Where Did the Maldives People Come From?

By Clarence Maloney


The Maldives consist of over 1000 small coral islands stretching over 764 km of the Indian Ocean west of Sri Lanka. The country is populated by roughly 180,000 people who call themselves Devehi(s) ('islanders'), and their language is Divehi, which is also the ethnographic term. These islands are grouped mostly into ring-like coral atols, and since atol is a Devehi word it should be spelled correctly with one l.

Seafaring explorers of past centuries fancied that the shape of this chain of atols resembled a garland, and indeed on a map it does look like this. So the Archipelago came by the name mala div (garland island, a common word in Indian languages), and the name should properly be spelled Maladiv, not Maldive.

The Maldives people are a clear ethnic category, having a unique language derived from Sinhala but grafted on to an earlier Tamil base, and they have a homogeneous cultural tradition. In early medieval times they followed the Sri Lanka type of Buddhism, but in 1153 were converted to Islam by order of their ruler. There is another island located to the north of Maldives territory that belongs culturally to the Maldives, Minicoy (properly, Maliku), which because of events during the colonial period is now held by India as part of its Laksh- advip Island group. Most of the Maldives islands are tiny, less than a mile long, but Minicoy is the largest island populated by Divehi people. The Indian government does not allow foreigners to visit this island.

The Maldives is known in Europe mainly because of its resort hotels and beaches. More than thirty otherwise uninhabited small islands have these hotels.

Government policy is to keep Maldivians off these islands, and tourists out of the rest of the country, except for Male the little capital. Male is only 1.5 km long, though there is a slightly larger nearby island, Hulule, which serves as the airport. A few years ago Male was characterized by bright, sunny, sandy, sleepy streets lined with white compound walls and mosques, but now is has some 45,000 people, a severe water problem, and a number of motorcars, although the place is not large enough to get them into fourth gear.

Historical Records

Early references to the Maldives are found in the Commentary on the Bharu Jataka and the Khuddapatha, early Buddhist texts, and the Dipavamsa, the earliest Sinhala epic (4th century BC), and the Mahavamsa (3rd century BC). The country was probably overrun from Kerala in the Sangam Period of South India (1-3 century AD). It is mentioned in the Greek text Periplus (1st century AD), by Pappas of Alexandria (4th century), and several fifth century Greek authors. The islands are mentioned by the Chinese travellers Fa Hsien (5th century) and Hsuan-Tsang (7th century), and in a document of the Tang Dynasty (8th century). The country was conquered by Tamil Pallavas from neighbouring Madras (late 7th century).

Islamic records start with an account by Sulaiman the merchant (c. 900 AD), and Al-Mas'udi (916), Abul Hassan the Persian (1026), Al Biruni (1039), and Al-Idrisi (c. 1100). In the mean time, the country was reconquered by the Tamils, namely by Rajaraja Cola (1017). Europeans are on a more familiar territory when they read the account of Marco Polo (1279- 92).

Ibn Battuta made two visits and spent a year and a half in the Maldives as an Islamic legal advisor (1343-46).

Portuguese accounts begin from about 1500. In the brutal competition for control of ocean routes they invaded the Maldives in 1588, killed the sultan, and established Portuguese rule, but that only lasted for fifteen years. Most interesting is a lengthy three-volume account by François Pyrard of Laval, who was held captive in the Maldives (1602-07) and learned Divehi. It is a gold-mine of original Divehi history, customs, and language.

British interest dates from the early 1600s. The Divehis had always managed to remain essentially independent, except for the brief Portuguese occupation, but in 1887 the sultan formally accepted British suzerainty. The only sustained historical work of the Maldives done in the British period was that by H.C.P. Bell, a British antiquarian who studied the Buddhist remains, texts, and coins. The British did not leave an administrative or cultural stamp as they did in India, except for their base in Gan in the south. The Maldives became independent in 1965 and joined the United Nations.

