“Dhon Hiyala aai Alifulhu” – Hulhevi Media explores the truth behind the historical love ballad

Maldivian independent film producers Hulhevi Media have launched a documentary researching the realities behind the traditional romantic epic ‘Buruni Ballad’ from which the classic folk tale ‘Dhon Hiyala aai Alifulhu’ originated.

Shaarif ‘Shaari’ Ali – editor of the documentary – explained that the film is only one component of a larger project – the full extent of which includes the production of the first digital recording of the original ballad and a transcription released in the form of a book.

“Ballads itself are becoming rare and perhaps even extinct today. The ballad involves culture, literature, and perhaps even history. True preservation would be if we preserve it in its original form, and then allow room for further exploration. This is what we have aimed to accomplish through this project,” he said.

The project is funded by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation and is estimated to be worth US$25,000.

The ‘Buruni Ballad’ is a six hour oral history which has never before been transcribed. The story is generally considered to be the Maldivian version of Romeo and Juliet, revolving around tales of romance, black magic, jealousy, and revenge.

In the ballad, the heroine Dhon Hiyala and her lower class lover Alifulhu are driven to commit suicide by jumping onto a giant, poisonous jellyfish after she rejects the advances from the king.

Visiting the past?

The Hulhevi media documentary features the cast travelling to the islands in which the story is based, exploring current day traces of the tale, and gaining the locals’ perspective on the reality of the ballad.

The team of five – Director Ahmed Shafeeu ‘Narcu’, Cinematographer Ibrahim Yasir, Editor Shaari, and cast members Abulho and Mona – travelled to six islands in a bid to explore the roots of the story.

The film begins with a trip to Maroshi in Shaviyani atoll – where the story itself starts, before moving onto Lhaimagu, where the character ‘Fageerukoe’ is said to have originated. The cast then goes to Funadhoo, home to one of the few people in the country who still knows the verses to the ballad.

The team then goes to the home islands of the lead characters Alifulhu and Dhon Hiyala – Hulhudheli and Buruni, respectively.

The film concludes with a trip to Kandoodhoo – where locals show a grave site said to hold the remains of Dhon Hiyala which washed up on its shores.

Noting the interwoven ideas of reality and fiction in the film, Shaari opined that the matter is best left as it is.

“I think we must cherish the mystery in it. It has remained popular for so long precisely because of the mystery surrounding it,” he suggested.

“While some are deeply convinced that the ballad stems from real incidents, others feel it is pure brilliant fiction. People are presently able to make what they will of the story. Let’s not narrow down the room for debate, or take away the magic,” he said.

Further exploration

His colleague Yasir feels that the documentary has piqued people’s curiosity, which may lead to more interest in culture and folklore.

“With this film, we have definitely created curiosity. There may be people who want to explore the truth behind this ballad more in depth. But, as we learned when speaking to the people from the relevant islands, the locals want to protect those places. I believe it would be best if they are preserved as cultural or historical sites by the state.”

The team stated that in future, the documentary may be available for viewing on their YouTube channel, while the book and audio CD will be made available for purchase.

Hulhevi Media became interested in the project as, despite the story ‘Dhon Hiyala ai Alifulhu’ being widely known, few people realise it originated from the epic Buruni Ballad.

Shaari further expressed interest in exploring other historical tales in the Maldives, beginning with the story of Bodu Thakurufaanu – a celebrated local independence hero.

Yasir, meanwhile, spoke of the space for documentaries in the Maldives, expressing concern about the lack of public interest in such film productions.

They expressed disappointment that documentaries remain in the background of Maldivian cinematography, to the extent that  there currently does not even exist a category for such productions in the local film awards.

“We aim to cover untold stories and to celebrate unsung heroes. We try to have a human interest element in every one of our productions. Our target is for every production of ours to result in producing a benefit for someone,” Shaari stated.

