A Speck of A Spectacle
Marco Polo, who knew the world like the back of his weathered hands, referred to the Maldive Islands as “the flower of the Indies.” Not often wrong, his impressions of these coral blips in the Laccadive Sea were spot on. Resembling a floral necklace adorning a Maldivian woman these islands, islets, and atolls are spectacular from the air, magnificent from the ground, and superb beneath the waves. And, though still undiscovered by many world travelers, be reminded you follow in the wake of some impressive sojourners. Oh, don’t forget your parasol today as the sun here is ever shining.
The Man Who Would Be King
Legend speaks of someone named Koimala, a kind Aryan prince who waded ashore in the Maldives. Over time, locals embraced him as they learned of his royal status, crowning him as their ruler. Truth or fiction? It’s really not known. Many sailors, traders, pirates and seafarers did pass by these islands including Arabs, East Africans, Indonesians, Malays, Persians and dark-skinned natives from Madagascar while traveling the Indian Ocean trade route. Their cultural exchanges left an indelible mark on the Maldives, especially in the people’s physical make-up, religion, costume, and language.
In 1343, a Moroccan named Ibn Batuta settled in the Maldives and recorded the active trade between Maldivians and merchants from China, Arabia and India. Dried fish was one of the many products loaded into the cargo holds of these passing ships including traditional dhoni boats that resemble Arab dhows. Tortoise shells, coconuts and cowries, as well as coir rope, were other sought-after island commodities. Cowry shells, once an international currency, were particularly valuable. And, from the 2nd century AD on, Arab traders actually referred to the Maldives as the “Money Isles.” Today, the Rufiyaa is the official currency
Though rooted in Sanskrit, the Elu-based Dhivehi language spoken by Maldivians today evolved from Hindustani and Arabic influences and is related to the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka. Even the word “atoll” is derived from this unique language. You’ll hear, “Suvaasthi” (welcome) and “Skukuriyyaa” (thank you) as you chat up the locals.
Faith, The Changing Face of Faith
The Maldives, indeed, were ideally located along the heavily traveled shipping lanes that stretch between China and Malacca. And many travelers who came ashore in search of fresh water and provisions also sought to convert the islanders to Islam. They, in fact, succeeded so well in this mission that Islam replaced the then-established religion of Buddhism.
Sultans and Sultanas ruled the Maldives for centuries. One Sultan, Mohamed Thakurufaan the Great, is still revered today for he and his two brothers successfully drove out the Catholic Portuguese who held power over the islands for a brief disruptive and unruly period during the 1500s. His brevity is still extolled in story and song.
The tenets of Islam are so firmly ingrained in the islands’ social structure today that devout Maldivians dress modestly, avoid alcohol and pork, fast during Ramadan, and pray five times every day. Most islanders are Sunni Muslims.
A Look About
Today’s forecast (and everyday) for the Maldives’ air and sea temperatures, yawn, is 80 to 85 degrees give or take. It’s ideal for the 400,000 people of this, Asia’s tiniest nation -- the whole thing covers 90,000 square kilometers making it 99.9% water. It’s also the world’s lowest country with an average elevation of 4’ 11” above sea level. The highest point is only 7’ 7” high making the Maldives the country with the lowest high point.
Male, the nation’s capital, is home to 100,000* inhabitants though it measures a mere square mile. Its bustling waterfront is alive with fishing boats and ferries. Impressive mosques, with their tall minarets, stand in silent contrast to the jangling din of these produce traders. Properly attired visitors are usually welcome to the mosques if it is not the hour of prayer. Huskuru Miskiiy, the Friday Mosque, dates back to the 17th century. Built in 1656 by Sultan Ibrahim Ishkandhar, it was Male’s main mosque for 400 years. The Grand Friday Mosque holds 5,000 worshippers and is topped with a gold dome. Within the walls of part of the former Sultan’s Palace is the National Museum. Here, artifacts and exhibits speak of the bygone days of royalty.
Little kids in crisp school uniforms and long dark braids amble off to school down city streets that were once only crushed coral. The literacy rate here is an impressive 97%. Older women wearing traditional feyli skirts or dresses called libas stroll to the main marketplace for staples such as breadfruit, cassava, sorghum, bajara, ridge-gourds, brinjals, mangoes, sapodillas and jujubes as well as curries.
Despite the lure of Malé’s sights and sounds, the real magic is in the shallow, fish-filled, ice blue water surrounding neighboring islands. Knee-deep seas stretch hundreds of yards out from powdery white-sand beaches. And the parade of passing tropical fish is enough to make any aquarium enthusiast wild with glee. You’ll see.