Tamils, Sinhalas, and Arabs

Where did the Divehis come from? Generally, ordinary Divehis mostly know only that their islands were settled from Sri Lanka, that before Islam they were Buddhist, and that their language suggests the same origin. Because of the long dominance of Islamic tradition, they tend to stress Arabic and Muslim cultural influences and overemphasize Arab ancestors.

Scholars came from the Islamic centres of learning in Egypt, and the Divehis accepted the Shafi school of Islamic law. They rationalize Divehi culture and behaviour in terms of traits in Arab culture mentioned earlier in old Islamic texts. But for all that, and despite eight centuries of official status, the Islamic tradition is something of a cultural overlay.

The influence of medieval Sinhalas is the dominant cultural stream. From roughly the 8th to the 10th century, unwanted kings and their retinues were apparently banished from Sri Lanka to the Maldives, and they brought their culture, language, and religion with them. There are several remains of Buddhist stupas (excavated by Bell), with coins, inscriptions, and various artefacts.

What was not known previous to my research in the early 1970s, is that there is a strong underlying layer of Tamil population and culture. So far, most Divehis have not shown themselves interested in accepting this finding, as it does not suit their sense of their presti- gious origins. Be that as it may, the evidence is overwhelming. There is a clear Tamil substratum in the language, which also appears in place names, kin terms, poetry, dance, and religious beliefs. This is actually Tamil-Malayalam, as up to about the 10th century when the Malayalam language acquired a separate identity, what is now Kerala was considered to be part of the Tamil area.

There are numerous references in the Tamil Sangam (1-3 century) and medieval literature to kings of Kerala having ships, conducting invasions by sea, and ruling the northern part of Sri Lanka. People of Kerala settled the Lakshadvip Islands, and evidently viewed the Maldives as an extension of them. There is a Maldivian epic about Koimala, who is said to have come from India, bringing with him his royal lineage, landed on a northern atol, and then made Male his capital. The name koi is from Malayalam koya, son of the prince, which is also the name of a high caste group in the Lakshadvip Islands. Koimala has now become a generalized eponymous ancestor of the pre-Muslim Divehis.

The medieval settlements from Sri Lanka were strongest in the southern islands, and this gave rise to the Divehi language, Buddhism, and the ideals of kinship.

The chronic wars between the Sinhalas and the Tamils which have characterized 2500 years of history in Sri Lanka, probably spilled over to the Maldives, so these settlers from Sri lanka ultimately absorbed all the earlier population into their Divehi culture.

By the 1970s there was only one identifiable separate caste, the Giravaru, who then lived on Hulule Island near Male. They were virtually endogamous, and unlike the other Divehis they cherished marriage as a permanent state. These people said that they were from "Tamilas" though they did not know what that meant.

Their former status was rather like the palm-tree tapping lower castes of Kerala, and other Divehis regarded them as impure. They themselves averred that their customs and morals were purer then those of other Divehis. Now the Giravaru have been evicted from Hulule to make room for the expanded airport, and this remnant of Indian caste has nearly disappeared.

The Divehi kinship system is partly of Dravidian origin, and bears evidence of some matriliny, like the Nayar and other matrilineal groups of Kerala. Some of the kinship terms are clearly derived from Malayalam. On to this was grafted the royal lineage system of medieval Sinhala immigrants, but the matrilineal background remained evident in the royal lineage. This is an anomaly for an Islamic society, and can only be explained in terms of the cultural history.

In religion we find a vibrant underlying system, called fandita, co-existing with the formal politically-linked theological Islamic system which provides the rationale for behavioral and political control. The word fandita comes from the Indic word pandit, and refers to special powers possessed by certain men and women. This belief system encompasses ideas about spirits, ghosts, winds, and lights on the sea, and it allows people to control their health, their enemies, their boats, their fishing catch, and their destiny. The rituals contain a lot of what in India might be called puja and mantravadi (reciting of mantras), besides South Indian ideas about health and healing. This is marvellously islamicized by the institutionalized belief in jinns. The fandita experts engrave charms to be tied around the neck as is done in South India and Sri Lanka, and this is islamicized because they scratch on them marks resembling Arabic script. It is said that the Maldives was converted to Islam because a visiting saint in the 12th century showed the king that his faith had the power to control the most terrible ocean jinn then afflicting the people. The king ordered his subjects to be converted, and the saint rewarded him with the title sultan. But in fact, conversion to Islam was probably motivated more by the strength of Islamic trade and civilization which dominated the Indian Ocean at that time.

