in the ecological areas, not words. The water-holding
places in the world are shrinking and the garbage dumps and
areas poisoned with effluents are growing. The natural flow
of rivers is disrupted by dam-building and rivers become open
sewers. He thinks that despite so much talk about progress,
people have little knowledge of ecology and how to use the
resources of the land and the sea in a positive and sustainable
Ali Manikfan devised a lunar calendar for the whole world. After
discussing with astronomers he became convinced that Muslim
shouldn’t use different sets of lunar calendars. He is a member
of the Indian Hijra Committee and he tries to find a way to
make all Muslims accept a unified Hijra calendar.
Ali Manikfan's Meeqatul Qibla
must have a universal date line, for the Islamic
world to calculate the dates of the Islamic calendar,
which is based on the movement of the Moon. (Qur’an
Ali Manikfan is a truly godly person. He wishes that Muslims
would have a more spiritual view of their religion, looking
inwardly and directing one’s efforts towards making a better
person out of oneself. He is skeptical of the present religious-political
movements, which often indulge in violence and which are more
for the show rather than for improving one’s character.
The whole world is a University for him. He looks at God’s
creation with awe and respect and is fascinated by it. Always
willing to learn, among the traditional fields of education,
he has studied the Qura’n, Ayurvedic medicine, and traditional
healing. Ali Manikfan never throws away any information, but
stores it in his prodigious memory.
He sleeps little and eats little. He is not arrogant and
never puts distance between anyone and himself. He is simple
and kind to everyone, enjoying both jokes and serious talk.
He won’t spend time in useless things, for he never wastes
I asked Ali Manikfan's daughter Aisha Manika what was in her
father's opinion a waste of time. She replied: "watching
television. He says that one should watch as little television
as possible." Her father limits his television viewing
mainly to the news. Soap operas and TV serials he especially
considers an utter waste of precious time that could be better
spent in other ways, for example reading books or talking
Being of a godly disposition Ali Manikfan kept always being
a humble person, never caring to show off his knowledge.
This humility that comes spontaneously to him has been misinterpreted
by some people who have underestimated him and didn’t know
the size of the man. Only the people who know him closer will
know how to value him properly. But he keeps being a normal
person, enjoying living a simple life and being always very
kind and considerate to others.
Ali Manikfan has one son and three daughters. His son is
a merchant sailor, like many Maldivians and Minicoians. All
his three daughters are teachers, and exactly like their father,
the three girls studied on their own, finding their way among
the many possible fields of study. One of his daughters, Amina
Manika shares his interest in ecological agriculture. She
is also very interested in languages and human behaviour.
Ali Manikfan with two of his daughters, Aisha Manika
and Amina Manika at his farm near Valioor. These two
women have followed their father’s steps. The
child is Ali Mankfan's grand daughter Jamila Manika.
When I ask him whether he would like to return to Minicoy,
he smiles and says that Maliku is a nice place, but that life
is a bit too narrow there, that there is too much gossip.
He enjoys living in his farm, producing his own food. His
message is that one should be as self-sufficient as possible.