Comment: The inappropriate history of early Maldives

Maldives National Museum, a multi-million dollar gift from the Chinese government, had only just been opened in 2010 when a local visitor protested loudly to staff that its Buddhist era sculpture was a modern forgery. A few days before, this writer had difficulty finding a Maldivian official willing to be photographed in a museum storage room full of Buddhist/Hindu sculpture awaiting installation in the exhibition hall.

Maldivians are not alone in finding their history uncomfortable. Take for example the current efforts in some states of the USA to suppress and distort history textbooks concerning American slavery and the Civil War, or the refusal by many European Australians to accept the reality of the attempted genocide of the Aboriginal people. In the UK, the crucial story of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War has been sidelined, and the importance of slavery for the British empire and its aristocratic investors has only recently been acknowledged.

Responsibility for local ignorance of Maldives’ history lies in part with the country’s writers.  Indigenous historians such as Hassan Maniku and Naseema Mohamed have written detailed English accounts of Buddhist era Maldives based on historical records and archaeological research, but little of their work has been translated into Dhivehi. Excellent books about the origins of Maldivian culture by Clarence Maloney and Xavier Romero-Frias cannot be purchased in Maldives, and have not been translated for Dhivehi readers.

Only the British colonial administrator and archaeologist H. C. P. Bell has been given official recognition. This was due to Bell’s collaboration and friendship with Atirige Ibrahim Didi. He and his descendants and relatives basically ruled Maldives until the middle of the 20th century.

Bell’s research in 1922 verified the Buddhist nature of many Maldivian ruins, but formal recognition of his findings did not occur until the 1980s as part of a government effort to cultivate support among Ibrahim Didi’s descendants, who remain an important and respected part of the modern Male’ elite.

Recognition of Bell’s work was not accompanied by digestion of his findings and, for many Maldivians, the pre-Islamic past remains as mysterious as it was in 1922. It is still possible to read contemporary articles that claim Maldivian history is ‘lost in the mists of time’ – a hollow phrase since those mists began to clear ninety years ago.

The six hundred year period before the official Islamic conversion of 1153 seems to have been a prosperous period, and it is likely the country experienced strong population growth. Despite the collapse of the Roman empire, the economic sun was still shining in the Indian Ocean. Sea trade between the Middle East and China boomed, and Persian and Arab navigators were not afraid to sail the mid-ocean routes to Indonesia and China through Maldives.

The recent discovery of what has become known as the Tang treasure ship in Indonesia finally silenced historians who claimed there was no real evidence of these trade routes. The shipwreck also adds weight to written records that traders utilised Maldivian island ports and channels between the atolls.

Arab navigator Ahamad Ibn Majid, writing in 1490, traced the sources of his Indian Ocean sailing knowledge to the South Indian Chettiar navigators who preceded the Persians and Arabs. Arab navigators gave sailing directions to many ports in Maldives, as far south as Huvadhu atoll, Fua Mulak and Addu. Since the Pole Star was once higher off the northern horizon than it is now, early Indian Ocean navigators could find latitudes for these atolls without difficulty.

Modern research supports those few historians who have suggested that Indian Ocean trading extended back at least to the era of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamian civilisations. Cloves have been found inside a kitchen pottery jar at the home of Puzurum, a land-agent living in Syria on the Euphrates river around 1721 BC. This spice must have come from Indonesia, or more exactly, from five tiny islands off the west coast of Halmahera.

Charles and Frances Pearce, in their book Oceanic Migration published in 2010, assert that spice traders based on islands between the ancient land masses of Sunda (Asia-western Indonesia) and Sahul (New Guinea-Australia) have been crossing the open sea for at least 40,000 years. For much of that time, scientific research indicates the oceans were lower, the currents stronger and the sea surface temperature up to 5 degrees celsius higher.

Over the last ten years, according to the Pearces, ‘genetic research has established… Halmahera as the ancient Polynesian homeland.’ They argue that Spice Island traders following ‘three of the four major fast warm currents flowing out of what oceanographers call the West Pacific Warm Pool were able to traverse vast ocean distances. In two periods, separated by a global cold period between 1000 BC and 400 BC, they followed these currents west to Madagascar and East Africa, north to Japan, Hawaii and America and south to New Zealand.’

