Pearly white beaches, peaceful locals, beauty above and below water, and of course luxury and pleasant relaxation all spring to mind when thinking about the Maldives. However, the less-known side of the islands are its people and early history, which have puzzled many a scholar trying to unravel the mystery that is the Maldives.
The Maldives are scattered like little precious pebbles over the Indian Ocean, southwest from Sri Lanka and all the way down to the equator. Dozens of atolls - the word atoll actually comes from Dhivehi, the language of the Maldivians - make up the country, which consists of more than over a thousand islands.
The Maldives’ capital, Malé, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, while many of the remote islands are completely uninhabited - though locals are often lead there to explore the world-famous flora and fauna in complete solitude.
Areas further from the capital capture the immense beauty of the low-lying islands most perfectly, with flying fish and luscious palms by the beaches surrounded with turquoise lagoons and coral reefs bestowing upon visitors a real feast for the senses. The diversity of wildlife will definitely amaze you as well - the Maldives is home to some 10-12 species of whale and dolphin, and you’re guaranteed to see some when in the open sea. The Maldives is also the place to see the world’s largest fish - the whale shark - cruising by the islands in their never ending quest for plankton.
Who are the Maldivians?
The hospitable people have become associated with the islands on a degree almost parallel to the fame of the beaches, reefs and wildlife of the Maldives However, the locals’ descent and arrival here is shrouded by a mystery - no one really knows who were the first to arrive here. While some think that people from Sri Lanka and Southern India were the first to arrive, others think the first Maldivians came here from the Indus Valley about 4,000 years ago.
The islands took upon Islam in 1,153 AD but excavations suggest that both Hinduism and Buddhism had been present here as well in the earlier periods of the country. Later colonization efforts by the Portuguese as well as the establishment of a British protectorate in the 19th century further influenced the identity and the history of the Maldives, shaping the multicultural spirit that marks the country now.
They speak Dhivehi in the Maldives, but English is also widely spoken and locals have no trouble communicating in it across the country. There are some differences in the language across the islands, and dialects of the northern islands are particularly different from the standard speech. Dhivehi is written from right to left with a special 24-character script that dates back to the 16th century.
Life and customs in the Maldives
The Maldives is an Islamic country and as such follows the customs of the islands throughout the year. Events such as Ramadan and Kuda Eid are held with much splendor across the isles. Despite the advent of pop music and dance, Maldivians have retained traditional styles of song and dance, like the Bandiyaa Jehun.
The multiplicity of the Maldives can be seen in its cuisine, which combines many elements from Arabic, Indian, Sri Lankan and Oriental cuisines, while retaining something essentially Maldivian as well.
A few fun facts about the Maldives
- Don’t be surprised if you see lots of people reading. The country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world at more than 98%. Some think this owes to the fact that in Malé, where all of the universities are located and where about a third of the population live, there is simply nowhere to go when you skip lessons! Though the fact that the number of trained teachers increased from 3,400 in 2009 to around 6,000 in 2011 can also be telling...
- The Maldives may one day disappear due to rising sea levels. Although this does not qualify as a ‘fun’ fact, the Maldives is one of the nations most affected by climate change. In 2008 the president of the Maldives announced plans for creating a fund to buy a new homeland for Maldivians, who may eventually be displaced by rising sea levels. As they take global warming more seriously than the rest of the world, the Maldives is set to become a carbon-neutral country by 2020.
- Religion here goes hand in hand with a little superstition. The locals are somewhat superstitious despite being firm believers in Islam. Seemingly mundane things like coconuts are thought to be a part of black magic rituals and used for spells. In 2013, for example, a ‘young coconut’ was detained on suspicion of influencing election results. The case quickly broke up once a white magician established the coconut’s innocence.