The burden of ‘budhu’-a new age for Dhivehi

“Does language follow a democratic movement, or does a movement follow the language?” queried a source educated in rhetoric and journalism.

Many changes have come to the Maldives in the last twenty years, but some wonder whether Dhivehi is opening the door for political maneuvering.

“In the past, everything in the king’s palace had a word,” said Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid. Listing wooden nails and coil ropes named for their specific purposes, he explains “it was a king-centered, palace-centered community. The people lived for King. But it has changed very little over hundreds of years.”

Today, Dhivehi leaves gaps of understanding which politicians have been using as public pressure points, Shahid claimed. Those gaps are sometimes filled with superstition, running deep in time.

A Superstitious Past

According to folklore and historical research, the Maldives is the only island group in the Central Indian Ocean to have supported indigenous culture since ancient times. As such, its people have a fairly isolated and protective heritage.

Certain sayings and practices exemplify the fear that isolation engendered.

“Traditionally Maldivians didn’t think that it was good for a person to look too much at the sea, because one’s ‘heart would turn to stone’”, wrote Xavier Romero-Frias in The Maldivian Islanders. He advises that the Dhivehi meaning conveys a loss of memory and focus, rather than a loss of mercy.

Romero-Frias also explains that the winding streets on islands were not only attractive– they also prevented kaddovi, malevolent spirits of dead ancestors, from walking about. Replacing them with straight paths at the king’s order in the 1900s was unpleasant, to say the least.

The advent of Islam in 1100 AD tried to dispel indigenous superstition. The Sunni tradition in particular strongly discourages aniconism, or the depiction of religious and living beings. Signs of the Buddhist culture as well as “all type of Dhivehi cultural expressions deemed un-Islamic”, were destroyed, including budhu, or any carven image of a living being.

Some say the new regulations had a positive effect on Maldivian culture. “Wahhabism removed suspicions and freed the psyche,” said one source familiar with the issue. With numerous demons and windowless architecture, he said, Buddhist culture leaned heavily on superstition and deterred progress. “There were ill-omen days, and on those days people might not go fishing, for example,” he said.

While physical evidence of a Buddhist past has more or less vanished, words and their superstitious connotations linger.

Budhu is one example. Lacking words for ‘doll’ or ‘monument’, Dhivehi speakers generally refer to such objects as budhu–a habit that can lead to confusion.

In one story from Gan Laam Atoll, a statue is remembered as a human being.

Naseema Mohamed, a history consultant at Dhivehi Academy, told the tale of a big man who always stood near the island’s stuppa, no matter the weather. He never sat down. Mohamed said the story was about a standing man, but infers that the “man” was a Buddha statue.

“To some, even a photograph is considered a budhu,” Shahid said. Shahid was in prison for the first 16 years of his daughter’s life, and saw her only 12 days a year. To remind their daughter of him, his wife kept a picture at eye-level in the house. The gesture was reportedly disdained by Shahid’s sister, a pious woman who only took photographs for her passport.

The burden of budhu

Given the many meanings and uses of the word budhu, it seems reasonable that statues and monuments would be considered a public, cultural threat in the Maldives. However, as the recent vandalism and theft of monuments in Addu illustrates, gaps in language could be “one of the most serious problems, especially at this time,” as Shahid claims.

Officials have suggested that the attacks on the SAARC monuments have a political base. Shahid believes they were engineered because the public was pre-disposed to accept the destruction of images. Without separate, secular terminology for ‘monument’, people fell back on the religious argument.

“This is just one of the factors of how the religious and political groups were able to blow things out of proportion,” said Shahid. “Nobody wants to argue about budhu, they don’t want to be labelled a non-Muslim, so it’s better to stay quiet.”

The SAARC monuments were first criticised by the Islamic Ministry on religious grounds. Soon after, opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) hailed the vandals as “national heroes” and filed a case against Customs for allowing the statues into the country. When Nepal’s statue was stolen on December 7, Addu City Mayor Abdullah Sodig asserted that the theft had a political base.

Recalling acquaintances who asked whether people would start worshiping new idols in Addu, Shahid concluded, “my opinion is this whole thing has gone out of proportion because of the language problem.”