In addition to documentaries, Hulhevi media also produces videos to assist fund raising events by non profit organisations, public service videos, corporate profiles and commercials.


Historical ‘Fan’diyaaru’ Mosque demolished

A historical mosque in Male’- aged at least 268 years old – has been demolished in order to build a new one on the same site.

‘Fandiyaaru Miskiy’ (Judge’s Mosque) was built by Al Qadi Muhammad Muhibbuddin Fan’diyaaru Kaleyfaanu – who was appointed as Chief Justice in 1747- and was subsequently named after him.

REVIVE, a local NGO working to preserve national history and culture, has condemned the demolition, and expressed remorse over the historical loss.

Describing the demolition as unlawful, the organisation called on the Maldives Police Service, Prosecutor General’s Office, and other authorities to investigate and take action.

REVIVE has also called on the People’s Majlis to pass a national heritage bill as soon as possible.

“The government have an obligation to protect such historical buildings under the 27/79 Act on Historical Places and Things and the UNESCO Convention Concerning The Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage,” a REVIVE press release stated.

The organisation also called on relevant authorities to ensure that the digging of the site should be done under the supervision of the Department of Heritage, as historical relics are often found under such sites.

Male’ city council member Ibrahim Shuja said that the mosque was demolished to build a modern four-storey mosque ‘ for the benefit of the people’.

“A generous businessman has offered to build a new mosque there, they have been planning this for three years. It was discussed with the [city] council and the Islamic Ministry before we approved it. We are not doing anything illegal here. It is a mosque we are building, not a carnival. We will go on with the project as planned,” Shuja said.

He also said there was “not that much of history”, that the corpses buried there would be removed, and that the place would be cleaned for building the new mosque.

“If anyone wants to observe, they are welcome. And if anyone wants the wooden structure of the ceiling, they can take it,” he said.

Director of the Department of Heritage Ali Waheed confirmed that the department was not informed about the demolition of the mosque. He noted that while there is no heritage law requiring such approval, considering the department is mandated with taking care of such sites, the usual practice is to consult with it before such activity.

“Even if it is to place a telecommunication antenna near a historical site, we are consulted usually. But we haven’t been officially informed about Fandiyaaru Miskiy,” Waheed said.

Ali Waheed noted that the department has a number of challenges in taking care of historical sites around the country, including the fact that such places are under the jurisdiction of Island Councils with budget deficiencies.

“We have earlier paid people from islands to maintain such places, but since we can no longer pay for the maintenance, those places haven’t been maintained for the past four years. And not all councils are cooperative in maintaining such places,” Waheed said.

Mohamed Shatir, Historian and Director General of the National Archives also expressed concern over the demolition.

“Personally, I feel that it shouldn’t have been demolished. If there was a need to expand the mosque, I think it could have been done while retaining the original old mosque. Perhaps it is not exactly unlawful as there is no proper heritage act in place, but it is definitely not right,” Shathir said.

According to REVIVE, a seven foot tombstone within the mosque premises was also demolished in early 2000s, while the greater cemetery was dismantled in 1970 to provide housing plots.

REVIVE president Ahmed Naufal said that other historical sites such as Koagannu Cemetery in Addu City – one of the oldest in the country- and the cemetery of the old Friday mosque in Male’ have also been vandalised.

“In most islands such places are abandoned and ignored. Not just by the authorities but also members of the public don’t seem to care about such places,” he said.

“We are working on a National Heritage Bill currently. But I really don’t think laws alone will get results. The Maldives National Archives Act was passed in 2011, and they still have only a few staff and no office,” he said.

Referring to the religious extremists’ destruction of historical Buddhist relics at the Maldives National Museum in 2012, Naufal said that even after the incident the security of the museum is poor.

“These are national treasures. They represent our history and our culture. They should be properly protected, perhaps by our national security forces. A lone security guard is not enough, especially considering the place was attacked recently,” said Naufal.


