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the islands going beneath the sea .......

People of Maldives


The People   -   The population of Maldives, which has increased rapidly in recent years, stood at about 200,000 in 1991 and is expected to reach about 300,000 by the turn of the century. It is now the 7th most densely populated country on earth. But apart from severe overcrowding in Male, there is no crisis of space. There are still nearly a thousand uninhabited islands for occupation.
The origins of the Maldivian people are shrouded in mystery. The first settlers may well have been Naga and Yakka people from Sri Lanka and Dravidians from southern India. Some say Aryans, who sailed their reed boats from Lothal in the Indus Valley about 4,000 years ago, probably followed them. Hinduism brought by Tamils and Buddhism brought by Sinhalese in turn gave way to a growing Arab influence and to Islam in the twelfth century. Located at the crossways of the Indian Ocean shipping lanes on the main seaway around the Indian subcontinent, the islands have long been a meeting point for African, Arab, Indonesian and Malay mariners. Throughout the centuries all contributed to the racial and cultural melting pot of Maldives. The faces of today's Maldivians reflect the influence of the various regions of the Indian Ocean. Maldivians do not like been taken as a Indian or a Sri Lankan.
Maldivian Society   -   Maldivian society is distinguished by strong social divisions. Traditionally the upper class, with names like Don Seedi, Don Kaloa, Ibrahim Fulu, Ibrahim Maniku and Moosa Didi, were close friends and relatives of the sultan and his family. Yet even among these families there were marked differences. Well into this century Bell noted that "a Didi marrying a Maniku lady raises her to his own rank; but the children of a Maniku father and Didi mother are, strictly speaking, not entitled to the appellation Didi". Years ago it was unacceptable to eat with a member of an inferior class, and people of a lower class mixing with a superior only sat on a low stool. Now these distinctions are breaking down. Indeed, the terms Maniku and Didi are sometimes used as nicknames.
Today advancement is based more on merit than birth, although education is now less important than wealth in commanding respect from others. The number of islands a person leases or the number of boats they own is also crucial to their social standing. The boat owner takes about half the day's catch, while the skipper, keyolhu, earns about one fifth. The rest is divided equally among the fishermen. The men who make the boats "Maavadi meehaa" are respected craftsmen; on their skill depends the fishermen's lives and thus the well being of the community. The medicine man "Hakeem", stands on the same social rung. Skilled tradesmen like blacksmiths and jewelers also command a great deal of respect. At the bottom of the social heap is the toddy-tapper, "Raaveria", who looks after the coconuts and taps sap for toddy and syrup. Although long ago Maldives was ruled by sultanas and may have had a matrilineal system of inheritance, it is very much a man's world today.
Traditionally, men eat before the rest of the family and make all the major decisions, while the women stay at home and look after the family. The sharp division of labor not only reflects the exigencies of island life, but the injunctions of traditional Islam. Yet despite the clear divisions between rich and poor, especially in Male', "there is no poverty". The island community and the extended family act as a safety net for its members. Even in the capital, "no one sleeps in the streets or goes to bed hungry". In this sense, being small has its blessings, for every one knows each other and is willing to lend a hand. Arms-giving remains one of the fundamental tenets of Islam.
Giraavaru People   -   In the western quarter of the capital, Male', live the survivors of the "Giraavaru people", who were translocated from the neighboring island of "Giraavaru" now a popular tourist resort, after severe erosion of the island. They were first moved to Hulhule' and subsequently to Male' when the airport was expanded. They claim they are the original inhabitants of Maldives and throughout the centuries have kept themselves apart from the rest of society. Generally they are considered descendants of Tamils from southern India, although some argue that they may share their ancestry with the aborigines of Australia.
