An island kingdom in the ocean

by Xavier Romero-Frías

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

Fishermen from the nearby shores of the Indian Ocean were the first to build small settlements in the small coral islands that they found and which now are known as the Maldives. There are no remaining traces of these first settlers because whatever structures they built, using wood, sticks and palm fronds, were ephemeral.

It is no coincidence that the word “Kerala”, the name of the nearest continental region, is based on the coconut tree and that the oldest Maldivian myths tell how people would die before there were coconut trees in the widely scattered atolls of the Maldives.

The coconut palm grows easily on the sandy island soil and the saltwater of the islands. It brought life and food and made it possible to live in the archipelago.

Fishing and trading were the other two foundations of ancient Maldivian life. Island families built fishing boats since ancient times for daily sustenance, as well as bigger ships to trade with the nearest shores. Well-built, sturdy and graceful, the boats of the Maldives are some of the finest in the Asian coasts.

Maldivians were early in perfecting tuna fishing and specializing in it. Part of the catch was preserved as dry “Maldive Fish” in order to ensure commercial exchanges with items that were not available in their small, flat coral islands.

An important institution in Maldivian history was the monarchy. In the past centuries the islands were ruled by kings or queens and their power reached every corner of the country. The rulers exercised their power from the royal capital island, which according to ancient records has been Malé for well over thousand years. Although historical proof is lacking, Buddhism, together with a strong and centralized Maldivian monarchy, came to the Maldives possibly during Emperor Aśoka’s patronage of the doctrine (around 2.300 b.c.), which brought about its great expansion throughout South Asia and beyond.

The Maldives was the only ancient oceanic civilization in the central region of the Indian Ocean, but unlike the Polynesian culture, Maldivians didn't expand across the scattered islands and archipelagoes to the east, south and the southwest. During trading journeys their ships travelled and sometimes got lost, reaching the Andamans, the Chagos and the Seychelles – the latter two uninhabited in ancient history, and sometimes even farther, but they always sought to come back whenever that was possible. The Maldives was home and there was no drive to colonize distant territories. 

Impressive archaelogical remains of Buddhist monasteries and Stupas have been found on many islands in the atoll chain. Most of the Buddhist ruins are conspicuous, for they come in the form of mounds or low hills that stand out in the flat island landscape. Maldivian stupas were built of coral stone blocks, a feature that makes them unlike any other such structures anywhere in the world.

The Maldive nation remained largely sovereign during the whole period of its existence as a monarchy, both during the Buddhist era and later after the conversion to Islam in the 12th century. Despite being small, and occasionally harassed by neighbors of South India, the realm of the Maldives was a kingdom in its own right.

At the time of conversion Buddhist sites and statues were disfigured or destroyed. After being abandoned, tropical jungle swiftly covered them. Some of these Maldivian Buddhist ruins have yet to be excavated, while others have been lost during recent construction and development.

Little is known of Maldivian history between the 12th and the 15th centuries. References to that period, such as a list of kings, were written much later. Only after European presence in the Indian Ocean expanded, more extensive historical accounts became available.

Maldivian lore mentions conflict with the Portuguese in the 16th century, but there is no record of such squabbles from the Portuguese side. A French ship ran aground on a reef in Northern Maldives in 1602, and one of the members of the crew, a French nobleman, was put up at the royal court in Malé. He wrote a valuable account of the life of the noble people. Later there was also some interaction with the Dutch, who bought cowries from Maldives, a valuable trading item in past times.

In the 19th century the British held sway over the areas of Asia that are closest to the Maldives, South India and Ceylon. During that time the King of the archipelago decided to ask for protection from the British crown. In this manner the Maldives became a British protectorate. For the first time, and not without resistance from local religious leaders, children from elite families were sent to Colombo and acquired a modern education.

British protection lasted until 1965, less than two decades after nearby India became independent. Around that time the monarchy was abolished and the Royal Palace in Malé was destroyed, as well as the picturesque fortifications around the island. Despite the change to a Republic, Maldivian administration retained essentially the same ancient structures of the monarchy.

Tourism came relatively late to the Maldives. Oddly enough, a development commission of the UN which visited Maldives in the 1960s did not recommend to promote tourism in the Maldives, claiming that the weather was not ideal. However, the first few resorts that opened in the 1970s became an instant success.

An enlarged airport in Hulule and a great number of new resorts were opened one decade later. The period of the 1980s saw a great expansion of the tourist industry. Living standards in the islands grew and, for the first time great numbers of foreign labourers, especially from Bangladesh, became part of the workforce in the country. The streets of the capital were paved and electric generators were installed in most of the  inhabited islands of the archipelago. Along with development, however, the islands began having problems of garbage disposal.

The deep-rooted, paternalistic form of government suffered a serious blow when young Maldivians returned in the 1990s they after completing religious education in countries such as Saudi Arabia. They formed Salafist factions that challenged the established norm that all religious life had to be controlled by the state. On the other hand, an increasing number of Maldivians were pushing for modern freedoms and greater democratization. Religious discord and the instrumentalization of doctrine for political purposes reached a climax in 2012, when the first democratically-elected leader was toppled. During the disturbances, a mob of vandals entered the National Museum in Malé and destroyed the Buddhist archaeological remains.

Most of the ancient heritage of the Maldives was pulverized overninght. The Buddhist-era displays disappeared from the museum and the authors of the destruction were protected and never prosecuted. In the ensuing years, all reference to the Maldivian Buddhist phase in the museum was hushed. Even recent guidebooks and pamphlets avoid mentioning that such a period ever existed in Maldivan history.

Land reclamation projects became extensive by the turn of the millenium. Lagoons were filled and islands have been enlarged.

Tourist resorts were opened in far away atolls and small airports were built in many islands spread throughout the Maldives. In this manner several areas of the country that had been formerly too difficult to reach for holidaymakers, were finally made available for mass-tourism.

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