Comment: An identity for Maldivians

On the morning of the Maldives’ 45th Independence Day celebrations, President Mohamed Nasheed finally unveiled the new National Museum – a swanky, modern, grey building with high ceilings and polished interiors, that has been teasing the public for a few weeks now during the final stages of its construction.

The inauguration was greeted with much fanfare, and vows were made by both the President and the State Minister for Arts and Culture to preserve and promote Maldivian cultural heritage.

However, the reactions from commentators on many news websites to the opening were quite puzzling in their negativity and cynicism.

Or maybe not.

Despite the buzz surrounding the newly-inaugurated building, Maldivians have already had a National Museum since the middle of the last century; a tiny, old section of the former palace that former President Nasir had benevolently left standing.

Dusty, crumbling, and largely ignored by the general Maldivian public, the old museum had harbored the last surviving treasures of the long, unbroken chain of ancient Dhivehi civilization; the swords of the Sultans, ancient loamaafaanu copperplate grants, exquisite medieval lacquer-work, extinct scripts, and beautifully carved coral-stone sculptures of the Buddha that triumphantly showcased the skilled craftsmanship of our ancestors from centuries ago.

Yet somehow, the President had to remind the gathered citizens at the inauguration that Dhivehin have inhabited these ancient islands since 2000BC.

It seems ironic that despite being one of the very few countries in the world with such an ancient recorded history, we Maldivians show a strange disconnect from our cultural roots, and a feigned ignorance of our past.

Many Maldivians seek to satisfy themselves that their language, customs and cultural traits are of recent origin and, intriguingly enough, choose to whitewash whole portions of their history.

For instance, there are Maldivians who display a marked hostility for – and seek to disown – the entire culturally-vibrant Buddhist era of our past!

These attempts to sever the umbilical cord with the past have left Maldivians a culturally restless people, uncertain of their place in history.

It is hardly surprising then, that the swanky new museum has been built, not by Dhivehin as a monument to their proud heritage – but by enterprising foreigners.

It is perhaps befitting such a culturally aloof people that the new botanical gardens, being built on the very site where the former Sultan’s palace once stood, is also the product of foreign labor and initiative.

Interestingly, some of the most enlightening anthropological studies of the Maldivian people, our history, arts, poetry, folktales and traditions have also been carried out by foreign chroniclers like Pyrard, Bell and Maloney.

It would hardly matter to most Maldivians that the plaque outside the gate to the newest monument to Dhivehi culture reads, in bright red letters, ‘China Aid’.

Today, more than ever, there is a greater need to overcome this historical apathy of Dhivehin towards history itself.

The Maldives stands at a unique crossroads as a young, budding democracy about to seek its destiny and carve a niche for itself.

Maldivians have long been plagued by an identity crisis after decades of unfettered Westernization followed by rapid Arabisation. The moment is ripe for the newly assertive Maldivian public to permanently erase this.

If we take this moment to infuse ourselves with a strong national identity and cultural pride, we could overcome some of the most divisive issues burning our society today – the drugs epidemic and religious fundamentalism.

The opening of the new National Museum should hopefully provide the required spark to ignite a long overdue cultural revival in the Maldives, and a reawakening of Maldivians to embrace the Dhivehi identity that unites all mahl people.

If Dhivehin do not jump at this opportunity to rediscover our culture, and revel in our sense of common identity and inherited values (in much the same way our neighbors like India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan do) – then it would seem a rather wasteful expenditure by the Chinese government for an ancient people who have willingly betrayed their own culture!

In the words of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi:

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

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28 thoughts on “Comment: An identity for Maldivians”

  1. The rich is the Maldives keep their money abroad in swiss banks and are not taxed or taxed a minimal amount. No one bothers to fund the arts and the humanities. Irresponsible and apathetic bunch.

  2. Culture is a mute story teller. The moral is in the eye of the beholder!

  3. Or rather, museum is a mute story teller. The moral is in the eye of the beholder!

  4. Well written Yameen. It would have added more strength had you ended it with a wise saying by a renown Dhivehi figure in culture and literature like bodufenvalhuge seedi or Ibrahim Shihab or Solahudeen!

  5. I am a Westerner who finds Maldivian culture fascinating.

    One of the biggest grievances post modern Westerners complain about is that they feel cultureless. The Kings of Britain, attempting to use Christianity to unite and conquer the "pagan" tribes of Britain, systematically destroyed all pre-Christian culture in England. Of course, modernisation then made Christianity irrelevant for many.

    As a consequence, so many culture starved Westerners are intrigued and fascinated, drawn to other cultures, myself a huge culprit.

