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.”


Comment: Ages of ice and spice

In his book The Maldive Mystery, Thor Heyerdahl mentions the discovery of neolithic pottery on Male atoll. The shards were sourced to northwest India where they had been manufactured around 2000 BC or earlier, and many assumed that people from the subcontinent carried the original pots to Maldives.

It is more likely any traders visiting Maldives at that time were Indonesians using an ancient network of sea routes emanating from the Indonesian Spice islands and servicing markets in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

After analysing recent research in the diverse fields of ‘oceanography, traditional histories, physiology, genetics, geology and vulcanology, ship hydrodynamics, global climate history and palaeodemography,’ Charles and Frances Pearce in their book Oceanic Migration claim that seafarers from Halmahera island in Indonesia developed trans-oceanic vessels and navigational and horticultural skills during thousands of years of spice trading. This lucrative business led them to harness major sea currents in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and to colonise uninhabited islands. They were the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The Pearces assert that these trader-settlers discovered routes to Japan, Hawaii and the Americas by exploring West Pacific Warm Pool sea currents. Halmahera was directly on the equator in an ancient sea between the Sunda and Sahul continents. When the last Ice Age covered much of the northern hemisphere with massive ice sheets and freezing tundra, this area remained warm and fertile, supporting the most diverse plant and animal life on the planet.

Halmahera was not only a centre for the development of spice trade maritime technology and navigational expertise; it was also a hub for migration and the intercontinental transfer of plants, animals and horticultural knowledge, according to the Pearces. Around 5500 BC, when Sunda and Sahul lost their lowlands in a devastating flood, the new geography created by higher seas provided even more demand and opportunities for Halmaheran skills.

Maldives would have looked very different before the flood. The southern equatorial lagoons, shallower than those in the north, had been exposed for tens of thousands of years. Vegetation would have flourished in these sheltered basins and on the surrounding coral ramparts formed during previous high sea level periods. The rocky walls of Maldives must have been visible far out to sea, and equatorial atolls were excellent environments for the cultivation of large coconuts and other plants useful to the Indonesians and their customers.

Twenty thousand years ago during the peak of the last Ice Age, when sea levels were over 120 metres lower, Sri Lanka and India formed a single landmass and Gujarat extended far out to the west. The Persian Gulf was a fertile valley draining down into open lowlands. Dry land linked Africa and Arabia around a long lake in the deepest part of the Red Sea.

Halmaherans must have discovered the westerly route to Maldives and Chagos while following the southern equatorial current flowing from Indonesia to Africa past Madagascar. The current churns both north and south after hitting the African coast. The northern section splits again, offering spice traders the alternative of cruising straight home on the easterly Indian Counter Current, or striking out northwards along the Monsoon Drift to Arabia, the Middle East and eventually India. All these return journeys take them past Maldives.

After an Ice Age of cold winds up to 70 percent stronger than today, and equatorial sea surface temperatures as low as 25 degrees celsius, ocean sailing became more comfortable about ten thousand years ago, according to research cited by the Pearces. Conditions were particularly pleasant from 4000 BC until 1000 BC – a three thousand year period when underwater volcanic activity in Indonesia raised some sea surface temperatures to 35 degrees celsius.

This was ideal for long distance maritime trading and the Indonesians linked with ports supplying expanding markets in Egypt, the Middle East, India and China. Halmaherans were remarkably adapted for long voyages. Their genetic resistance to cold and famine exceeded even that of the Eskimos. The Pearces believe the hardiness of the Halmaherans and their Polynesian descendants was the result of many thousands of years of Ice Age sea travel.

Indonesian spices were readily available in the Middle East by 1721 BC and probably much earlier. Before 1000 BC, seven American plants, including maize, lima bean, phasey bean and Mexican prickle poppy, were introduced to India via routes that often bypassed China. Custard apples and pineapples also appeared in the Middle East no later than the 700-500 BC. At least forty useful American plants had been established in India by 1000 AD.