Comment: Maldivian history a mockery of past and present

Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

In an isolated country such as ours, with a culture that goes back thousands of years, history has become twisted beyond all recognition and ended up as an unnavigable tangle of myths and falsehoods. And it appears we are not done yet.

An unreliable history

The story goes that in the mid-16th century, the Maldives was dominated for a period of 15 years by the Portuguese who – for reasons lost to history – attempted to forcibly pour alcohol down pious Maldivian throats.

Three brothers from the island of Utheemu – Mohamed, Ali and Hasan Thakurufaanu – then intervened heroically, in a tale of cunning and tact, to overthrow the infidel Portuguese, and became heroes of Islam who saved our pious nation from the alcoholic, Christian invaders.

This grand, sanitised version of the story, where an Islamic hero defends the faith of the Maldivians from evil infidels would prove very useful for later rulers of the country, like Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who constantly stoked fears of evil Christian missionaries trying to take over the Maldivians precious Islamic faith – a tactic that persists to this day. In 2009, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found a paranoid Maldives to be among the world’s Top Ten most religiously intolerant nations.

Over time, it became apparent that it was not just foreign invaders that threatened to take away our Islamic faith, but our own dead forefathers whose entire rich Buddhist culture was swept under the carpet so tidily that to this day, it cannot be properly acknowledged – much less celebrated.

As much as we tried to erase it from memory, a vexatious history kept throwing at us evidence of a rich pre-Islamic cultural past in the form of statues, Buddhist stupas and ancient coral stone engravings uncovered from all parts of the country that became impossible to entirely ignore.

Thus, a legend came into existence; a fantastical story of a sea-demon, the Rannamaari, who came from the oceanic depths and had to be appeased by a virgin sacrifice every month. Then, Abul Barakat, a Berber scholar from Morocco arrived in the country in the early 12th century and heard of the story from a grieving family.

When it was time for the next girl to be sacrificed, Abul Barakat volunteered to step in. He stood vigil throughout the night, reciting from the Qur’an at the idol-house where the virgins were left every month to be ravished and killed. That night, the sea-demon rose from the depths and drew close, only to plunge again beneath the waves upon hearing the holy recitation which continued till dawn. In the morning, the islanders rejoiced, and upon hearing this, the King was pleased and instantly converted to Islam – willingly followed by the entire population of the country who discarded their idols and got enlightened overnight.

This happy outcome continues to be the version of history taught in schools today, although local historians have since discovered copper plate inscriptions from the 12th Century that describes a much more blood-soaked process of conversion – with Buddhist priests being summoned to Male’ and beheaded. Many terrified islanders buried their beautiful coral stone idols in the sand, covered with palm leaves, to protect it from the King’s men.

The idols survived the king’s men. But they could not survive the religious paranoia of their descendants, who are left with a toxic relationship with reality, having been brought up on a diet of distorted history.

In December 2011, this writer wrote a piece mentioning the statue of Gautama Buddha recovered from the island of Thoddoo in 1959, that was decapitated and soon afterwards had its body smashed to bits by paranoid Islanders, leaving behind only its serenely smiling head.

Less than two months after the piece was published, Islamic radicals vandalised the National Museum, and completed the job by destroying the head in a fervour to protect their Islamic faith from this perceived historical threat.

An embellished past

As far as stories go, the tale of the demon Rannamaari is only slightly more embellished a truth than the tale of a model Islamic hero overthrowing the Portuguese who were trying to force alcohol down our throats.

Maldives chronicler Abdul Majid points out that Buraara Koi, an ancient narrator of history, described Mohamed Thakurufaanu as “an adulterer, a necromancer, a cheat and someone who enjoyed trapping birds into his extended adolescence” – characteristics unworthy of an Islamic hero.

To set right this historical glitch, Hussain Salahuddin, a conservative twentieth century chief justice and a former royal commissioner of history, “openly purged the traditional versions of ‘objectionable’ events and accounts and inserted politically correct material in their place – some of it fabricated by his own admission”.

