The origin of the Maldivians is lost in antiquity but history reveals that the islands have been populated for over 3,000 years ago. Early settlers were travellers on the Silk Route and from the Indus Valley Civilization. Inherently warm, friendly and hospitable by nature, it is easy to feel comfortable and relaxed with a Maldivian.
A proud history and rich culture evolved from the first settlers who were from various parts of the world travelling the seas in ancient times. The Maldives has been a melting pot of different cultures as people from different parts of the world came here and settled down. Some of the local music and dance for instance resemble African influences, with hand beating of drums and songs in a language that is not known to any but certainly represents that of East African countries. As one would expect there is a great South Asian influence in some of the music and dancing and especially in the traditional food of the Maldivians. However many of the South Asian customs especially with regard to women – for instance the Sub Continent’s tradition of secluding women from public view – are not tenets of life here. In fact women play a major role in society – not surprising considering the fact men spend the whole day out at sea fishing.
A proud history and rich culture evolved from the first settlers who were from various parts of the world travelling the seas in ancient times. The Maldives has been a melting pot of different cultures as people from different parts of the world came here and settled down. Some of the local music and dance for instance resemble African influences, while other cultures and traditions reflect East Asian and South Asian traits.
As Maldives is a Muslim country, alcohol can only be consumed in resorts. Maldives is very anti-drugs and punishment can be quite severe. Visitors should try to dress modestly and when entering mosques, bodies must be covered. Nudity is prohibited in all public places. Visitors should always remove shoes before entering a house. When eating, one should always use the right hand as the left hand is considered unhygienic. Also, eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan is considered very offensive. Finally, public displays of religions other than Islam are prohibited.
The official language of Maldives is Dhivehi, a language belonging to the Indo-Iranian group of languages. English is recognised as the second main language and is taught in schools.
Maldives is almost 99% sea, it is not surprising that fish (mainly tuna) is the most important staple of the Maldivian diet. The cuisine found in the island nation is a mix of Arabic, Indian, Sri Lankan and Oriental influences. The ninety tourist resorts scattered throughout the islands host diverse international menus as well as traditional Maldivian dishes. Eating in Malé affords tourists the best opportunity to try real, local food and visitors should make sure to eat in the cafés, known locally as hotau.
Coconuts are a major part of many dishes in Maldives and can be served in grated form, as milk or as coconut oil which is used to deep fry foods. Favourite fish include skipjack tuna, little tunney, yellowfin tuna, frigate tuna, bigeye scad, wahoo and mahi-mahi.
Rice: While an essential part of a local meal, it is not grown here and must be imported.
Popular dishes include:
Garudhiya: a fish broth served with rice, lime, chili and onions.
Mas huni: shredded smoked fish with grated coconuts and onions. This is considered the most popular breakfast food in the country.
Fihunu mas: barbecued fish that has been basted with chili.
Hedhikaa is the local word for snacks in the islands and some of the favourites are:
• bajiya: pastry that is stuffed with fish, coconuts and onion.
• gulha: pastry balls that are stuffed with smoked fish.
• keemia: deep fried fish rolls.
• kulhi boakiba: a spicy fish cake.
• masroshi: mas huni that has been wrapped in roshi bread and is then baked.
• thelui mas: fried fish cooked with chili and garlic.
When visiting Maldives, it is best to stick with bottled water as this is safer and when in doubt, always ask. As the islands are an Islamic nation, the population does not drink alcohol, however, it is available in most resorts. Locals instead prefer to drink sai or tea. Raa is a traditional drink and is a toddy that has been tapped from palm trees. It is sometimes left to ferment.
Maldives is located south of India and consists of two rows of atolls in the Indian Ocean, just across the equator. The atolls are made up of 1,190 coral islands. Each atoll is made up of a coral reef encircling a lagoon with deep channels. Within the reefs are various types of underwater creatures and beautiful, vibrant coral. The reefs also serve as protection against the wind and waves of the surrounding ocean.
Maldives is the smallest country in Asia in both physical size and population. The population of Maldives is 341,356, with people being spread around 200 inhabited islands. Approximately ninety of these islands have been developed as tourist resorts. Many of the other islands are used strictly for agriculture of for other natural resources purposes. The capital of Maldives is Maléwhich houses around one-third of the entire population. Malé serves as the centre of government, trade, commerce, business, health and education. The administration of Maldives is divided into nineteen different divisions.
The islands of Maldives are very low lying. There are no hills on the islands, only small dunes which reach approximately 2.4m (8 ft) above sea level, making Maldives the lowest country in the world. Although 99% of Maldives is made up of sea, the islands are too small to accommodate rivers. They do however have some small lakes and marshes, but that is not on every island.
The earliest inhabitants of the Maldives did not leave many archaeological remains. It is believed that their houses and tools were most likely made of wood and therefore quickly decayed from the salt and wind that is found in tropical climates. Any remains that have been found suggest that the islands were inhabited as early as 1500BC. The majority of historians agree that the first settlers were probably from southern India. These people brought the Buddhist faith with them and it lasted in the Maldives for around 1,400 years. This initial group of settlers were followed by people from Sri Lanka in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.
The first recorded contact with the outside world came in the form of Arab sailors in the 10th century AD. These sailors recognised the trading potential that existed in the Maldives as the islands offered pearls, spices and coconuts and dried fish. There was also an excess of cowry shells – the currency that was used from Africa to China into the 16th century. The explorers who came to the Maldives brought Islam with them and converted the country from Buddhism in 1153 AD. After the Buddhist king converted to Islam he assumed the title Sultan Muhammad al Adil and became the first of six Islamic dynasties that ruled the islands until 1934.
After Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant traveller, described the Maldives as “the flower of the Indies”, it is not surprising that European interest in the islands began to peak. Explorers from Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands set their sights on the Maldives. In 1558 the Portuguese established a small garrison and administered it from their outpost in Goa, some 300 miles away. The Portuguese were driven out of the country by a local leader, Muhammad Thakurufaanu al Azam in 1573. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese and while they took control, they did not directly get involved with local matters.
The late 16th century and into the 17th century saw the Dutch and the British vying for control over the islands. The British were the ultimate winners expelling the Dutch in 1796, however the Maldives did not become an official British protectorate until 1886. Despite being under British control, the Maldivian people enacted their first constitution in 1932 where they relegated the sultan to the role of a constitutional monarch. In 1953 the sultanate was suspended all together, but was reinstated again in 1954. The islands gained independence from Britain in 1965 and the sultanate was abolished for the final time three years later after a national referendum.
In 1968, Ibrahim Nasir was elected president. Nasir was very corrupt and was even forced to flee after stealing millions of dollars from the country, however, he was the first leader to see the economic potential that tourism could bring to the islands. The first Maldivian Resort opened in 1973 and tourism quickly became a major player in the country’s economy. Despite a somewhat tumultuous political history characterised by coups, tourism on the islands has remained the country’s biggest resource as people from all over the world come to experience a true tropical paradise.