The Pearces’ thesis has similarities to Thor Heyerdahl’s claims that ancient seafarers crossed the globe, with the important difference that they were based in Indonesia rather than the Americas. This has interesting implications for the Maldives, and suggests that people from Indonesia were visiting the atolls, and perhaps living here, well before its settlement from the subcontinent.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


35 thoughts on “Comment: The inappropriate history of early Maldives”

  1. Thanks Mr. Oshea

    On the one hand foreigners like you advocate that the Maldives possess an old history, civilization, culture and a language that is worth preserving.

    On the other hand another groups foreign advisors (and some Maldivians), think the country needs to be remade with modern systems.

    To complicate further, there is a 3rd group of people, who think Maldivies should be like medieval Arabia.

    So how do you reconcile these 3 versions of nationhood?

  2. Maldives has no inappropriate history. What is inappropriate is people like you, Oshea, who sits somewhere half way across the globe and think you know more about Maldivian history (or anything else for that matter) than most Maldivians do.

    Come down and be with us for a while. Then you will know that the fact that most Maldivians were probably Budhists sometime in our past is something they teach in our schools.

    What inappropriate history are you talking about?

    Just because you "had difficulty finding a Maldivian official willing to be photographed in a museum storage room full of Buddhist/Hindu sculpture awaiting installation in the exhibition hall" that does not mean we are shy to admit that we were Budhists long time ago.

    As a matter of fact, many Maldivians will not feel comfortable taking pictures with statues even in foreign countries. Surely that cannot be because of our "inappropriate history!"

    Its because of our religion, our culture and our upbringing that many would feel uncomfortable taking pictures with statues. Especially if they are nude statues or if they are itmes of worship. That does not mean we think our history is inappropriate.

    Unlike the Brits or the Americans, we do not have a history we are ashamed of. You are on a completely wrong track, Oshea.

  3. @Rooster
    Surely Maldivains are not saints - some wrongs happened in all countries, especially if they have a long history.

    Besides, if Maldives history is so clean and pure, how come there are no eminent personalities, and noble men and women preaching those traditional values. My guess is that the so called 'nobles' are so ashamed to show their faces.

    And if the culture was so good, who destroyed the good values. Some say it is Maumoon but can a single individual destroy everything?

  4. Thor Heyerdahl was right about the sun worshippers too.

    It think your point is some historians not getting due recognition by Maldivian state, History here is archived and what's taught is mediocre, and that's where it ends.

  5. As Mr OShea full well knows, how one sees history is really dependent on their development according to some unspecified human index. We are always distorting history, continuously. Mr OShea doesn't have to look further than his native land, to see the distortion of history and its effects.

    There are a lot of Maldivians who are uncomfortable with aspects of their history. Most folk around the Maldives are not as yet "enlightened" as others would like them to be. It all comes down to a fear of the unknown.

  6. @ Rooster

    Come'on man, don't be such a hard ass. Sure, everyone has a hard time dealing with dark and uncertain pasts. Just look at Germans. The government is often reluctant to mentioning him, because of the civil unrest it might bring about.

    That doesn't mean we are. Well, we are! I mean, most of us are. And the reason for that may differ. But we are Maldivians, who often thin we are one above all.

    We are a proud nation, uncertain of it's past. I doubt even you know a thing about our past Rooster. What I do know is that there are Black and Yellow (skin color) and even brown people living on these islands.

    Now what does that tell you? Maldives must have been been at the intersection of earlier trade routes, as suggested by the author.

  7. @low

    Uncertsin yes, but its mre certain than you think it is, if only you bothered to read and about it.

    And that is the mentality, everything has to be spoon fed.

  8. Maldives was and still is a scam run by a closely knit group of feudal elites. They are a tiny minority, but are a super organised clique who keeps the majority at bay - just like Assad regime in Syria.

    Look at all important government positions. The main gate keepers would always be a members of the clique. As a test, count the number of people in foreign embassies who are related or even from the same house. President Nasheef cannot change the fuedal system - infact he is firmly under their control

  9. Maldivians are unable to think independently because most of us feel uncomfortable with our word for mind- buddhi (ބުއްދި), derived from Buddha. Until we return to our enlightened Buddhist past and become tolerant once again, other than a very few enlightened people, we would always remain zombies of 7th century Arabian mythology.