    For example, when I was in Maldives, I spent hours reading about 'mysticism in the Maldives' and trying to experience the real spirituality of the Dhivehin. Perhaps I was searching for what was missing in my own life.

    What I discovered was a deep, mystical reverence of the Divine in nature, particularly a sacred reverence for the ocean. Furthermore, the belief in Jinni's ( as expressed for example in fanditha and Sihuru beliefs particularly), gave a very rich dimension to the cultural fabric of the islands. Whilst some may interpret these things as slavery to superstition, I saw these beliefs as dynamic, exciting, these beliefs really enlivened the evening with tremendous excitement (perhaps even fear). Yet, I loved every bit of it because, it made everything so much more ALIVE. The sense of never being alone, of being pursued in the night by Jinni's, I loved it. It added a depth of emotional intensity to existance which stimulated the senses and made me experience and feel life and the night so much stronger, it gave the environment a vibrant, emotional quality which we in the West crave.

    The jinni's of Maldivian mythology for examlple, Ranumari, for me, seemed like a kind of anthropomorphic or personified expression of fear of the forces of nature, it made me feel that in a sort of a sense, the Ranumari is real - it is - the ocean.

    Anyway, I am just saying all this because I feel as though it would be very sad for all of this to be vanquished and lost...

    All I am saying is that, these things (mythologies and spiritual beliefs) are tremendous treasures which, even if you don't believe in them, just entertaining the idea enriches life. More importantly, it would also give a strong sense of being tremendously rich in terms of activity of the mind and imagination being the greatest treasure!

  6. Well, the author seems to remind of the story of the mice attempting to bell the cat! Will the author show how Maldivians are to rediscover their Buddist identity? By embrasing Buddism amass? By including Buddist teaching and Buddist cultue in the national curriculum? By converting all the mosques - a sign of Arabisation ??- into Buddist temples? By encouraging all the sheikhs or mullas to more enlightened Buddist monks? By embracing celibacy? Are these the constitutive elements of the new Maldives identity?

  7. @fascinated

    "I spent hours reading about ‘mysticism in the Maldives’ and trying to experience the real spirituality of the Dhivehin"

    The grass is always greener on the OTHER side.

    I wish I could learn more about Western UFO's. Green skinned aliens with large ears!

    Superstition takes the shape of prevalent culture anywhere.

  8. Culture is a living entity; it changes and evolves over time. We can't hark back to the Buddhist era or even the Sun worshipers of an even older generation.

    What's important is to acknowledge our past, but not to think that we somehow made a 'mistake' in embracing different ideas.

    In another 1000 years, who knows what we will be? Islam may be replaced by something else...

  9. Well written article, Yameen Rasheed.

    "It would hardly matter to most Maldivians that the plaque outside the gate to the newest monument to Dhivehi culture reads, in bright red letters, ‘China Aid’."

    I haven't seen it yet. But this sounds disgusting. Can't the authorities do anything about it? Do we have to have "China - Aid" written on it?

    @ fascinated

    Your comment here is interesting.
    Too bad you spent hours reading about mysticism. I am sure you would have enjoyed more had you visited the islands and seen what life for an average Maldivian is like.

  10. @yameen

    Very well written article, i think more than disowning the the rich History its more to do with apathy that follows the lack of ones own region culture and the origins one self. Perhaps when people learn more they would come to appreciate it more.

    Mysticism is still a big part of Maldivian life, a lot of exorcism in the old fashion do take place even today. I must confess, in turn i am quite fascinated about the old Keltic beliefs in Britannia, the 98 movie Merlin shows how the old beliefs died in Britannia very well. Even fantasy world created by JRR Tolkien has its roots in the old culture and beliefs, doesn't it.

  11. Average Maldivian is trying to feed the family and educate the young against tremendous odds. Affluent few do not care about Maldives at all and send their kids abroad and target their future outside Maldives. They themselves are only in Maldives only to rob the poor and fund for their families overseas. So who will look after the heritage?

  12. Good article. As a student of history and, recently, of Maldivian history, I would like to add a point of contention I have harbored for ages.

    That being, the willful or otherwise, omission of the names of texts which might provide our people with an illumination of their past and sense of pride in the same.

    Politicians, chroniclers and so-called historians (most of them not all) tend to co-opt others' historical research as their own enlightened views and never remember to mention the sources they cite. If the library at the NCLHR was opened to the general public, then I beleive that a domino effect will take place.

