Maldives Tradition & Heritage

Maldives Culture, Tradition & Heritage

Maldives has a phenomenal culture and heritage. It is a where the new meets the old at every turn. From its gleaming buildings of concrete to the graceful charm of its carefully preserved Islamic Centre, the dynamic character of Maldives is as much shaped by the richness of its past, as it is by its dreams for the future.

This age-old fusion of cultures and traditions is one of the most exciting aspects of a visit to Maldives. It is also the basis of our Cultural Kaleidoscope programme that highlights the amazing opportunities that exist for visitors to delve more deeply into Maldives’s way of life.

The origins of the Maldivian history are lost back in to time. Archaeological findings indicate that the islands were inhabited as early as 1500 BC, and there are tales of a legendary people called the Redin who may have been among the earliest of the explorers. Attempts to investigate the origins of human settlement have been difficult, as little or no data exists and there is a lack of facilities or personnel to carry out research among a group of widely distributed islands. It is believed that permanent settlements were established around 500 BC by Aryan immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.

The early Maldivians were probably Buddhists or Hindus migrating from the Indian subcontinent. However, the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl has stated that some of the figures unearthed from ancient mounds bore a striking resemblance to figures he had investigated on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, almost twelve time zones away. He has added to the theories of the origins of the Maldivians and a book has been published on his findings. These theories are a matter of controversy and it can be said that the solution to The Maldive Mystery is still many years away.

Since the Maldives is located along the ancient marine trade routes from the West to the East, it was inevitable that early explorers and traders found themselves stopping either willingly (for supplies) or unwillingly (as a result of shipwrecks on the many reefs), and their influence can be seen to this day. Their records serve as a useful guide to the history of these islands. Among these travelers were the Chinese historian Ma Huan and the famous Arab traveler Ibn Batuta. It is known that Maldivians themselves ventured far beyond their shores, for Pliny records that Maldivian emissaries bore gifts for the Roman Emperor.

As trade along the sea routes blossomed, the Maldives became an important stop for Arab traders on the way to the Far East, and along with these traders came the influence of Islam. The legend of the conversion to Islam remains a popular tale and a matter of recent controversy. It is believed that a Moroccan traveler, Abu Barakaat Yusuf al-Barbary was responsible for this conversion, but another version credits Sheikh Yusuf Shamsuddin of Tabriz, a renowned scholar, for this deed.

From very early times, these islands were famous for two products, the money cowrie cyprea moneta and Maldive Fish. The cowrie was prized as a form of currency in many areas of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and the Maldives was the Mint of the region. Large quantities of the cowrie were exported all over the world, and traders would call over to collect shiploads in exchange for rice, spices and luxury items. Maldive Fish was produced by boiling, smoking, curing and drying tuna to yield a nutritious, ebony-coloured and textured fillet with astonishing keeping qualities. It was an ideal source of protein for carrying on long sea voyages, and its rarity made it a prized delicacy in most of the Indian subcontinent, where it is a major ingredient in many dishes.

The importance of the Maldives to early explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries can be seen in the grossly exaggerated size of the islands in relation to nearby Sri Lanka and India on maps of the time. The tranquility of the islands was often disturbed by pirates and the superpowers of the day. A Portuguese invasion resulted in their capture of the Maldives for a period of fifteen years after which they were overthrown by a mixture of early guerrilla tactics and the difficulty of logistical support for the occupying forces. Events around this time are recounted by the French sailor Francois Pyrard de Laval, who was shipwrecked in the Maldives in 1602 and lived there for five years.

With the growth of British influence with the expansion of their Empire, the Maldives became a British protectorate, in an unusual arrangement where the British ensured the defense of the islands yet were not involved in any way with the running of the country. The close relationships with the British ensured a period of peace and freedom from foreign interference. During the Second World War, The British had forward bases in the north and south of the archipelago and, in 1957; the RAF established a base in Gan in the south. This airbase closed in 1976.

The Maldives became a fully independent nation on July 26, 1965, and a Republic on November 11, 1968.

Visitors can also learn about Maldives’s wonderful heritage and rich history by visiting its many monuments, historical sites and of course the National Museum.