The women tie their hair in a bun on the right side of the head, other Maldivians tie it on the left. They also decorate the top of their libaas (dress) with a special style of silver embroidery. The women are extremely modest, it is said that they rarely completely undress themselves. The Giraavaru people not only have different customs, but also speak with a different accent from the people on Male'. In someway it is closer to the dialect found on Seenu Atoll in the south. Tragically, the Giraavaru people are at the abyss of extinction, down to no more than 10. As the young marry outside their group and move into mainstream society, it is unlikely that the Giraavaru people will remain a distinct community for much longer yet another unique group unable to survive the struggle towards a modern homogenous society.
Maldivian Character   -   The people of Maldives have long been an enigma to visitors. Earlier accounts tended to express the prejudices of the observers rather than offer objective information, if such were possible.
The Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta found them "upright and pious, sound in belief and sincere in thought". The French Parmentier brothers felt that they were "poor-looking creatures" although their compatriot, Francois Pyrard declared Maldivians to be "quick and apprehensive, subtle and crafty". Not surprisingly, the Portuguese who tried to colonize the country in the sixteenth century had a low opinion of them; according to the chronicler, Duarte Barbosa, they were "dull and malicious". While admitting they were "feeble folk", his fellow countryman Joao De Barros added that they were "very clever; and above all they are mighty magicians". Since they offered little defense against aggressors, the Maldivians had to rely on guile to survive. They were fortunate in fostering the belief that if they were harmed, then harm would befall the perpetrator. As Ibn Battuta put it, "their armour is prayer".
The British, who became their protectors in the nineteenth century, were both attracted by their peacefulness and annoyed by their apathy. Captain Moresby, who undertook a maritime survey for the British Admiralty in 1834 -1836, observed that the Maldivians "always treated us with kindness and respect, yet with shyness and suspicion, supposing our motives". His assistants, Lieutenants I. A. Young and Wilmott Christopher of the Indian Navy, who left an interesting account of their stay, also reported that the Maldivians were "a quiet, peaceable race, hospitable and kind to strangers, though suspicious and distrustful of them". Such attitudes, of course, were a product of island life. Nearly all commentators have remarked on the Maldivians' superstitious nature and of their fear of jinni (spirits) despite their faith in Islam.
In 1922 British civil servant and antiquarian, H.C.P. Bell wrote, "a delightful spirit of ease and contentment seems to prevail universally", although he stressed their insularity, even in the capital. Maldives "desires nothing so greatly as to be left by the outside world as much as possible alone, to 'lotus-eat' and remain undisturbed in its sea-girt happy isolation". Maldivians are totally adapted to their maritime environment. Like all seafarers, they carefully observe the patterns of nature around them and shape their lives accordingly. They take a keen interest in the weather, which determines when they go fishing, plant crops or sail over the horizon.
Their calendar, "Nakaiy", refers to any one of the twenty-eight seasonal divisions of the year and the clusters of stars that represent them. The origins of the calendar probably lie in the Indus Valley Civilization in Pakistan, the root of the word Nakaiy is the Sanskrit word nakshatra for star or heavenly body. The system not only determines the seasons for fishing and agriculture but also predicts the future through astrology. It thus offers a fascinating combination of common sense, scientific observation and downright superstition: during certain seasons, for example, it is considered auspicious to dig a well, to start wearing jewelry, or to lay the keel of a new boat.
Superstitious   -   Although all Maldivians are Muslims, they are also extremely superstitious, believing in mysterious supernatural beings called "Dhevi". The origins of this belief in spirits almost certainly antedates Islam, for many of the words used to describe them are from Sanskrit and Pali.
A scholar and a historian "Hassan Ahmed Maniku" suggests that a Dhevi refers to "the idea of an invisible, but sometimes visible, being capable of moving across the high seas, land, and even through barriers. It may be helpful or harmful. It may require supplication, rebuke, or even sacrifice". To describe the dhevi, Maldivians often use the Arabic word, Jinni which in Islam are considered a third group of created beings apart from humans and angels. They are said to be made of fire and have super human powers, although on Judgement Day they will be called to account with human beings.