  10. @ Briko

    I'd suggest you first learn some proper English. Haha~

    Ah but of course. I am certain that we had a buddist or hindu religion.
    Phrases like, "Jai dhuru" which could be a shortened form of Jai Dhuruga in Hindhu and "Ah Dhiyoi" which means praise some BEAST leads me to believe that Maldives had a past that was not Islam.

    We are mostly unaware of those facts, and continue to uphold them (Like the Dancing around a pole, which is an African pagan worship ritual and Bodumas Benun which can be closely related to Chinease New year celebration. Or.. these things might have held a much simpler meaning in the history of Maldives. We cannot say for certain, but we do know that these are things that needs to be dropped in an Islamic culture.

  11. Very good article.

    Looking forward to more.

    It is true that a lot of Maldivians are inexplicably hostile to their own history and identity - and in true Maldivian fashion, they'll deny this in the very same breath that they mock Budhhist rituals or local folklore and how "these things need to be dropped in an Islamic culture".

    This is the reason why Maloney's and Xavier Romero-Frias' books aren't available for purchase, nor available translated in local languages.

    Just recently I was dismayed that even the National Library didn't seem to have a copy of Maloney's book - one of the most important, illuminating books that have been written on the subject.

    I just long for a day when Maldivians can finally rid themselves of this intellectual cowardice, paranoia and painful obstinacy in rejecting their own long history and culture.

  12. Great article. Thanks. But I don't believe Maldivians ashamed of their Buddhist past. And its not a secret either.

  13. Rooster wrote on Thu, 3rd Nov 2011 7:37 PM
    "Its because of our religion, our culture and our upbringing that many would feel uncomfortable taking pictures with statues." It is not OUR religion. It is the religion of 7th century Meccan Arabs imposed upon us. It is not OUR culture. It is the culture of these Arabs imposed on us. Most of us are sleep-walkers, following their hypnotists in Gaza, Mecca and Waziristan. At the rate we are going, someone will soon tell us that terrorism is also part of our culture.

  14. I must say I found this all fascinating...

    Like many lost, post modern identity seeking Westerners, I used to attend Buddhist meetings with Monks who had been trained in Asia. I enjoyed many of their teachings. To escape the Samsara wheel and be free from suffering, so as to enter Nibbaba (nibbaba in Pali or Nirvanba in Sanscrit) one had to win the war against ther own Tanha (greed).

    I agree, with the idea of struggling against yourself, although I disagree that the war (called a Jihad al-Naffs in Sufi Islam) ever actually ends this side of life.

    Also, I disagree with the social consequences of belief in reincarnation.

    Yes there are some aspects of Buddhism we all can learn from but in my opnion we can be glad to be rid of some aspects of Buddhism also.

    By the way, have you ever studied the comparisons between traditional Buddhist spiritual language (Temple Pali or Sanskrit) and Dhivehi?

    You will see, in Dhivehi, many Buddhist words, such as Bodhu, (large, big, most powerful or LITERALLY (As Wine and Pork Lover pointed out) most enlightened), Karuna, many others...

  15. Someone, what does Dhukkha mean in Dhivehi, suffering, tears, ? In Pali, Sanskrit, it means suffering, it is, in Buddhism, the condition of un-enlightened being...

  16. Obviously, there is disagreement amongst Maldivians as to what Maldivian culture should be... Should it be something like a Mystical, Buddhist like culture - called 'Sufism, or should it be something like, 7th century Arabia, or should it be something like England or America, or a fusion of all these?

    What I think is important for peace, however, is to agree to disagree on what Maldivian culture should be, pluralism, and if Buddhist teachings help encourage tolerance, bring them on!

  17. @ not again ...
    @ low

    I don't think you guys have understood what I said.
    I hope O'Shea will.

    This article is part I of a series Minivan News says. I hope I have sent O'Shea rewriting the other parts of this series for he seems to me on a completely wrong track.

  18. @Ben Plewright on Sat, I believe Maldivian have a unique rich culture which is been practiced even today which is associated with Buddhism and Hinduism.
    The Mullahs from Al Azhar and from the rest of Arabian lands have tried to change our cultural heritage but so far their preaching is of vain. I give you one example, just see our matrimonial behavior. A Maldivian woman chooses her spouse freely and they usually have intimate relationship before wedlock. And usually this is approved by the woman’s family. Tel me which Bedouin countries have this sort of culture.