Halmaheran visits to the Maldivian atolls are a likely source of legends about ancient seafarers called Redin who preceded the Dhivehi speakers. The Redin often returned, appearing from a variety of directions to cruise through the atolls. Sometimes they stayed on an island before sailing off again in fast vessels.

The Pearces suggest that the Halmaherans also helped supply the Old World elite with American drugs such as coca leaves (or a derivative) and tobacco. Tests on nine royal Egyptian mummies, dated from 1070 BC to 395 AD, revealed that all nine had taken coca and cannabis while they were alive, and eight had used tobacco.

Though royalty may have partied on their wares, no powerful kingdom supported the Halmaherans. They survived primarily through their sailing, trading and horticultural skills. When Arab, Indian, Chinese and Malay pirates invaded the Spice Islands in 76 AD and established rival trading stations, the Halmaheran monopoly disappeared.

Before that invasion, spice trading had boomed along land and sea routes between the Roman and Chinese empires. Indonesian adventurers could earn a livelihood by simply riding a raft loaded with cinnamon along the southern equatorial current to Africa. Roman writer Pliny the Elder described their exploits two thousand years ago:

‘They bring their cargo over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them or oars to push or pull them or sails or other aids to navigation; but instead only the spirit of man and human courage. What is more, they put out to sea in winter, around the time of the northern winter solstice, when the east winds are blowing their hardest. These winds drive them on a straight course… they say that these merchant-sailors take almost five years before they return, and that many perish. In exchange, they carry back with them glassware and bronze ware, clothing, brooches, armlets, and necklaces.’

Cinnamon barges might be useful for one-way deliveries, but Halmaheran outriggers were much faster and capable of sailing almost anywhere. In 2003, Englishman Philip Beale and a team led by Indonesian shipbuilder Saad Abdullah on the Kangean islands north of Bali constructed a nineteen metre double outrigger inspired by 8th century AD relief carvings of Halmaheran vessels on the Borobudur temple. Beale and fourteen crew sailed the bamboo and wood ship, built without nails, from Java to Seychelles in 26 days. From there, they went south around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Ghana.

Cultural and economic change swept over Maldives in the first centuries AD. It transformed a frontier visited by Indonesian traders and subcontinental fishermen into a thriving export economy replete with monarchy, militias, slaves, monks and temples. Sri Lankan shipping and Buddhist business culture were the sources of much of this transformation, and its basic drivers were Bengali and Chinese consumer demand.

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]


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]


Abandoned historical documents salvaged for public access

Historical state documents dating back to the 16th Century, discovered in storage boxes at the President’s Office, have been catalogued and handed over to the Department of Heritage.

The documents were discovered in 2008 when the newly elected President Mohamed Nasheed was moving into the President’s Office vacated by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

They were stashed away in boxes and discovered on three different occasions at the premises of the President’s Office.

President Nasheed handed over the documents, digitally catalogued, to the Department of Heritage at a ceremony at the National Museum this morning.

The oldest document in the collection, which contains a total of 1005 documents, dates back to 1560.

The collection contains, among other state correspondence, letters of diplomacy between various Maldivian rulers and foreign states including Britain, the United States and Germany.

Other documents provide painstakingly kept records of how historical rulers divided up, endowed or gifted land, vegetation and even parts of the sea to members of the public according to their largesse and customs.

The documents also provide an opportunity to trace how land in Male’ came to be in the possession of particular families, and makes possible previously denied insights into what Male’ was like hundreds of years ago.

Some of the documents were written on ‘scrolls’ made from the skin of goat, while some others were scribed on cloth. Most of the documents, however, were written on paper that are now in different conditions of repair.

The document catalogue, prepared under the supervision of Aminath Shareef, Senior Projects Director of the President’s Office, contains over a thousand pages of digitised images of each document with accompanying explanations as to their origin and use.

The collection will be managed by the Department of Heritage, established recently to operate under the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. The new Department will also manage the National Museum, the Boduthakurufaanu Memorial Centre in Utheemu, and the National Archives.

Director of the National Museum, Ali Waheed, told Minivan News that the documents will be on display for the general public early next year.

In addition to being exhibited, the documents will also be made available in electronic format for historians and other researchers.