The Earliest Settlers?

There are hints of two other early layers of immigration. One is from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia from where people found their way to settle Madagascar roughly about the time of Christ. Did some of them stop in the Maldives on the way? Probably. There are a number of Southeast Asian traits and artefacts present in the Maldives: crops such as sweet potatoes and taro, dark-coloured fish of Southeast Asia, and "bed-roasting" a custom which compels the mother to rest on a bed with fire under it for ten days after delivery to purify her, which is of Southeast Asian origin. Very early visitors to or settlers in the Maldives were probably Gujaratis. Seafaring from Gujarat began during the Indus civilization. The Jatakas and Puranas show abundant evidence of this maritime trade. The Gujaratis reached and settled Sri Lanka about 500 BC.

Some evidence of direct cultural influence from North India can be deduced from the methods of boat-building and silver punch-marked coins (of the Mauryan period) have likewise been found. It is quite possible that intrepid Gujarati seafarers were shipwrecked on these islands, or that Gujarati exiles settled on them as they did on Sri Lanka, before the rise of Tamil-Malayalam sea power in the early Christian era. Language and Script

Devehi is derived basically from an old form of Sinhala called Elu, which was spoken in Sri Lanka before many Pali and Sanskrit words were added. This dialect must have come ultimately from the Panjab.

This supports the interpretation of the Sinhala chronicles that the ancestors of the Sinhalas, and therefore of the Divehis, came from western India, from Gujarat by sea, and not from Bengal. Many Sinhalas prefer the myth that they came from Bengal because of the historical importance of Buddhism, and indeed from the time of the Mauryas (3rd century BC) the sea traffic on the east side increased, and Buddhism came to Sri Lanka via Bengal. Before that, the core of Sinhala settlers came from western India, a claim which is supported by linguistic and cultural features and the specific descriptions in the epics themselves, for instance that Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalas, visited Bharukaccha (Broach, in Gujarat) in his ship on the voyage down.

Dihevi though built up from a Sinhala dialect was grafted on to earlier Tamil speech and has incorporated words from every cultural wind that buffeted the Maldives: Bengali, Malay, Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, and English.

The Brahmi script dating from Mauryan times, used in the edict inscriptions of King Asoka, gave rise to all indigenous scripts in India. It came by sea to the far southern coasts and gave rise to both the Sinhala and Tamil scripts. Brahmi was an angular script, but it evolved into the rounded medieval Sinhala script. The original Maldives script, called Evala Akuru, was roundish and resembled medieval Sinhala script. A more evolved form, Dives Akuru, is known from the copper-plate grants and tombstones especially from the 14th century, studied by Bell, and it bears the influence of the old Tulu and Grantha scripts of South India and the original script of Lakshadvip. It was used in the southern atols of the Maldives as late as 1835.

The modern Divehi script, called Tana, was invented by a unknown person after the Portuguese interlude. He must have been an educated Muslim who also had a knowledge of classical Indian phonetics, as the script combines features of both Arabic and Indian scripts. The basic symbols are Arabic numerals and other letters to which Divehi phonetic values are given, and the script runs right to left. There is a full set of long and short vowels whose marks surround the consonants, the consonants have the inherent vowel 'a' but are marked with a little circle above when mute, and the script lacks aspirated consonants. These are the features derived from South India, probably along with scientific understanding of phonetics. The result is a simple script, suitable to the language and easy to learn. Most Divehis are literate, as they learn to read Islamic texts in little religious schools, and type fonts are available for printing in the script.

In the 70s there was a move to replace the Tana script with "English" (Roman) script, but because of its obvious deficiencies for South Asian langu- ages, the official tendency is again to support wider use of the Tana script.

