The ancient history of Maldives is a mixture of fact and legend. Maldives history has been shaped and molded with the ebb and flow of time and tide.
The Maldives has been influenced by the major civilizations of the world. The Phoenicians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians have passed through the islands during ancient times, each leaving their mark.
The famous cowry shell from Maldives once used as currency in different parts of the world has been found in the ruins of the ancient port of Lothal of the Indus Valley dating back to 1400 BC. Thor Heyerdahl the famous archeologist writes that the Maldives was first settled by sun-worshipping seafarers known as ‘Redhin’, as early as 2500 BC, before Buddhism and later Islam changed the religious landscape of the country.
The Maldives was invaded by Portuguese in 1558 and ruled by them until 1573, continuously raided by Malabars from South West India during the 17th and 18th centuries and eventually invaded by them in 1752. Although the Malabar rule was short-lived the raids continued. The Sultans sought protection first from the French at first and then in 1887 signed a protectorate agreement with the British.
Historical records of Maldives have been found all over the world from Rome to China, in memoirs of French and Arab travelers and as early as the 1st century AD. In addition to the content of the record, the records themselves help us to fathom the historical links we have had with people and countries the world over.
Ancient chronicles of South India and the Mahavansa of Sri Lanka contain records about the Maldives. According to the Mahavansa, one of the ships that sailed with Prince Vijaya who went to Sri Lanka around 500 BC, went adrift and arrived at an island called Mahiladvipika, which is the Maldives.
A Roman manual of navigation from the first century AD, Periplus Maris Erithraei mentions islands assumed to be the Maldives.
Ptolemy, the famous 2nd century AD Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer, refers to the Maldives in his Geography.
The first record of Maldivians traveling abroad is obtained from the writings of the Roman historian Amianus Marcelinus (circa 320-390 AD). He records a visit by a delegation of Divis (Maldivians) to Rome in 362 AD bearing gifts to Emperor Julian.
A historical document of China records that in the years 658 AD and 662 AD, the King of the Maldives sent gifts to the Chinese Emperor Kao-Tsung of the Tang dynasty. The gifts were taken to his court by Maldivians.
According to written records of the Chola Dynasty of South India, the Chola king Raja Raja I (985-1014 AD) captured a number of islands of the Maldives after a naval encounter during the late 10th or 11th century AD.
Arab travelers wrote about the Maldives as early as the 900 AD. In 1343 AD Ibn Batuta the famous historian and traveler visited the Maldives, lived here and wrote about the country.
The famous French traveler, Francois Pyrard de Laval, arrived in the Maldives with his ship "Corbin" in the year 1602 AD, during the reign of Kalaafaanu. The writings of Pyrard relate a number of stories and events in the Maldives during that time.
People and Language
Evidence suggests that Maldives has been populated and thriving as early as the 4th century BC. It is evident that the first settlers were an Indo Aryan race from India and historical records show that although small in numbers, people have migrated from Arabia and eastern Africa. An anthropological survey carried out at the end of the 19th century showed the Maldivian inhabitants had traits that revealed ancestral linkages with peoples from all corners of the Indian Ocean. Today, the Maldivians are a mixed race with a population of about 320,000.
Travellers to Maldives have commented on the Maldivian people as kind and hospitable people, a peaceable race and as a people who are kind to visitors and travelers.
The people of Maldives are unified by a common history, faith and language. Although the islands are dispersed over a long stretch of ocean, these elements create a common bond that has kept the Maldives unified as a nation for centuries.
Dhivehi is the language of the Maldives. The language has undergone changes as a result of contact with the outside world throughout the centuries, blending with and absorbing new influences as it evolved. Given the wide dispersion of the islands, it is not surprising that the vocabulary and pronunciation vary from atoll to atoll, which is especially significant in the southernmost atolls.
The language displays much resemblance to several other languages from Sri Lanka and rest of Asia. It contains many Arabic, Hindi and English words. Historically the early people spoke "Elu" a form of ancient Singhalese. Many of the Dhivehi words have their root in Sanskrit.
Dhivehi is used in the administration of the country. Until the 1960s, Dhivehi was also the medium of teaching in all schools, but even today Dhivehi is a compulsory subject in the national curriculum. English is widely understood, spoken and written by the locals. Many in the tourist industry are also fluent in other European languages and Japanese.
The Maldives has its own national dresses and costumes that have changed over time. Even today a walk on the streets in Male’ will offer you a mix of the traditional with the modern.
The oldest Maldivian dress is the libaas which has evolved and changed over time. The libaas is worn with an underskirt called feyli. Feyli has traditionally been an important piece of attire for both men and women. It is a black or dark brown wraparound that is bordered at the bottom with broad stripes of white. Feyli was worn by the nobility as a sarong. The wraparound was also part of the ceremonial dress of the palace guards and other attendants at the palace.
Dhigu hedhun is a more recent introduction. The national dress was designed and introduced in the 1950s and is now widely worn by ladies as an everyday dress as well as at important national functions.