Once they just seemed an unattainable dream to me, scattered somewhere in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, now they have become an empirical experience of beauty and mystery.
The Maldives are composed of 26 atolls, which in turn consist of 1196 small flat islands set on a scaffolding made of coral reefs surrounding underwater volcano peaks. Only 209 of them are inhabited. From above they look like scattered precious stones: emeralds or turquoise stones framed in silver.
Lush vegetation of high and bent coconut palms, bread trees and flowering shrubs decorates them like an untamed green shag. Blue lagoon is spread around each atoll. Its turquoise waters stretch up to the steep edge of the reef, and finally disappear in the depths of the navy blue ocean. Delicate waves are throwing shells of different colours, sizes and shapes, and masses of dead corals, thanks to which you can enjoy the delicate silvery-white sand on the beaches. The air smells of flowers and the ocean.
The fairly stable weather makes the Maldives a perfect place for holidays almost all year round. The best period, however, are the months from January to April. Later, you can experience frequent monsoons, rainfall and quite high humidity with temperature of about 30-35°C. From my own experience I know that in February there are strong winds and violent, tropical rain, which usually lasts about a minute. Certainly, you cannot get bored with the weather, but the Maldives are the most beautiful when the sunshine reflects in the Indian Ocean, and the islands are bathed in the shining turquoise waters and white sand.
The archipelago of islands forms a state called the Republic of Maldives, which is inhabited by about 280,000 people. It lies just 2.5 meters above sea level, making it the most flat and lowest-lying country in the world. Its capital is the city of Malé grown on the atoll of the same name. Velana International Airport receives hordes of tourists from around the world every year. Tourism is an important source of income for this corner of the world. Thousands of motor boats and hydrofoils filled with tourists are going in various directions from the airport to luxury resorts scattered on emerald islands.
Luxurious hotels-islands seem a fairy-tale asylum, and an earthly paradise free from worldly worries. The Maldivian Government does not wish to have a far-reaching interference of this “holiday world” in the natives’ life. Although trips to Malé and other islands inhabited by Maldivians are organized, these are only tourist trails. Most visitors spend their time sunbathing, splashing in the lagoon, snorkeling or diving. Families with children set out to meet dolphins, and avid fishermen leave at night or at pale dawn for fruitful fishing. The inhabitants of the Maldives are considered friendly and kind, but they can be found rarely within the resorts.
Tourist workers come predominantly from India or Sri Lanka. Specialized in narrow areas, qualified guides and teachers working in diving centres come to the archipelago from around the world. Rarely does one thinks about monuments here and only few know that the Maldives have a rich and long history, just like a one hour-flight away Sri Lanka.
Tourist Folders and Reality
In the Maldives, Sunni Islam is a valid religion. Other denominations are forbidden. Every Maldivian resident must be a Muslim at the same time. Turning away from Islam threatens not only with deprivation of citizenship, but also with death. The state adheres very strictly to Sharia law, which partly also applies to tourists. At the airport, the entry card is filled in with the ban on importing everything that violates the laws of Islam, including pork, alcohol, dogs and all religious symbols – crosses, Christian rosaries, the Holy Bible, Buddha figures and Hindu deities.
Failure to comply with the law involves a fine or even imprisonment. Personally, I know a story of a student who, unaware of the Islamic law prevailing in the Maldives, took a souvenir from Sri Lanka with her – a wooden figurine of sympathetic Ganesha, a Hindu god depicted as half man, half an elephant. If it were not for the intervention of the university and the family, the girl would be in jail instead of in the paradise resort.
Scraps of the Past
Tourist folders do not contain the whole truth about this earthly paradise created by God and distorted by the terrifying human instincts. Behind the veil of the nature’s beauty, there is sometimes hidden a sad reality that has also affected the history of the Maldives to a large extent.
Independent explorer and traveller, David Hatcher Childress in his book Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific, writes that since the rule of Islam reached the Maldives, that is to say since 1153, it has been forbidden to perform images of living beings. That, in turn, has resulted in the total destruction of monuments of the past. Religious fanaticism blurred the treasures of humanity, as it did happen in the case of pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico and Peru, but there such a fanaticism was a veil for the insatiable greed of the Europeans. As the author of the book further writes, there is a strange impression that there was nothing in the Maldives before 1153. The author further mentions that in the nineties of the twentieth century, a statue of a man with long ears similar to those in India was discovered in the Maldives. It triggered an interest of another, quite controversial in academic circles researcher, Thor Heyerdahl. However, when he arrived, it turned out that the sculpture had been destroyed.
Only the picture remained. Thor Heyerdahl, the author of a book entitled The Maldive Mystery, and an eager supporter of civilizational diffusionism, believed that in the Maldives there was a cult of the Sun brought by ancient sailors who travelled by sea all over the world, reaching the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. He pointed out that the Maldivian mosques are not facing mihrab towards Mecca, but east and west as if they were to mark the main solar events, which according to the author meant that the religious buildings in the Maldives were a kind of reconstruction of ancient temples of the Sun. There are also island legends about Redin – ancient people and primeval islanders who built solar mounds and temples. They are described as people with Aryan features: white skin, brown hair and bright eyes. Thor Heyerdahl has had many opponents of his theories, who have thought that the aligned pyramids and solar temples are nothing more than the remains of stupas, as a reminder of the Buddhism that used to exist in the Maldives.