When asked about Shahid’s assessment, Mohamed pointed out that Pakistan’s monument was a historical illustration. “There was nothing for anyone to be angry or annoyed about, although I could understand how some people would have that reaction,” she said.

Editor of Michael O’Shea said most Maldivians harbor suspicions, but many make distinctions. “Because budhu has a wide range of meanings, getting upset about some forms of it and not others is a personal choice,” he observed.

However, politics prevail. “You can’t have a cultural discussion without it turning into a political swinging match,” said O’Shea.

Recent events support his claim.

On the day before the nation-wide protest to “Defend Islam”, a religious rally at which key speakers pledged to defeat President Mohamed Nasheed in the 2013 presidential election, Afghanistan’s monument was broken from its mount and sunk in the sea. Addu Councilor Hussein Hilmee said the monument was an image of Afghanistan’s Jam minaret, which features Qur’anic phrases and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As printed slogans at the “Defend Islam” protest reminded the public, statues–even of the Jam Minaret–offend the national religion.

The destruction of the Addu-based monuments was one of several demands made by the protestors, who came close to clashing to with MDP protestors late Friday night.

De-politicising Dhivehi in a democratic era

Politics govern most conversations in both manner and practice, said one source familiar with linguistics and media. He said the evolution of journalism illustrates the pressures of a democratic revolution on Dhivehi language.

“The language of journalism is now less formal than it was before. But, as it becomes less formal it also becomes less neutral,” he observed.

The democratic revolution of the previous decade pushed Dhivehi to its limits. “Under Gayoom, we didn’t have a word for ‘protest’. Instead, we said ‘express displeasure’. Previously, there was no word for ‘detainee,’ only ‘convict’. You were either a political offender or a convict,” he said.

Dhivehi evolved quickly “because the movement was happening very quickly,” but the source said it could learn from Arabic media, notably Al Jazeera, which developed new words instead of adopting English terms.

Pointing out that ‘freeze’ in Dhivehi only refers to objects, the source queried, “When the western press talks about unfreezing assets, we haven’t even got a word for freeze. How do we keep up with that?”

However, the source claimed, journalists are falling short of their duty.

“Journalists are passing the buck. They are saying it is not their job to change Dhivehi, but this is a responsibility of journalism. You can’t just copy the politicians” because it narrows the discussion and alienates the people, he said. “There should be some strong face of journalism. At the moment it seems like the entire discussion is in the language of politicians.”

What are the consequences?

“It is not just a constitution that will bring democracy and human rights and civil society. In Maldives, it’s everything. From language, to religion, to the population size. The language issue is a problem here. It has to be overcome.”


39 thoughts on “The burden of ‘budhu’-a new age for Dhivehi”

  1. At the end of the day we have to note that majority of the maldivians are not dumb or illiterate. Most of them knows one plus one is two. The 'Budhu' case is just a symbolic protest against what majority of the maldivians sees a government breaking the religious status-quo to bring freedom of religion.

  2. ok. minivan news. you are clearly too afraid to publish a single photo which shows the massive number of people who particitpated in the demonstration in defense of islam. the only pictures you published were some close up pictures of some people from their back.
    and i also expect you to keep publishg long long articles from anti-muslim bigots like azra naseem, yaameen, etc against the mega protest as your top headline each day.

  3. That word again. Filthy ugly dirty word. Minivannews, are you trying to provoke heart attacks in at least a third of Maldivians?

    Then again, it may be desired outcome for a fast ticket to where they want to go...

  4. Get your facts right, Eleanor. You are inventing history. It wasn't a king who ordered the replacing of winding village lanes with straight streets. It was a president. The first president, in fact. No the Maldives didn't have a king-centred, palace-centred society in the olden days. The king lived on Male which was remote to other islands until the 1960s. People in Addu and Huvadhoo Atolls travelled more often to Sri Lanka than they came to Male. It was in the time a president, the one who ruled for 30 years, that the Maldives became "king" centred, palace-centred and kitchen-cabinet-centred.