While no authoritative version of our history could survive our endless assault on facts, the end result of both these tales – the Rannamaari and the Portuguese invasion – is very politically convenient. In both cases, the tale inextricably weds our national identity with Islam in a grand, exaggerated and sanitised recalling of past events, while simultaneously assigning our history to be as much as an enemy of our identity as any foreign invader.

Recently deposed President Nasheed, a self-proclaimed history buff, marked the Independence day by narrating tales of Maldivian history on the radio. He added another spin on this already convoluted story by saying that there isn’t evidence that Islam was ever under threat by the Portuguese – asserting that Maldivians were simply more pious than that.

Nevertheless, the Portuguese, whose archives interestingly seem to record no evidence of direct rule of the Crown over the Maldives, ended up as being yet another incarnation of the Rannamaari;  another woven yarn about a demon that had to be defeated to demonstrate the valour of Islam that finds resonance to this day.

For instance, Umar Naseer – one of the primary actors in the overthrow of the elected government last year – has described his actions as being equivalent of the overthrow of the infidel Portuguese. In the Maldives, anything can become a Rannamaari. Even an elected government.

As a population, we revel in collective myths.

Muddying up the present

President Nasheed is also fond of pointing out the cyclicality of history – and how we are a nation with a long history of subterfuge, conspiracy and coup d’etats.

After all, the first Maldivian republic collapsed in 1954 after President Mohamed Amin Didi was deposed in a coup engineered by his Vice President Ibrahim Mohamed Didi, who in turn was deposed and exiled to make way for the restoration of the monarchy.

Yet, the police and military backed coup in 2012 that installed Waheed in power seemingly came out of the blue. For a nation as fearful and hostile to its own past, learning from history is out of the question and the cyclic nature of events becomes inevitable.

And thus, all the pieces fell into place on Friday night, on the occasion of the country’s Independence day, for a farce so gigantic that one could almost hear the giant wheel of history grind in motion.

On that night, Mohamed Waheed, installed in power in last year’s coup d’etat, conferred upon the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the NGIV (Nishan Ghaazeege ‘Izzatheri Veriya, the Most Distinguished Order of Ghazi) – the highest civilian honour recognized by the Maldivian state.

The location chosen for this travesty could not have been more appropriate. It was the very museum hall where the priceless, exquisitely carved coral stone remnants of our Buddhist history were reduced to dust last February as the coup was unfolding. Disregarding expert advice, the surviving artifacts in the museum were moved aside to make way for this momentous sham. Outside, the muscular SO riot police had forcibly shut down the neighbouring Art Gallery and held back protesters.

The coral stone dust of our forgotten past still lingered in the air when Waheed proceeded to essentially give a giant one finger salute to two generations of Maldivians – including, as many point out, his own mother and brothers – who have suffered under the yoke of Gayoom’s tyranny.

As far as this writer is concerned, the title bestowed upon Gayoom is about as legitimate as regime that conferred it upon him – which is to say, not at all.

Nasir spins in his grave

Another President – President Ibrahim Nasir – was conferred the same honour by the Sultan of the time.  However, President Nasir – who introduced modern English medium curriculum, and radio and television and civil aviation and tourism and mechanized fishing boats that breathed life into, and continues to prop up, the Maldivian economy in the decades ever since – was stripped of his kilege and other titles by his successor, the Gayoom regime.

Much like former idols, spirits and sea goddesses were demonised overnight to fit a new historical narrative, former President Nasir was vilified, exiled to Singapore and sentenced in absentia in the early days of the Gayoom regime. Indecent cartoons and songs mocking him were played by the Gayoom regime on the very government radio stations that Nasir introduced.

