Full country name: Republic of Maldives
Area: 298 sq km (115 sq mi)
Capital City: Malé (pop. 62,973)
People: Sinhalese, Dravidian, Arab, African
Language: Maldivian Divehi
Religion: Sunni Muslim
President: Mohamed Nasheed
GDP: US$500 million
GDP per head: US$1840
Annual Growth: 5.8%
Major Industries: fish processing, tourism, shipping, boat building, coconut processing, garments, woven mats, rope, handicrafts, coral and sand mining, coconuts, corn, sweet potatoes, fish
Major trading partners: Sri Lanka, US, Germany, Singapore, UK, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand
Most holidays are based on the Islamic lunar calendar and the dates vary from year to year. The most important religious event is Ramadan (known locally as rorda mas), the Islamic month of fasting. Other noteworthy events are Kuda Id, the sighting of the new moon (celebrated at the end of Ramadan), and the Prophet’s Birthday, which commemorates the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.
If you stay at a resort, you don’t need to carry money at all since everything will be billed to your room and you can settle up when you leave with travellers’ cheques or credit cards. It’s best to carry money in US dollar denominations, but British pounds, German marks are all pretty acceptable.
Officially, tipping is discouraged in the Maldives. Unofficially, if the service is good – and it usually is – it’s quite customary to tip room staff and waiters in your resort.
This solitary island in the middle of the Equatorial Channel is exceptionally fertile, producing fruits and vegetables not grown elsewhere in the country, like mangoes, oranges and pineapples. The people are said to be bigger and healthier and to live longer than other islanders.
In South Nilandhoo Atoll, the island of Kudahuvadhoo has one of the mysterious mounds known as hawittas. They are probably the ruins of Buddhist temples, but have not been thoroughly investigated by archaeologists. Thor Heyerdahl explored the island, and commented that its old mosque had some of the finest masonry he had ever seen, surpassing even the famous Inca wall in Cuzco, Peru.
The first inhabitants arrived in the archipelago from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and south India before 500 BC. Maldivians believe that an ancient race of sun-worshipping people called the Redin were the first settlers. The Redin left around 500 BC or were absorbed by Buddhists from Ceylon and by Hindus from India. Because building materials were limited, each group built its important structures on top of those left by previous inhabitants. This is why many Maldivian mosques are oriented towards the sun and not Mecca. Arab traders en route to the Far East recorded visits to the Maldives from the 2nd century AD. Known as the ‘Money Isles’, they provided enormous quantities of cowrie shells, an international currency of the early ages.
The conversion to Islam, in 1153 AD, is a watershed in Maldivian history. Abu Al Barakat, originally a North African Arab, was the first sultan. A series of six sultanic dynasties followed – 84 sultans and sultanas in all. At one stage, when the Portuguese first arrived in the 16th century, there were actually two ruling dynasties: the Malei and the Hilali.
The Portuguese, eager for a greater share of the profitable trade routes of the Indian Ocean, were granted permission to build a fort and a factory in Mala, but it wasn’t long before they wanted more from the Maldives. In 1558, Captain Andreas Andre led a Portuguese invasion, which killed Sultan Ali VI. Andre ruled Mala and much of the country for the next 15 years. Portuguese occupation came to a sticky end in 1573 when an island chief, Mohammed Thakurufaan, led an attack on the main Portuguese garrison and slew the lot. In the 17th century, the Maldives came under the protection of the Dutch and later the British, but neither established a colonial administration. In the 1860s Borah merchants from Bombay set up warehouses and shops in Mala, and quickly acquired an almost exclusive monopoly on foreign trade. Sultan Mohammed Mueenuddin II, weary of the Borahs’ economic grip, signed an agreement with the British in 1867, which guaranteed the islands’ full independence. The Maldives subsequently became a British protectorate, and allowed the British to establish defense facilities.
The sultanate became an elected rather than a hereditary position when the islands’ first constitution was drawn up in 1932. In 1953 the sultanate was abolished and a republic proclaimed with Amin Didi as the first president. Less than a year later Didi was overthrown; the sultanate was returned with Mohammed Farid Didi elected as the 94th sultan of the Maldives. Around the same time, the British secured permission to re-establish its wartime airfield on Addu Atoll in the far south of the country. In 1956 the Royal Air Force began developing the base as a staging post, employing hundreds of Maldivians and undertaking the resettlement of the Gan islanders. But when Ibrahim Nasir was elected prime minister in 1957 he immediately called for a review of the agreement, demanding that the lease be shortened and the annual payment increased.
This was followed by an insurrection against the government by the inhabitants of Addu and Suvadiva (Huvadu) atolls who objected to Nasir’s demand that the British cease employing local labor. Influenced by the British presence, they decided to cut ties altogether and form an independent state. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats to the southern atolls and the rebellion was quashed. Britain recognized the islands’ sovereignty soon after and in 1965, the Maldives became fully independent.
A contemporary Divehi culture is strong and adaptive. This, despite foreign influences which range from Hindi movies and Oriental martial arts to Michael Jackson and Muslim fundamentalism. Western fashions, pop music and videos are visible in the capital, but on public occasions, like the beginning and end of Ramadan, the celebrations always have a distinctly Maldivian touch. Islam is the national religion and all Maldivians are Sunni Muslims. No other religion is permitted here.
There are three daily newspapers and several magazines in the unique national language, rock bands who sing Divehi lyrics, and multi-storey buildings which echo the architecture of Maldivian island houses.