  19. The reason Maldivians deny their buddhist origins is because of the education children receive in muslim countries.........that islam is the best thing that ever happened to them.........that plurality of religion is wrong........that tolerance for other faiths is wrong. Pakistan and Afghanistan also deny their buddhist origins and have destroyed their ancient buddhist monuments......2000 year old Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban at Bamiyan for example. Maldivians are a south asian people with a south asian culture........apart from islam you have nothing in common with the arabs...........OK?

  20. Michael OShea's title itself is inappropriate because history is just a story and there are many ways of looking at history.

    What passes for history in the Maldives is really mythology and folklore. The science of history is unknown, so far, in the Maldives.

    You give the names of two Maldivians as great historians. One is Koli Hassan Maniku, and the other is Naseema Mohammed. They are both my contemporaries. Hassan Maniku did not even finish his schooling, let alone go to university. Naseema was just a qualified nurse from Vellore in India.

    You mention a museum which I have not seen, because I have not visited Maldives as recently as 2010. But I saw a museum of Maldivian history, in Male, in the mid-1980s. That was extremely poor and disgraceful.

    Prime Minister and President Mohamed Amin posed as a great historian of Maldives, but he was no historian at all.

    I was in Sosun Villa, in Colombo, throughout the 1950s, and no Maldivian history was taught to us. We were supposed to have been trained as future Maldivian leaders.

    Even our leaders do not know Maldivian history.

    Maumoon Abdul Gayoom claimed to be a mini or neo- Mohammed Ameen. Like Ameen, Gayoom pretended to be a historian. But quite unhistorically, he did not acknowledge that Ibrahim Nasir ruled Maldives, for 21 years, just before he came to power, and Nasir loved his country just like Gayoom did.

    Gayoom also worked to even erase the name of Nasir from Maldivian national memory.

    This, Gayoom was unable to do, and he lost his power, the way he did, because he did have a sense of history.

    The current ruler of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, does not know history either, and that is a great pity indeed.

    USA claims to be the greatest nation, ever, on earth. Its rulers, including Obama, are always lecturing others on how to behave. According to US rulers, USA is always right and others always wrong.

    By working against Palestinian people's national aspirations, US rulers are themselves showing an ignorance of historical events and forces.

    So, Maldives is not alone in needing to read and learn lessons from history.

  21. FYI some Buddhist terms we use
    Aditya Hrudaya Mantra = aaditha
    Soma, Somvarm= homa
    Angaraka (Mars)= angara
    Budhvara= budha
    Brihaspati= burasfathi
    Svarga= suvaruge-heaven

  22. Even Sheikh Fareed in his sermons mislead us towards svarga (a buddhist destination)instead of Jannath!

  23. @ Fahmy
    Could you tell us, Mr Fahmy what credentials a person must have to be called a historian?

  24. here we have foreigners writing on a foreign website on Maldives culture. but I guess, if there are no maldivians doing it, some one has to it and the effort has to be encouraged,

    maldivians do not have the leadership skills to deal with fundamental issues as their culture, politics and economy. most of them spent time looking for some one to blame or a bogeyman like Islamic extremist, or previous regimes, or Israel.. After all, the country can only be as intellectual as the activist who runs it

  25. @ Wine and Pork Lover on Sat, 5th Nov 2011 4:51 AM

    "It is not OUR religion. It is the religion of 7th century Meccan Arabs imposed upon us. It is not OUR culture. It is the culture of these Arabs imposed on us."

    Culture, is not a rigid or fixed thing, Wine and Pork Lover. It is pretty fluid and it evolves just as human life does.

    You may say OUR religion and OUR culture were IMPOSED on us.
    I will say we EMBRACED these.
    For whatever the reason might have been, we ACCEPTED the new religion. We ACCEPTED the new culture.
    Unlike some colonisers who forced their clonial populations into various things, we were not forced to do anything.
    We gleefully ABSORBED what we were offered and life progressed from there.

    I don't know why it is so hard for you to accept that OUR present culture is now OUR culture.

    "Most of us are sleep-walkers, following their hypnotists in Gaza, Mecca and Waziristan."

    I think you can call ALL human beings sleep-walkers who follow their hypnotists. We are all individuals. But we are also born into a society. So the societal influences are something you cannot avoid.