Lieutenants Young and Christopher observed that "the most absurd and superstitious fancies exert a powerful and pernicious influence on the people". Certainly they believe that spirits live all around them in nature: in the sea, in the sky, in the trees and in the rain. At night, for instance, many islanders lock their doors and windows, and keep a small kerosene lamp burning to keep out evil spirits.
Hassan Maniku goes so far as to argue that primitive Maldivian society managed to produce "a religion of its own". While the Islamic authorities throughout the centuries have condemned many of these beliefs, they betray remarkable originality and vision and form a unique treasure trove of folklore and stories. The islanders see no clash between their belief in Islam and in Dhevi. Often they give long recitals from the Qur'an or other Arabic texts to ward off the evil eye and keep evil spirits at bay, but they do not rely completely on the power of the holy word. When extraordinary events occur, many islanders turn to the local wise man immersed in "Fanditha", a special knowledge that is part science and part magic. If the rains fail, the fishing is poor or a woman is barren, the Fanditha is consulted. With his potions and charms he calls upon spirits to achieve his end. In an uncertain world where the unknown is feared, a belief in Fanditha gives Maldivians a sense of control over their destiny.
There are many different spirits and stories connected with the Fhevi. The most famous, about "Rannamaari", the sea monster in the reign of Koimala who demanded the sacrifice of a virgin on Male' Island and who was thwarted by a young Arab reading the Qur'an, was recorded by Ibn Battuta, during his stay in the fifteenth century, Francois Pyrard de Laval noted that the Maldivians believed in. "A king of the sea, to who in like sort they make prayers and ceremonies while on a voyage; or when they go fishing, they dread above all things to offend the kings of the winds and of the sea. So, too, when they are at sea, they durst not spit nor throw anything to windward for fear unless he should be offended, and with like intent they look a baft." Many fishermen still believe in a Dhevi called "Odivaru Ressi" who lives in the sea, usually harming fishing boats, fishermen, fish bait and schools of fish, although it can also be benevolent. Sometimes it appears overhead as a long dark or red shadow, or as a sailfish, black marlin or wahoo. If it takes possession of the boat it can ruin the fishing and cause itching all over the body.
The Dhevi who is the lord of death is called "Vigani". It inhabits the seas and may be seen on water near the horizon. Some describe Vigani as a small man or in the shape of a greyish monkey with a thick covering of hair. Sometimes it is also said to have a long, elephant like trunk which it uses to suck food from the graves of the dead. Vigani is said to be the cause of sudden death and major epidemics.
Hassan Maniku observes: "In some islands when too many people die suddenly, Fanditha men look for signs and determine the cause to be from Vigani by looking at the sunset and the crimson clouds on the west. "If a small compact cloud in the shape of a fish is seen glowing, then the cause of death is attributed to Vigani. He then performs Fanditha and tries to cut the cloud into pieces. "If he is unable to do this, it means that the entire community will be obliterated. Then the community moves to another island and settles there." The spiritual leader of all Dhevi is "Buddevi", who lives in jungles, on the beach, near thick undergrowth or around abandoned houses. It can even appear where the water drips from coconut leaves after a shower of rain. It may be seen as a cat or a well built man. It is said that whoever sees this malevolent Dhevi falls ill.
Traditional Medicine   -   Islanders still rely on traditional medicine men and women. At the crossroads of the Indian Ocean, healing secrets from Indians, Arabs, Persians, Malaysians, Sri Lankans and Chinese were acquired and synthesized, then used to develop local herbal remedies.
Legends abound about the feats of such special healers as "Buraki Ranin", the sixteenth century queen of Sultan Muhameed, who was said to cure sword wounds overnight with her own dressings. The treatise written by Sheikh Hussain of Meedhoo in Seenu Atoll who died in 1916 forms the foundation of today's traditional medicine. Known as hakeems, practitioners of this medicine are well respected by the village communities. A basic tenet of their philosophy is that good health is a result of a proper balance between the hot, cold and dry "humours" in the body, so "cold food" is recommended for someone with fever, and dry fish for flu. Some hakeems are schooled in "Unani" medicine, which treats the whole person, combining ancient remedies with new drugs. In recent years there has been an attempt to integrate traditional and modern medicine. Advice and training, for instance, is offered to local midwives who learned their skill from older practitioners.