    For example, there is a loose collection of texts compiled by a foreign individual (whose nationality I cannot remember) at the NCLHR which includes descriptions of the Maldives in both pre- and post-Christian eras. How many of us know that we were a part of the global economy through our possession of the Mauritian Isles and the sale of Thaavahkaarhi collected from those shores in ages long past. Not to mention our monopoly of the cowrie trade.

    The MMA and local company, Cyprea, should be applauded for their use of the Cyprea Moneta in their symbols, one of the proudest signs of our earlier importance in the world. I would also recommend that young students be directed towards Francois Pyrard's autobiographical account of the time he spent in the Maldives of the 17th Century.

    AND - we should remind our students not to judge past events that took place in our country with the same weights and scales of our current value system. We are an ancient people, and there is much evidence to point towards the relative age of our country. BUT shall we also not arrive at that conclusion solely based on the recounting of clan lineages and assorted hearsay of so-called "historians" and politicians on television? Although I must admit that clan lineages figure a lot in the political history of our nation which has always been ruled by feuding tribes.

    I disagree with Yamin, that the Maldivian people, en masse, broke with their past. They are "victims" of globalization and the breakdown of boundaries as are communities in regions and nations elsewhere. Shall we not lament this "ignorance" but work towards the publication and publicization of knowledge which would gradually dispell myths and rumors and give our history its rightful place in our society?

  13. There is evidence to suggest that it was the ruling King at the time, who was the Rannamaari, the mysterious Sea Demon, who claimed a virgin girl every month. "Rannamaari" is a red-herring used to instill fear among the unsuspecting innocent victims of the Maldivians and a decoy used to divert the attention of the public so that the carnal desires of the lustrous King could be satisfied without having to worry about any "peeping Toms"!

    Such fear-mongering was rife in Male' at the turn of the 20th Century as well. Apparently, there were roads and narrow alleys in Male'at the time, that were made "out of bounds" for the general public after sunset. "Kaalhu Guirey Magu" and "Hakuraa Goalhi" were some of thee roads labeled as unsafe for homo-sapiens to frequent, as those places were supposed to have been possessed by the homo-spiritus. Guess who those homo-spiritus were?

  14. Hamza you are a Maldivian-history student? I know someone who'd definitely like to get in contact with you, a social anthropologist who's going to focus her research in the Maldives... is there any way she could get in touch with you?

  15. @Hassan, that is intriguing... I definitely could believe it... so evidently there are aspects of tradition (a King killing virgins and blaming it on a sea devil) which I am glad Islam has liberated Maldivians from. My question is, should the positive aspects of Maldivian cultural tradition which are not deemed to be Haram in an Orthodox Islamic sense, be abandoned.

    I vaguely remember being told that in the 1960's, or seventies, Maldivians used to meat and play some chant (Bodu Beru and singing or???)to keep Rannamarri out at sea or some such thing. I understand it was quite a festive event, it brought the community together and was very positive? It was apparently banned by Maumoon for being un-Islamic?

    I also visited the museum in Male' and saw the remnants of the Buddha's which Yameen refers to. Whilst every branch of Buddhism shares what Buddhists call the four noble truth (Dhukkha, Samsara, Thana and Nirvana or in Pali Nibbana) the actual practices of Buddhist ppl and the variation in beliefs were totally different everywhere (amongst the laity). Yet, what is generally thought of as being Buddhist, is non-violence and peace, (Karuna or compassion which in Dhivehi means tears so I heard?) these are qualities which I am told are also, or were also deeply Maldivian. For example, when Ibn Batutta suggested amputating the hand for a theft, some in the Royal court fainted as Maldivian Islam had always been very non-violent and compassionate due to the Buddhist routes? So, what I have learnt from Yameen's important letter, is that, there are very important aspects of Maldiviuan culture which are very beautiful and precious which should not be lost to a violent form of Islam (which is not really Islam as I understand it...)

    Will Maldivians feel happy to lose everything which is not Arabic in the culture, the way us English lost everything which was not Graeco-Roman-Judean (Christian civillisation) in our culture? Or will Maldivians be starved to understand who they are the way us English are starved to know who we are?

    Anyway, I maybe totally wrong, I mean, maybe it is stupid an idealistic to imagine that anything from that past was anything but savage and barbaric and cruel???

    @Sultan of Swing... Yes, apparently Tolkien dug up all old ancient cultural stuff from Scandinavians and the Celts where the Brits came from and thats where all those fantsatic ideas originated, they were ancient folklore creatures etc...