Today, Nasir’s reputation lies impossibly tangled. On one hand, he is praised as the hero of our national independence and architect of the modern Maldives who was harsh on corruption. On the other hand, he is criticised as a heavy handed autocrat who allegedly stole from the public coffers. He lived out his final years in ignominy and disrepute but, having died just after the fall of the Gayoom regime, was given a hero’s burial in Male’ alongside his royal ancestors.

Whether Nasir was a hero or a villain, we can no longer rely on our muddled history books to tell. Gayoom’s attempt at manipulating history and his muddying his predecessor’s legacy was thus an unqualified success.

And last Friday, Waheed stacked yet another card on the house of cards that we call our nation’s history; another attempt to muddy up the waters, another perversion of history itself in a bid to whitewash Gayoom’s indefensible legacy.

To quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of History, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”.

In a country where gods have morphed into demons, and falsehoods have become the basis of our faith, and myths explain our origins, and history itself is a giant farce – it is clear that Gayoom intends to be remembered not as the vain leader of a corrupt, nepotistic, iron-fisted regime who never faced justice for his decades long crimes – but as someone who can now point to his shiny new medal and count himself among the highest, most distinguished and honourable among our citizens.

And it looks like he just might get away with it, and history will be none the wiser.

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]


“No idea” why criminal court has taken so long to process museum vandalism case: PG’s Office

The Prosecutor General’s (PG) Office has revealed it has “no idea” as to why two individuals charged with vandalising the national museum last year have yet to be brought to justice.

The two men, accused of damaging archaeological evidence of Maldives’ pre-Islamic Civilisation in the national museum in Male’ on February 7, 2012, failed to attend their trial hearing at Criminal Court scheduled for today (February 25).

A media official from the PG’s Office told Minivan News that the two suspects had originally been charged between September and October last year, but were yet to face trial in court.

Asked as to why the Criminal Court had taken so long to process the case, the media official said “we have no idea”.

The official was then asked if the PG’s Office had made any attempt to question the court over the delayed trial, to which he responded: “No, we haven’t questioned the court, we have taken no action yet.”

Last month private broadcaster Raajje TV aired leaked security camera footage showing a group of men vandalising around 35 exhibits after they stormed the museum amid the political chaos of February 7 last year.

Police in May 2012 forwarded cases against four suspects to the PG’s office, however the case was initially returned to police for further clarification.

Speaking to Minivan News, Police Superintendent Abdulla Nawaz said the case was then sent to the PG’s Office on July 8, 2012.

Local media reported that two men – Mohamed Nishan of M. Haadhoo and Yousuf Rilwan of G. Adimagu – were due to attend a trial hearing at 10:00am this morning over charges relating to the case.

However, a Judiciary Media Unit official said the hearing was cancelled after the two defendants did not receive their summoning chit to the Criminal Court.

“The chit was sent by the court to the homes of the defendants, but they did not receive it. So now the court will have to send a new summoning chit for a new trial hearing,” the official added.

Minivan News contacted the Criminal Court Spokesperson who, when asked for information regarding the case, gave an unclear response. When Minivan News asked for clarification, the spokesperson hung up.

Minivan News then attempted to contact the spokesperson, but he was not responding to calls at time of press.

“99 percent of Maldives’ pre-Islamic history destroyed”

According to museum director Ali Waheed, the vandals destroyed “99 percent” of the evidence of the Maldives’ pre-Islamic history prior to the 12th century, including a 1.5-foot-wide representation of the Buddha’s head – one of the most historically significant pieces at the museum.

An official at the museum told Minivan News following the incident that the group “deliberately targeted the Buddhist relics and ruins of monasteries exhibited in the pre-Islamic collection, destroying most items beyond repair.”

“This is not like a glass we use at home that can be replaced by buying a new one from a shop. These are originals from our ancestors’ time. These cannot be replaced ever again,” the official said.

In September 2012, the United States government donated US$ 20,000 (MVR 308,400) to help restore and repair the damaged artifacts, as part of an effort to preserve Maldivian cultural heritage.