Simple Life   -   Most Maldivians lead a simple existence in harmony with nature. One of the great attractions of Maldives is that it does offer a way of life adapted to the environment; a life style in which the people have little material desires. However, it would be wrong to conclude that Maldivians lead a life of "lotus eaters" in a lost paradise. To scratch a living the islanders spend long, hard hours fishing at sea, entirely at the mercy of the elements. Women worry about making ends meet; men worry about their catch. Most family's experience enforced separation, with the men either working in the resorts or foreign shipping lines. There is a large element of stoic resignation in the Maldivian approach to life. Perhaps because they go away and return so often, Maldivians have no word in Dhivehi for "goodbye" or "hello". At the same time, the burning interest in political intrigue and the volatile nature of their personal relations must surely reflect the need to express emotions that are necessarily repressed in close-knit, all embracing island communities.
Homes   -   The government owns all land. Villages are laid out on a rectangular plan, and each family is granted an area known as a "goathi" measuring fifteen meters (49 feet) by thirty meters (98 feet). Surrounded by small coral walls, within each goathi is a garden with several shady trees including mango, breadfruit, coconut, arecanut palm, banana and papaya. Most have several chair like hammocks on wooden frames, "Joali" fixed in the sand or hanging from a tree, and a swinging wooden bed, "Udhoali", an ideal place to relax on a hot, sultry day. The main house in the centre of the compound, has several rooms and is used for sleeping. Food is cooked in a separate, coral shack, "Badhige" with a thatched roof and no windows, containing two or three hollows for stoves. Most families also have a deep well for water. The "bathroom" is behind an inner coral closure called a "Gifili" where a latrine is dug in the coral sand.
The rectangular houses were originally constructed from cadjan (woven palm fronds), but walls are now commonly made from coral fragments held together with lime made from burning coral slowly for a long time. Coral is mined in the adjoining reefs to a depth of a meter (three feet) or so. An even stronger "cement" can be made by mixing the lime with ash, charcoal and "syrup" made from coconut sap. Although iron is hotter, islanders prefer corrugated iron roofs to thatch because it does not have to be replaced every few years. Inside, the houses are very dark. The small windows are not placed to create a cross breeze. Flat wooden benches serve as beds at night and seats during the day, and there is invariably a swinging bed, Udhoali hanging from the rafters. Most families keep their valuables in a wooden trunk under a bed. During the day, a great deal of time is spent in the shade of the verandah or under spreading breadfruit trees. Swings and hammocks attached to wooden frames are favorite lounging spots for grandparents and children. At night the doors and windows of many houses are shut tightly to keep out any passing jinni.
Family Life   -   The close-knit island communities practice mutual aid to survive difficult circumstances. Extended families take care of their own members and it is usual for the mother's family to look after the children. When they are together families say little and rarely express emotions. It is not often anyone raises their voice, even at the children. Few children speak to their remote but respected fathers. Women usually serve the family two meals of rice and fish a day, adding to their limited housekeeping budget by mat weaving or making coir. About one-third of the houses and coconut trees are owned by women, giving them a degree of economic independence. Since men usually work away from home either fishing, in the resorts or sailing with a shipping company, the women are responsible for the everyday running of the household. On some islands there are few men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five.
