The Republic of Maldives is a country known best for its tropical sun and palm beaches. But the Maldivian tourist industry that dominates worldwide perception of the archipelago has existed only since 1972. The Maldivian country and nation are much older, spanning across millennia of change and development. To understand the complexity of this nations’ politics, society and its position in the international sphere, we first need to get ourselves acquainted with the processes that shaped the Maldivian country and its people.
Until very recently, most historical records originated from the capital city of Male and were distorted in accordance to the perspective and interests of the ruling elites of the islands. Thanks to scholars such as Clarence Maloney and Xavier Romero-Frias we now have a better informed and more pluralistic literature on the subject, though sadly, the Maldive islands still lag far behind their Indo‑Pacific peers in terms of academic popularity.
The first recorded settlers came to the Maldives in the Sangam period (300 BC–AD 300) from the Indian subcontinent. There might have existed earlier inhabitants of these islands, but they didn’t leave any historical traces. The earliest settlers of the Maldive islands worshipped the Devi, a cult of village goddesses portrayed as evil female spirits, which, despite later Buddhist efforts to replace it, left a permanent trace in the Maldivian society in the form of an inflated woman status and female rulers of the Maldives often reigning over the archipelago in the Buddhist period.
Linguistic research into the native Maldivian Dhivehi language reveals that the Maldivians share common ancestry with the Sinhalese people from Sri Lanka and that the shared root is located somewhere in Western India. Maloney, author of People of the Maldive Islands proved that out of nearly 900 islands he examined, including those uninhabited, only four have Islamic names, which means that the whole archipelago was functioning within one cultural sphere even before the adoption of Islam.
Indeed, the traditions of political rule and culture in the Maldives bear significant influence of Ceylon. It was in the late first millennium BC that an organized state emerged in the Maldives, modelled on the example of the Sri Lankan monarchy. It is probably due to the fact that the archipelago was treated as an exile destination of unwanted groups of people or losers of political conflicts in Ceylon. Through their influence, the system established in the Maldives closely resembled the absolute monarchy of Sri Lanka. The centralized, absolutist rule conducted from the capital city of Male became an inseparable feature of the Maldivian political culture and managed to survive both the adoption of Islam in the 12th century and the fall of monarchy 800 years later.
Religion played a vital role in the functioning of the monarchy in Male. Contrary to its popular Western image filtered through yoga, the Dalai Lama and films about secluded mystic monasteries, Buddhism is as political as any other major religion. Since its very dawn, it has been providing rulers of the region with legitimacy, prestige and power. Religious and secular elites rubbed shoulders, shared interests and benefits on a daily basis. That model of relations between the crown and the faith, as well as Buddhism itself, was brought to the Maldives from India, and more directly Sri Lanka, just like virtually anything in the archipelago up to the times of Arabic expansion.
Sea trade has constituted an essential part of the social and economic life of the Maldives since the very beginning of human presence there. At the turn of the Buddhist and Islamic periods the Maldives conducted intense maritime trade with its neighbors, most notably Bengal. Maldive islands had the fortune of an abundant supply of cowrie shells, which were at the time used as a form of currency in Asia and parts of Africa. The islands also exported coir fiber. Despite their strategic location and possession of exportable goods, the Maldives were very rarely visited by foreign trading ships. It was in part due to the islands’ meager attractiveness, relative to more populated and larger immediate surroundings, as well as dangerous waters that had to be traversed with a special navigator, just to get to the other side of the archipelago. Therefore the Maldivians themselves were the primary traders exporting and importing goods to their country. It does not mean that foreign influence did not reach the islands at all. To the contrary, grand changes occurring in the larger region always found their way into the atolls and stamped their mark there, sometimes with powerful consequences. The dawn of Arabic dominance of international trade, especially in the Indo-Pacific area, meant that the Islamic culture’s influence greatly increased, spread by traders, scholars and sometimes armies, prompting numerous regional rulers to convert.
Historical consciousness of the Maldivian people has been profoundly affected by the adoption of Islam in the year 1153 (or 1193, according to some sources). The process itself was somehow similar to the spread of Christianity in Central and Eastern Europe. The new religion’s economic, cultural and thus – political clout convinced the rulers of regional states to adopt the new faith and join the community of ‘civilized nations’, with all its benefits. From this perspective, the decision had been taken at the top of the chain of authority, motivated by political convenience. The change itself, mirroring the Christian conversion of Europe, was directed by the enormous and centralized administration in Male, with the help of Arab scholars and preachers. The process was abrupt, and the state didn’t spare violence where needed, as it happened with the brutally quelled rebellion of Isdhoo Buddhist monks. From the perspective of a commoner though, little had changed. Taxes continued to be paid; temple serfs were reassigned to newly-built mosques and the ancient traditions managed to quietly slip through the religious upheaval and settle themselves in a new, Islamic reality.
Despite state-sponsored imposition of the new faith, some traces of the tantric past, including sites of Fanditha magic practice, and a strong Buddhist cultural context, are still present in the Maldives. The religious and cultural patterns of traditions of the Maldivian people are similar to other societies which experienced grand religious changes. Xavier Romero-Frias, in his book The Maldive Islanders: A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom, describes the tales of old Maldivians who still recall the locations of sites of secret tantric worship, including different offerings conducted during secret night ceremonies involving communication with the non-material dimension. These practices blended into the Buddhist tradition and then survived the adoption of Islam, until they were crushed by the 20th century dictatorships. One can instantly see how similar it is to the ancient Slavic feast of Dziady, that incorporates the Catholic tradition into ancient pagan rituals and was widely practiced in the East European countryside until the dawn of the 20th century.
These examples prove that cultural changes such as top-down adoption of a new religion do not occur overnight, nor are they able to completely replace old beliefs and traditions. Maldivians have hard time coming to terms with their non-Islamic past, which is one of the reasons why the pre-1153 history is barely covered in their textbooks. As Romero-Frias writes: most islanders didn’t want anything to do with their Buddhist ancestors. They preferred to say that other folk had been Buddhist in their country, not them. The small, educated elite at least acknowledges the very existence of the Buddhist past, but neither they ascribe any importance to it. However, for someone wishing to truly understand the Maldives, it is essential to know that this unique nation bears influence of ancient Hindu, Sinhalese Buddhist and Islamic legacy at once, and each three form the cultural, social and political landscape of the Maldivian archipelago.
In the centuries following the conversion to Islam, a new cultural system solidified upon the old and largely unchanged socio-political structure of a centralized, feudal rule from Male. In the meantime, dramatic changes were quietly taking place in the world. As the Asian and Arabic powers abdicated their maritime dominance and trade slowed down in the Indo-Pacific, Europeans took to the seas to establish their 4 centuries long hegemony. Although Europeans never physically colonized the Maldives, their political and economic presence impacted the country fundamentally. The arrival of European powers will be the starting point in the next article of the series, History of the Maldives 2, stay tuned!