    If you are the sole intelligent being on Mars, for example, then you may be exempted from my calling you a sleep-walker. But as long as we live in a society, we will all be influenced by forces of the society.

    If our hypnotists are not from Gaza, Mecca or Waziristan, they may be from Israel, America or UK. Some choose the former bunch, the others choose the latter as their hypnotists.

    "At the rate we are going, someone will soon tell us that terrorism is also part of our culture."

    Why? Is this an impossible thing? Terrorism, if we are doing it left and right for a period of time, CAN become a part of our culture.

    See what has happened to our youth. Drugs were never heard of when my parents were in school. But now, even little kids at primary schools know what it is. They have known people who are addicted to drugs. I hate to say that it is now a part of our culture. But many will argue with me for saying so.

  26. Rooster, I can see that you have much to learn about your history. Ever heard of how a hundred of our Buddhist monks were brought to Male from Dhambidhoo and given the choice of "convert or die"? As worthy martyrs and heroes of our great nation, they chose to die rather than submit to your Arabian colonialists. Without a doubt, we were colonised by force by your invaders from Arabia.

  27. Ali Putha on Sun, 6th Nov 2011 12:59 AM. Don't be an absolute ignoramus. They are not "Buddhist" terms. They are Sanskrit words corresponding to the days of the week (named after the sun, moon and the planets known to the ancients) and to purgatory. Like Sanskrit, our language is an Indo-European tongue, both of which pre-date Buddhism.

  28. I would just like to say that national myths and academic history are too different things.

    How we define ourselves through myth and folklore does not have to reflect actual documented history.

    This is observed in many sovereign nations existing today. To unite a people and keep them together what is needed is an identity and an aspiration which is backed by bonds that tie us.

    Homogeneity is not always a bad thing especially in the case of a people who have not yet learned to tolerate difference of opinion and attitude.

  29. @ Wine and Pork Lover

    I Hope you are not mixing history with folklore. The Dhamibidhoo story must be at best a fabrication invented only very recently to tarnish our clean image. I have never heard of this story before. Where have you read it from?

  30. Rooster, have a look at the surviving Loamaafaanu copper plates. There aren't many around and they are all relatively well documented and preserved. Call at the national museum and ask the author of this article. I am sure he will be able to direct you to the relevant document.

  31. In the copper-plate grants (so-called lōmāfanu s), the destruction of Buddhist monuments (statues) and
    institutions (monasteries) as well as the killing of Buddhist monks not willing to be converted to the new faith is
    mentioned in extenso ; cf., e.g., the Isdū grant of ca. 1194 A.D. ("L2", translated by Maniku-Wijayawardhana
    1986: 2): "In the third year of his reign His Majesty (the great king Gadanaadheethiya), having destroyed the
    monastery erected previously on Isdhoo by the infidel kings, uprooted the image and destroyed it and having
    brought the ordained priests of the community of monks belonging to this monastery all together to Maale and
    beheaded them."

  32. Another question that occurs to me:

    Why were the ancient Buddhist remains covered in sand instead of destroyed? They seem to have been carefully preserved. Why would any convert do this? Or was this done by the Buddhist islanders to hide their monasteries from the Sultan's officials?

  33. I have been yearning for an article to be written about Maldivian history. The amount of books written on Maldivian history that is not available here must be the most important ones except for Bell.

    When these important books (some of which you have mentioned above) are not in anyway mentioned in the Maldivian education system. This I feel is one of the biggest injustices to Maldivian history. The fact that they have not been translated to Dhivehi is another one.

    Our history and our identity is made to seem as though it is shrouded in mystery, however apparent that it may be.

    @Reesha that is true, the islanders assumed that the conversion was temporary and as you say, carefully preserved the stupas, they had no intention of destroying them.

    Another aspect which Maldivians have been brainwashed to believe for the past 30 years was that Maldives "embraced" Islam "peacefully", why were the monks threatened with beheading by the Sultan? It was just part of a trade deal with an Arab traveler who obviously figured it would be easier to trade and impose Arab hegemony through Islam.

    I just hope all these hidden truths come out into the surface and makes its way into our education system and in DHIVEHI for all to read and hear of.

  34. out of interest jut let people know that 22 percent of Maldivian population is descended from Middle east. Scientifically proven. Arab culture is ours as well like Indic culture is ours too.


Comments are closed.