  5. Elenor Johnstone and some of these westeners think they have got everything and they know everything.
    Well, did Elenor Johnstone know that the language we speak and write now is entirely different from the language in pre-historic maldives when it practised buddism. Dhives akuru from then have evolved to Thaana now and in between raivaru was even used as a medium of communication.
    We have to admit that each language has its own pros and cons. For example, there is not a seperate word in english for kaashi, kurumba, miri, gobolhi -different stages of development of coconut.
    So, suggesting that dhivehi is incompatible shows the arrogence and lack of knowledge of the writer.

  6. why is the story about a religious protestor getting attacked by MDP thugs hidden in "news in brief" section?
    if it is the other way, i'm sure it will make your top story on your main page.

  7. @ mustho on Sat, 24th Dec 2011 4:39 PM

    You really sound like Gay-yoom in disguise. And Nasheed. Yeah!

  8. @ Anthu

    You mean the Nasheed who is from the atoll Laamu and is an architect? Yeah, could be.

  9. Too little too late once again Eleanor.

    Nasheed needs to distance himself from unpopular figures such as Ahmed Naseem and Abdulla Shahid.

    Whether their unpopularity is unfair, engineered, deserved or inevitable does not matter. Any PR expert would tell you perception is all that matters. As long as the President and the ruling party wishes to display certain persons that the Maldivian public identify negatively, the government will suffer from lack of support.

    I am sure every writer of Minivan knows that the display yesterday was a taunting reflection of things to come. It is an undeniable fact that if all opposition movements unite then their support base clearly outnumbers the MDPs. The problem here is not merely religious or ideological.

    The MDP government is beset by too many woes. Let me list out some;

    1) Infighting over share of embezzled funds. A lot of key members in the MDP are dead set against Moosa Manik who on the other hand commands the support of a large majority within the party.

    2) Reactionary policy-making: the inability of the MDP to spell out a clear and precise plan to administer to the country has brought them closer to ruin more than anything else.

    3) Lack of sensitivity when it comes to cultural issues: The Maldivian people are the Maldivian people and you cannot dictate to them what they should be. Conducting dance parties in Thoddoo, having verbal spats with citizens in island communities, backing artists and writers who express views that offend the majority etc. etc. The list goes on.

    4) Lack of proper human resource: this was an issue noted by the Conservative Party consultants who helped Nasheed for his party infrastructure. The problem with systems and processes is that those who implement them can change the outcome significantly. The MDP is full of semi-literate, inexperienced recruits who are merely bought through the promise of riches. These persons tend to also cause a heavy burden on party finances which sadly partly comes from the public treasury.

  10. Act 4/75 Import Prohibition law states "alhukan kuran gengulhey budhu" (idols for worship) as being banned to be used or imported to Maldives. So it is not the word that is creating confusion, but all politics and very little if at all religion.

  11. Not long ago, the Indian High Commissioner in the Maldives stated, in a speech, that Maldives has existed as a nation-state as long as something like 2600 years. I have checked this with the Reader in South Asian Languages, Bertil Tikkanen,at Helsinki University.

    Bertil said to me that this is probably right. From my own knowledge of Sri Lanka and India, I also think this is right.

    Considering the length of or history, it is amazing how little Maldivians and foreigners alike know about our country. I have always noticed this even in Minivannews.

    Virtually every foreigner I meet, particularly in the fairyland Finland, think that Maldives is a set of tourist islands, and that it is fast sinking into the sea.

    For a country that is nearly 3000 years old, these claims and assumptions on the part of foreigners, about Maldives, is deeply insulting, derogatory and self-centred.

    I was not born in a tourist island, and tourism did not play any role in my childhood and upbringing.

    I spent 10 years in Sri Lanka, in Sosun Villa, established by Mohamed Ameen, (Prime Minister and President of Maldives),that was meant to be the producer of a core-elite to come and rule Maldives.

    The only ruler of Maldives to come out of Sosun Villa was, unfortunately, Ibrahim Nasir. We could have done with one or two more.

    Instead, we were ruled for the last several decades, by a set of Mullahs, (all incidently class-mates and loyal friends), that came from Cairo, Egypt.

    An accident of history can mean so much to a country.

    Mr Gayoom did a lot of good things. But he also did a lot of bad things. One of the bad things was the islamisation of Maldives. Gayoom also cultivated a personality-cult centred on himself and his North-Koean type ruling family.