The Society

The Devehi pattern of family organization, marriage, divorce, and kinship grew out of the confluence of historical streams in the Maldives. There have been three conflicting kinship systems: the Dravidian, the North Indian, and the Arab. Most fundamental is the Dravidian: kinship terms classify kin into those marriable and unmarriable with self; cross-cousin marriage is preferred; girls have a puberty ceremony; and matriliny is possible. There are several indications of a former preferential cross-cousin marriage in the Maldives, but in the Arab system now superimposed, any cousin marriage is acceptable. The North Indian system with its patriarchal authority and wider rules of exogamy, was brought by the original Sinhalas to Sri Lanka, but there it was greatly modified by the underlying Dravidian element until it also accepted preferential cross-cousin marriage while it still retained strong lineages for political reasons, and this was brought to the Maldives.

The present rules of marriage and family are thought by the Divehis to follow Islamic rules strictly, but these rules are interpreted in unique ways. Most striking is the frequency of divorce. The Maldives has the highest divorce rate (of registered marriages) of any country in the world, according to United Nations statistics. In the 1970s the rate was eighty-five divorces for every 100 marriages. By Islamic law as interpreted in the Maldives, the same man and woman can marry three times, after which they must marry other partners, and then they are free to marry each other another three times. An official notification limited the number maximum to three such cycles, or nine marriages for the same couple. But by giving a gift to charity even this could be relaxed, so some couples have remarried many more times than that.

Traditionally there was an element of pride, even piety, in a man having had many marriages. Some individuals claim to have had forty to eighty marriages.

Divorce is not so traumatic as in Western societies for either the partner or for their children. Most people live on tiny islands, and all the households know each other well. A man can divorce and remarry and move to a nearby household. His children are still close. They know that he is likely to remarry their mother anyway. This game of marriage is often the most important entertainment in these isolated communities with their somewhat stultifying atmosphere.

Social control is exercised through religion. Every island has an Island Chief who is head of the mosque and also represents the government. The Island Chiefs fall under an Atol Chief, who is assisted by gazis who perform ceremonies and uphold Islamic law. Any misbehaviour is reported by the Island Chief to the Atol Chief and to the Department of Justice in Male.

This includes theft, drinking liquor, not attending mosque, adultery (though this seldom arises), and even masturbation (by law but not in practice). There are practically no murders.

The political system is also special to the Maldives, though there is not enough room to summarize it here. There are a few families who control most assets such as the shipping company, tourist hotels, and real estate in Male. These families tend to control the government. There is a majlis (national assembly) but democratic practices are only slowly gaining ground. A president who identifies an opponent is likely to exile him to an uninhabited island for some years - the commonest form of punishment, which is of ancient origin in the Maldives.

The Future

Maldives is an active and equal member of SAARC (South Indian Association for Regional Co-operation), which is recognition of its fundamental cultural similarity with India and Sri Lanka, although as a practical matter the financial aid proffered from the Arab countries is also accepted.

The Maldives government is increasingly worried about crowding on the small islands and the lack of fresh water. On Male the water lens (floating on salt water) has long been polluted with human waste and human burials, and the rainwater catchment is not enough.

The Maldives has only 300 sq km of land (and the ocean between), and the population has long outgrown the local produce, mainly fish supplemented by a little agriculture. Traditionally tuna was the main export, in exchange for which rice was imported. The main income now is from the tourist islands, shipping, international aid, and trade as Maldives has declared itself as a free port. Education has expanded very rapidly, and the Divehis, who were so long isolated from the wider world, are quickly adapting to their expanded opportunities. These changes have brought population growth through a decline in infant mortality, and a population shift to Male. The main long-term worry however is the rising level of the ocean, which threatens to obliterate the country within one or two centu- ries.

The Maldives is an exceedingly interesting country, and merits more attention from specialists on South Asia and the Indian Ocean area.

Clarence Maloney is a South Asian specialist and former professor of Anthropology. He has worked for the past 25 years in donor-funded rural development projects in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. He is now the Team Leader of the Kerala Community Irrigation Project, funded by the Netherlands Foreign Ministry through Euroconsult.



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