A bodu beru means a big drum, and gives its name to the best known form of traditional music and dance. It’s what tourist resorts put on for a local culture night, and it can be quite sophisticated and compelling. Contemporary local rock bands often perform at resorts where they do credible covers of the usual old favorites. Performing for a local audience they may incorporate elements of bodu beru in their music, with lots of percussion and extended drum solos.
Fish and rice are the staple foods of Maldivians with meat and chicken eaten only on special occasions. National dishes include fried fish, fish curry and fish soup. Arecanut is the equivalent of an after-dinner mint. Alcohol is only available in tourist resorts.
The Maldives is a chain of 26 coral atolls southwest of Sri Lanka, extending across the equator in a north-south strip 754 km long and 118 km wide. The 1192 low-lying coral islands are so small that dry land makes up less than 4% of the country’s total territory. Most of the time the lagoons are a brilliant blue, with amazing coral reefs and abundant marine life. Strict local regulation of fishing and commercial exploitation has kept the marine environment in a near-pristine state.
Though many of the bigger islands look like the picture-perfect, palm-fringed tropical fantasy, most have poor, sandy soil which supports only a limited range of plants – bamboo, pandanus, banana, mangroves, breadfruit trees, banyans, tropical vines and numerous coconut palms. The larger, wetter islands have small areas of rainforest. The main crops are limited to sweet potatoes, yams, taro, millet and watermelon.
Generally, the year is divided into two monsoon periods: the north-east monsoon or ruvai lasts from December to March, which are the drier months; the south-west monsoon or ulhangu lasts from April to November, and is wetter, with more storms and occasional strong winds.
There are regular flights to Colombo (Sri Lanka), Trivandrum (south-west India), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), as well as many charter flights from European centers. Mala International Airport is the only international gateway.
Tourism is strictly regulated, and independent travel is discouraged because it is seen as disruptive to traditional island communities. Those wanting to see the Maldivian way of life can stay in Mala, and make daytime visits to island communities close to tourist resorts. An Inter Atoll Travel Permit is required to visit islands outside the tourist zone, and the Ministry of Atolls Administration will only issue them to those whose visit is sponsored by a resident of the island concerned.
Air Maldives, the small national airline, has regular and very scenic flights to the four airstrips in the outer atolls. Helicopters and seaplanes are used to transfer guests to some of the remoter resorts. The main form of local transport is the dhoni, a traditional all-purpose vessel now usually powered by a diesel engine. Larger boats called vedis are used for longer trips to outer atolls.
The best time to visit the Maldives is between December and April, which is the dry season. This is the high season, however, and resorts can be fully booked and prices are higher than the rest of the year. The Christmas-New Year period is the busiest and most expensive part of the high season. Between May and November it’s still warm, but the skies can be cloudy, humidity is higher and rain is more likely.
Mala (pronounced ‘Mar-lay’) is not spectacular. But it is clean and tidy, with mosques, markets, a maze of small streets and a certain charm all its own. The island is about 2 km long and 1km wide, and packed to the edges with buildings, roads and a few well-used open spaces. The size of the island has been more than doubled through land reclamation projects. Nearby islands are used for the airport and other purposes. There are plans to develop other islands to reduce the pressure on Mala. Among the city’s attractions is the National Museum, which houses untidy exhibits of the sultans’ belongings and a smattering of Thor Heyerdahl’s archaeological discoveries. Near the museum is the imposing white Islamic Center & Grand Friday Mosque, which dominates the city’s skyline.
There are over 20 other mosques scattered around Mala, some little more than a coral room with an iron roof. The oldest is the Hukuru Miski, famed for its intricate stone carvings. One long panel, carved in the 13th century, commemorates the introduction of Islam to the Maldives, while outside a graveyard holds the tomb of Abu Al Barakat and tombstones of former sultans. Seenu (Addu Atoll)
This is a very good springboard for visiting traditional Maldivian island communities. The Addu people are fiercely independent, speak differently from folk in the capital and at one time even tried to secede from the republic. The biggest influence on Addu’s modern history has been the British bases, first established on the island of Gan during WW II. In 1976 the British pulled out, but many of their employees, who spoke good English and had experience working for westerners, were well qualified for jobs in the soon-to-be-booming tourist industry.
A resort has been established in the old RAF buildings on Gan and there are now reliable connections to the capital in a new Air Maldives jet. The Ocean Reef Resort is not a typical Maldives tropical paradise resort island, but the old military base is a unique feature.
The vast majority of visitors come to the Maldives on package tours, staying at one of the 70-plus resort islands. Most resorts are in the three atolls closest to the capital – North Mala Atoll, South Mala Atoll and Ari Atoll. There are a few other resorts on nearby atolls, and these might be further developed in the future. All the resorts are beautiful and are blessed with white sand, blue sea and swaying palm trees, and they all promise great diving. Despite their apparent similarity, however, they differ considerably in their comfort, cuisine, clientele, character and their suitability for various excursions and activities.
Scuba diving is the main attraction in the Maldives, and it’s estimated that over 60% of visitors dive at least once. Aside from a multitude of fish and corals, there’s the thrill of diving with turtles, moray eels, manta rays, sharks and whales and exploring some of the Maldives accessible wrecks. Surfing has become more popular in the islands since there are excellent breaks accessible from resorts close to Malé. For the avid watersport enthusiast there are plenty of opportunities to go sailing, parasailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, banana boating and jetskiing. Big game fishing is an up market option at some resorts, but there is a ‘tag and release’ policy, so you can’t keep your catch.
Maldives tourist visa is required for citizens
Nationals of India can obtain a visa on arrival for a max. stay of 90 days.
Time: Maldives is 1/2an hr behind India
Electricity: 220-40V, 50 Hz
Tourism: 300,000 visitors per year