    As a result of Gayoom rule, Maldivians began to think that there was nothing in the Maldives, not even religious scholars, before him.

    This is not true at all.

    In Sosun Villa, during my time at least, there was no teaching of religion or history.

    But the language was taught. Divehi is a rich language, and it is a language born and brought up in the Maldives. Maldivians should be more proud of it than they actually are.

    There would have been more tolerance in the Maldives, if their nationalism was based on their language rather than their religion.

    It is their language that makes them unique in the world, not their religion: Islam.

    Finally, there is one word that is sadly lacking in Dhivehi-vocabulary.

    It is the word 'Maldivian abroad' or 'abroad-Maldivian'. If this word is incorporated into Dhivehi, Maldivians will begin to become a more cosmopolitan lot.

  12. Dhivehi cannot be considered as a language that has full linguistic power to program human brain to use all its neuron. Therefore Maldivians are lacking diversity in realization of many concepts. Languages are developed with experiences acquired through many generations, the more the environment is robust the more you get experiences of your environment and you tend to make concepts and added to your vocabulary. For us everything is blank like infinite Ocean that we experience every day. The richer the language the wider the window of the brain opens. Unfortunately, our brains are only slightly open and we realize the reality less.

  13. Who is this Eleanor Johnson? Is she a Maldivian, who didn't like her Muslim name, and decided to take up a Jewish one instead? If this is the case, then I advice you to come back to the path of Islam, which is the righteous one, passed down by the Almighty Allah SWT!

    On the subject at hand, we will soon create a petition to change some words in the Dhivehi language and bring the issue to the Majlis.. These words are "buddhi", "buddhiveriyaa/verin/veri" and "budha dhuvas". These words will also be banned from use by any Dhivehin, with a harsh penalty if used. By the grace of Almighty Allah SWT, we shall accomplish this as well, just like the 178462 people who protested yesterday. Yes, we have the exact number, if you're wondering!

  14. very interesting article! language was restricted on purpose because it was by all measures an orwellian dictatorship.there is much to be done in this regard. however it is sad that most "senior" journalists aint even capable of having a rational logical conversation, let alone a neutral one. their articles are filled with pointless "holhivaahaka" and logical fallacies and factual errors. most importantly, the political bias to ridiculous levels.

    and i find that people are afraid to use new words or existing words in new contexts. whenever i do that, people say to me things like "that doesnt feel right". "i know this makes sense and is an accurate translation of the concept, but its somehow sounds wrong".

  15. Firstly good piece Eleanor

    Apes, crow, parrots, and some other members the animal kingdom can do 1+1=2, Majority Maldivians are stupid., lacking in certain analytical skills and capacity to reason

    @Wine and Pork Lover,
    In the Days of the "Radun"/"Rasgefaanu" it was very king centred. True people from Huvadhoo and Addu travelled far and wide, and were much independent than the rest of the Maldives, Back then self governorship was given to Huvadhoo, were they had to pay annual tax only to Male'

    Maldivian language was not poor for a isolated insular language, and it woud fit very well to a most industrialized/digital age, The language has failed to evolve to the times, I think that's what the author or any person the author quoted was referring to. Do you know there are

    @Michael Fahmy
    certainly it seems the Sosun Villa project failed in it actuality, not saying Maldives did not benefit a bit. The project failed to create any good leader, including that tyrant Nasir.
    Dhivehi not only needs a word for diaspora Dhivehin, right now they are called "berugai dhiriulhey noone vazan veri dhivehin", which is cumbersome and not a word. Thats the paucity of the language.

  16. Oh god, now dhivehi is also not good enough and is undemocratic. I cant stand these patronising foreigners

  17. It's not the language itself, its the low number of speakers and the lack of translated literature. The Dhivehin are frogs in a well, with only those who are fluent in a second language being empowered with a window to information beyond.

    The Dhivehi literati are gagged by the prevailing madness of the masses who are in the thrall of xenophobia and grandeur.

  18. @Sheikh Imran Abdullah on Sat, 24th Dec 2011 10:53 PM

    Sir,I was wondering how you or adhlaath party counted the figure. (if thats who actually you claim who you are in the comment above)

    and first thing you need to learn is to respect people for which ever religion or belief they have, if you think their belif is wrong you don't attack their name or religion, you could politely explain why the person is wrong.

