History of Maldives - The Realm of Rich Legacy and Vibrant History

An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Maldives happens to be one of the most popular tropical tourist destinations due to its picture-perfect landscapes and clear turquoise seas. What many people don't know is that this tropical paradise also has a rich legacy and history.

Early History

There is no record of early settlements in Maldives. This is because settlements and housing structures and the like were probably constructed of local materials such as wood, palm fronds, etc., which would have decayed and disintegrated in the highly saline tropical environment. It is theorised that the earliest settlers in Maldives were probably fishermen from the Southern and Southwestern coast of India who arrived here between 300 BC and 300 AD. Till date, there exists a strong underlying Dravidian influence in most aspects such as their customs, music and dance and even their language! There have been some mentions in legends and folklore of an old matriarchal society in Male.

The first written records of the history of Maldives began with the arrival of the Sinhalese people. They were descendants of the exiled Magadha Prince Vijaya from the ancient city of Sinhapura in North-East India. They arrived between c. 543 and 483 BC. The Maldivian language, Dhivehi shares strong ties with Sinhala having similarities in grammar, phonology and structure.

Buddhist Period

Buddhist Statue in National Museum Maldives
Source

Although only briefly mentioned in history books, the Buddhist period was an essential period in Maldivian history. The 1400 year-long period of Buddhism saw the island flourish and their culture develop immensely. It is theorised that Buddhism spread to Maldives during the reign of the great Indian emperor Ashoka. Before this, the Maldivian people practised an ancient ritualistic form of Hinduism called Srauta.

Almost all the archaeological remains are from this year and were found in Buddhist Stupas or monasteries. All these remains also display signs of Buddhist symbols and iconography. All the Buddhist and Hindu buildings were built following the cardinal directions with the entry always facing east. Depending on which atoll, Buddhist stupas are referred to as havitta, hatteli or ustubu. Some of these Buddhist remains can be found in the National Museum in Male.

Islam and Maldives

Grand Friday Mosque in Maldives
Source

According to Maldivian history, Maldives became an Islamic state in 1153 AD when the last Buddhist ruler officially converted to Islam. Arabs were prominent sea-traders by the early 12th century in the Indian Ocean, and this was an important factor in the conversion of this area to Islam.

This shift to Islam is pretty significant as till date Maldives remains an Islamic country, and to be a citizen one has to be a Muslim. Islam is the state religion. Islam was said to have been brought to Maldives by the Sunni Muslim a North African visitor Abu al Barakat. Today, his body lies in the oldest mosque of the Maldives - the Male Friday Mosque.

There are a lot of probable links to North Africa during this time and the history of Maldives is inextricably linked to the North African Islamic states. Unlike other Islamic states in the region that used Urdu or Persian, Maldives used Arabic like in North Africa. Another link was the use of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence till the 17th century, which was used vastly in North Africa.

Trade in Maldives

Maritime trade in Maldives
Source

Trading was a huge part of the history of Maldives, and due to its strategic location and Arab links, trade in the islands flourished. Bengal was the principal trading partner of the Maldives. They had trading links with the Bengal Sultanate and Mughal Bengal. Cowrie shells and coir trade boomed. Being an archipelago, Maldives had an abundance of Cowrie shells which were used as currency in the surrounding regions for a long time. These exported cowrie shells were thus used as currency in Bengal. In return for the cowrie shells, Maldives received rice from Bengal. This Maldives-Bengal trade link went on to become one of the world's biggest cowrie shell trade link in the world.

The dried fiber of the coconut husk or coir was also a major export. This was produced in Maldives and exported to China, Yemen, Sindh and areas in the Persian Gulf. The material had was strong durable and offered an extent of flexibility making it a valuable resource in seafaring and other everyday activities bringing a lot of demand.

Colonial Period

The first European colonists in Maldives were the Portuguese who established a small garrison that was controlled from their stronghold in the Indian state of Goa. The Portuguese, however, tried to convert the people to Christianity. This was not tolerated, and after 15 years the Portuguese were driven out of Maldives. This date is celebrated till date as the national day of Maldives.

The British banished the Dutch from Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon. In this process, they also got involved with the Maldives and signed a treaty making it a protected state. Under this Maldives would have sovereignty, however, they'd have no say in their foreign affairs and had to pay tribute to the British.

The 812 year old sultanate fell when Muhammad Amin Didi refused to take up the throne after the death of Sultan Majeed Didi and his son. After a referendum, the Maldives became a republic. On 26th July 1965, the Maldives gained independence under an agreement signed with the United Kingdom.

The Maldives although tiny has a rich history and is a melange of cultures combined to form a unique and distinct identity. The best way to experience this would be to visit in person!

This post was published by Abhijit Sreepada

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