There are many more theories of the alternative archaeology. However, it is worth mentioning the generally accepted, factual information related to the history of the Maldives.
According to archaeological finds, the archipelago was inhabited for about 1500 years before Christ. The first settlers were probably Aryans. About 500 years before Christ next settlers came: Tamils from the south of India and Singhalese from Ceylon. At that time, the population of the archipelago was mostly Buddhists, and the Maldives became the point of transit in oceanic trade between the Indian subcontinent and the Arab countries. The Arabs, in turn, brought a religious change with them. Before the Islamization of the Maldives, according to the Persian and Arab travellers, the women – queens ruled the archipelago.
After the reception of Islam, only four of them remained, and the last one died in the sixteenth century. At the same time the Maldives became an independent Sultanate. The acceptance of Islam is associated with a legend of delivering a virgin from the clutches of a monster by means of a Koranic prayer. It seems that defeating the creature with the word of the Koran convinced the Sultan of the new faith. His subjects, of course, were forced to follow the Sultan’s conversion. From the nineteenth century, the Islamic Maldives had already been a British protectorate, which lasted until the mid-twentieth century, when the Maldivians regained their independence first as a sultanate, and from 1968 as the Republic of Maldives.
The mysterious history of the archipelago is still audible in the oral tradition, Maldivian dances and songs, where one can hear a dialect of the Sinhalese language. Such echoes of the past brings an inspiration to many researchers and writers.
Coming to the Paradise
After an hour of flight from Colombo and forty-five minutes spent on the speedboat fiercely fighting with waves, I finally reached my little paradise. I found a tropical night here. Along with a group of tourists, I left the shaky boat on a wooden pier thrown over the reef and suspended over the depths of the ocean. Through the full length of this bridge made with wooden beams, the lights flashed giving cheerful gleams to the waves in the lagoon beneath.
We were led by a smiling boy dressed in a sarong – a long and colorful fabric wrapped around his hips, used by men especially in Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. After a very warm welcome of a tropical drink and oriental dinner, I fell down tired on my bed in one of small apartment houses abandoned in the green jungle. A deep night had fallen upon me. I could hear the crack of branches striking against the window with the wind but tiredness and the coming sleep did not let me open my eyes for a moment. Curiosity, however, was stronger.
I went outside. I could smell a warm breeze of the ocean. I made a few steps forward through the dense vegetation and stood on the edge of a blue lagoon shining in the pale light of the moon. The silence was disturbed only by the sound of waves. In the distance, the lights of the abandoned long pier shimmered in the distance. On the sand below the scarp carried by the roots of palm trees, crabs and „walking” shells were running across when they suddenly disappeared into their shells at the slightest noise. I breathed deeply with the sea breeze and smiled at the moon.
During first few days, including Valentine’s Day, which is much anticipated by lovers (similar events are permitted in the resorts), my time was filled with waddling in the lagoon, walking in the sun, playing with small sharks and rays wandering in the shallows and thinking how much this world is beautiful. The underwater landscape captivates me. There is a wide variety of coral species and aquatic creatures in the Maldives, whose colours highlight the rays of the sun infiltrating the reef.
My island, Bodufinolhu, is suspended over one of the richest reefs, but the most beautiful of them were located in the distance, farther from the resorts. Our diving instructor, a very nice and energetic Japanese, drew our attention once and again to flickering sea creatures. The sea turtles sleeping and hidden among the corals started at the sight of the divers and with curiosity extended their long necks towards us, swimming so close that they could almost be touched. However, they quickly got bored and swam away for peace and silence.
Provided with proper equipment, we could set out to explore the depths and underwater treasures of the past. Thanks to underwater archaeology there were many important discoveries related to the islands’ history. The results of the research are exhibited at the National Museum in Male, which is housed in two buildings in the Sultan Park. It also constituted a part of the Royal Palace. Even here some of the museum objects did not escape completely from the hands of fanatical Islamists. In February 2012, for purely religious reasons, the museum was attacked and several significant artefacts from the twelfth century were destroyed. Some of them were made of sandstone and limestone, so it was impossible to put them together. As Victor Hugo writes, “time is blind and man is stupid.” Still, one can admire in the museum one of the most interesting objects, such as a stone head of Buddha, but most of the museum artefacts do not represent people or animals. Greatest collection includes royal furniture, ceremonial robes, footwear, weapons and armour.
After huge dinner composed of a ton of fish, meat, curry rice, various vegetables and fruits, I sat comfortably in the bar to arrange my notes from the last trip.A colourful drink based on rum and coconut milk suddenly appeared on the table in front of my nose. ‘Yes’, I thought. ‘The scientist’s life is hard’. My existential thoughts were interrupted by loud music and the rustling of dresses swirling in dance. Tourists started to watch the performance. Six young women dressed according to the Sharia law, with headscarves completely covering their hair, were performing dance figures inscribed in the choreography probably of a long Maldivian tradition, strangely disagreeing with the status quo of the islands. The local tropical climate and music suited more to skimpy skirts seen on the islands of Polynesia, than to long skirts, gaiters and jackets covering tightly the whole bodies of dancing women. Perhaps a similar dance was performed by the legendary Maldivian queens mentioned by former travellers.
Featured image: Maldives. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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