    I am not a muslim or any religion but atleast i know muslim's can respect others too.

  19. point is somewhere along the way maldivians started to dislike statues.or superstitious beliefs changed.

  20. @peasant

    The masses of Dhivehin no' no real grandeur but are afflicted with delusions of grandeur, while they say there is no problem with the language, everyone is now speaking in broken Dhivehi, and soon would become a sort of Pidgin.

    Pidgin is language from which beautiful poetry isn't possible.

    New words needs to made either by borrowing and making the word fit. possibly from sister languages in S.Asia.

  21. @Michael Fahmy: I salute you. Your comment is the only comment worthy to read.

  22. @manik who is part of the Kaafirun, or Jews.

    We counted with our God given fingers you infidel! Jew! And I am who I say I am. What would a Jew accomplish by asking me such satanic questions!?

  23. Religion, Politics, surely there has to be other interesting fun things happening in this country of ours.

    Too bad, I am getting back to my beer, Merry Christmas everyone.

  24. Someone here mentioned Maldivians not liking their Muslim names and taking up Jewish names instead. The fact is that many Maldivians were forced to give up their Dhivehi names and adopt what the mullahs have determined are Muslim names. The mullahs and their followers are an unpatriotic mob, serving their masters in Arabia.

  25. In English, statue is different from idol. This is the gap a developing language such as the Divehi has to bridge having specific names for specific objects. Idol is a picture or object often carved that people pray to as part of their religion while a statue is an object sculptured out of stone or metal that look like a person or animal. Idols used for worship are not in the form of an object only; they include pictures too. Whereas not all carved or sculptured work is idol for so is a statue.

    The monuments erected in memory of SAARC member countries in Addu don't come under the definition of an idol or statue. As the author of the writing above has clearly stated, the issues surrounding the monuments in Addu is the result of a shortage of words in Divehi for these works of art. In Divehi the shape of any creature is an idol though it was never worshiped by any community in the history of the mankind.

    The Council for Historical and Linguistic Services of the former government of Gayoom must be responsible in part, at least, for this linguistic gap between our vocabulary of names and the objects we possess or come across. However, when we come across something like the monuments in question we should not hastily associate with what has some common features while it is different in all other respects, and we must find a name for it that describes all its features aptly so as to distinguish it from the rest of things of the same class.

    By the way, it is not difficult to distinguish the idols from other similarly created objects. We call such an object or its picture an idol only if and only if it is used for worship.

  26. like what used to be muhamma kalo from his father, would later be changed to something like...abdullah bin ahmed musthafa ali zahir......after few years in a paskistani slum...

  27. The reason why the monuments were offensive to maldivians is the same reason as why swiss public recently voted for the law to ban the construction of minarets. Stop trying to portray us as backward natives, this is not the colonialist era

  28. hi people. please ignore this sheikh imran abdulla guy..

    whoever is writing in the name of sheikh
    imran abdulla is an impostor. this is a cheap plot by a kaafir to character assasinate sheikh imran.

  29. Lets be fair for a minute
    In this open debate about Islam against other religions, its we the disbelievers who are most offensive and insulting the muslims. Lets be honest with this. We the local kaafirs are actually not living up to what we preach so we risk being munaafiqeen even in Islamic thinking. I think the majority of the Muslims are peaceful and they are actually kind and understanding to our non stop ranting against their religion.

  30. "Eleanor Johnstone" is not a Jewish name. "Eleanor" comes from the Provencal language of southern France. It's meaning is unknown, but there is no reason to think it has an religious association. "Johnstone" is English.It's originally meaning is "John's town", again of no religious significance. So both names have no religious content and come from Christian countries.

  31. Maldive islamic people...stop coming to my country..sri lanka. we dont want you

  32. What is all these bablings. We Maldivians know who we are. this is age of genetics and DNA. Look at the scientific researches done to understand the population of Maldives. Maldivians have a proud ancestry.

  33. just google the world maldives ancestry. You would get the scientific , undeniable truth about Maldivians.


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