    Tolkien was a British Catholic (as opposed to the mainstream British Protestant). As you may know, the Catholics still left a few remnants of the old culture in Catholic countries such as Ireland (hence you get leprachauns etc... the superstition themes in Stoker's Dracula were Irish even though the name Dracul was Romanian) behind. The same way early Maldivian Islam left a few elements of Maldivian culture behind.

    Tolkein, believeing Protestant fundamentalism (England converted to Protestanism as you no doubt know in the 1600's or seventeen hundreds) had uprooted the last remnants of true English culture, and wanted to rstore that for culture starved Brits and their descendants.

    Will the Maldives one day need its own Tolkein to recover the the true Maldivian identity, and what would the cost of that loss be in terms of depression caused by a loss of self and culture?

    These are just questions, I may be totally wrong?

  16. the point is, if you want answers to these questions, you MUST LOOK into your past and discover the truth for yourself...

  17. @fascinated
    Apparently, indulging in virgin girls was a practice of ancient Buddhism! The purported reason was to gain a "spiritual elevation". President Premadasa of Sri Lanka was thought to have induldged in this unholy practice, along with the infamous spiritual guru Osho!

  18. Thanks to Yameen for the effort trying to point out something is wrong but it doesn't seem like he has got an idea of what is culture or its preservation mean in an objective sense. Shallow rumbling, in my view.

    The first and best know definition of culture is Sir Edward Tylor's (1897) “Culture, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

    IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH PRESERVING & ERECTING PAST!! The study and recording of past cultures is a different concept known as in different sense know as anthropology.

    The present Maldives culture represents that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by Maldivians as members of Maldives society; past becoming rich adapting with present and then involving into future. Cultural identity!

    Here is what happened in planet earth for example; 1. Lose thought ancient superstitious practices 2. Organized religion 3.Science and knowledge improving both of the past characters in human life to create the present culture.

    What is so different happening in the Maldives islands?

  19. By the way; I forgot to tell you, we usually forget this; every past culture was always built on the distortion and a gradual eradication of another past culture.

  20. @Hassan, well then I am glad elemnts of Buddhism had been abandoned...


    I guess you know that the etymological route of the word culture is 'cultivate', it refers to that which humans have cultivated within areas such as, to quoute your quote, "...knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

    The view that a culture improves or evolves is a modernist fallacy, I believe. Just as something can be "cultivated,' so it can be destroyed, not always to be replaced by something better.

    I believe that not all cultures have always improved by the influence of other cultures. A people do enrich their culture by drawing on and from, amd remembering the past. For example, the middle ages in Europe was a far darker, less enlightened, more barbaric and painful time than the Roman Empire it replaced. By digging into ancient pre-Christian Greek philosophy which for a long time the church forbade, the philosophies of epistomology (science and reason) re-emerged and Europe was able to come out of the darkness.

    So, I wonder, if Yameen was to uncover ancient Dhivehi philosophy and perhaps even the Buddhist teachings (the philosophical ones about enlightenement, non-violence and eradication of tanha or greed) if the Maldivian people were not able to draw some much needed wisdom from that. It seems at the moment the Government seems to be in a struggle against greed and against the growth of a militant stream of Islam... I wonder of elements of the past could help redefine and inspire Maldivians to want to embrace a non-greedy, non-violent identity?

    As I mentioned, just a thought. It would be very nice to hear back from you regarding this.

  21. We have a budhist past. We have been muslims since 800years back. We have embraced the religion to such an extent the whole nation became muslim. It became a people that believes the same values. That created harmony. Then came western cultures which has and is still taking away that oneness amongst us.. Ask a few random 40+ people on the street from different corners of the country. They have the same belief. And they all hate the new cultures that have invaded our islands.

  22. @fascinated
    "I wonder of elements of the past could help redefine and inspire Maldivians to want to EMBRACE a non-greedy, non-violent identity?"

    There you go! I was waiting for your true COLOURS!

    We did embrace what we had to embrace about 800 years back!

    Now since you are so fond of sending Maldives back to the past why don't you on the contrary go way back to YOUR past. Back to a flagellating germ in YOUR old man's nut case! The germ that you were should have been misrouted and emptied to a loo via YOUR old man's bladder instead!

    Shame on you! We know how the mind of an old retired fart like you works. In Dhivehi it's called "skin spreading"

    Don't you have better things to be fascinated about? Like Santa Claus and aliens?

    Or else go to Thailand and find a young boy!

  23. @heck, Thankyou, young man, I always had been fond of the particularly colurful and vivid way the quaint folk from your islands used insults, allways good for a chuckle, barrel of laughs youg friend... Oh, the young...God If i Was younger and had the energy I'd laugh myself silly...


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