Women usually spend about three hours a day on household chores: cleaning the house and compound and preparing food. Their chores include tending fires made from scarce wood in the smoky kitchens, making the morning unleavened bread, roshi, and preparing rice and fish broth, garudia, for the main evening meal. Preparing the golden honey from coconuts, "Dhiyaa Hakuru", involves several hours of stirring, as does the concentrated fish paste "Rihaukuru", which goes with most meals. There are also coconuts to grate for curries and boil for oil, and the time consuming task of making the rock hard black fillets of tuna, "Hikimas". The main opportunity for relaxation and gossip comes when the women sit on their verandahs or in their yards cleaning the evening's rice spread out on a tray. Their greatest preoccupations are the education of the children, food and the daily catch. In the early history of Maldives, it was common to have a sultana as ruler, and it has been suggested that the society was once a matriarchy. Now, under the Islamic law of shari'a, men deal with religious and judicial affairs. Women cannot be judges or priests and they say their prayers in their own mosques. According to the present constitution, the president is the religious and political leader.

Traditionally, Maldivian women never wore burgah and until this century they often went topless. Now, however, an increasing number of women and young girls cover their heads, legs and arms in a tradition known locally as Burugaa. It's usually the job of young girls to collect water from the well in a metal pot which they carry home on their heads. Their mothers walk to the local village store, Fihaara, which stocks basic items like rice, sugar and onions, as well as a few luxuries like condensed milk, sweets, oil and soap. All women, young and old, clean the compound and the road or path outside it, carefully picking up all the leaves and spreading the coral sand evenly. This is done with a hand broom, "iloshifathi" made from the thin flexible spines of coconut leaves. To earn extra money women make coir rope, a long and drawn out process. The husks of coconuts are first left to rot in swamps for three months or so, then beaten with heavy sticks to release the fibers. The fibers are then washed, dried and woven together, usually across the weaver's thighs. When several strands are woven together they form an extremely strong and waterproof rope, capable of mooring a large dhoani to its anchor. Formerly Maldivian coir and cables were exported widely to the Far and Middle East. It was also the Maldivian practice to sew the planks of the ships together with coin A ship's hull held together with nails is rigid and can splinter to pieces against an Indian Ocean reef. If sewn with coir, however, it maintains a certain resilience and flexibility. Women also make cadjan for screens and walls by threading dried palm leaves together with coir. They weave beautiful and intricate mats, especially in the southern atolls, showing the same skill in developing their abstract patterns as their husbands do in building their boats simply by using their imagination and trained eye.

Marriage & Divorce   -   Education is broadening the horizons of Maldivian women, who traditionally were expected to remain at home and look after the family. Girls usually marry very young, at about 15 or 16. The ceremony often takes place in the groom's house or in the island office. The bride does not even attend. It's enough for the husband-to-be, his father, her father or the uncle of the bride and two witnesses to confer with the local judge, gazi, to formalize the marriage. Under Islamic law, men are allowed up to four wives, in the past it was considered a mark of esteem and piety to have as many. But today it is becoming rare for a man to have even two. Each wife is considered equal and lives in a different house. Although some marriages are still arranged, there is an increasing desire for romantic love, partly inspired by Hindi romance films and Western literature. It's even easier to divorce than to marry at least for men. The husband merely says "I divorce you", thalaaq not three times as is usual in Islam, but once and then reports the fact to the gazi.
It's more difficult for women, who must take their case to the gazi and prove cruelty, desertion or adultery. There are strong Muslim sanctions against adultery. The culprits are liable to be beaten. It therefore makes sense to form temporary liaisons within the marriage bond, even for a few months (and in some cases weeks). One well placed inhabitant of Male' is reputed to have been married eighty-six times. Ten times wed is not uncommon, but four times is the average. Eight out of ten married people divorce at least once. Married couples are usually from the same island and endogamy is preferred. Little fuss is made over weddings. Sometimes a newly married couple arranges a small reception, "Kaiveni Sai", with tea and snacks and perhaps some dancing with their friends. More elaborate affairs, however, are creeping in. The wedding of a daughter of a wealthy family, for instance, who marries a civil servant in Male', can be a grand affair, with local dignitaries and up to 250 guests attending a feast. On such occasions, the trees are often decorated with tinsel and colored paper. If there is a generator on the island, the whole compound blazes with lights.

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