"THE PROBLEM OF THE MALDIVE PAST" - From 'The Maldive Islanders' by Xavier Romero Frias

While the coup of February 7th 2012 was going on, a group of people broke into the Maldivian National Museum with the sole purpose of demolishing what little physical evidence remained of our pre-Islamic past. 

This chapter from the excellent Maldive Islanders (p. 25-27) by Xavier Romero Frias, highlights how this may be a case of history repeating itself. Maldivian Culture is in turmoil and even though it has always been more or less in a state of flux, unless we work to preserve the past so that we may analyse it, we are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes. More than anything else, Maldivians need to stop being so ashamed of their rich and cultured past. Following is the chapter in its entirety including footnotes (minus some phonetic characters). 


There are very few historical documents throwing light on the past of the Maldivians. Even many documents locally accepted as history are mostly myth. Archaeological evidence shows that there was a flourishing culture in the islands before the last Buddhist king decided to convert to Islam. The precise reasons why this monarch decided to abandon his ancestral Buddhist faith are not known, but edicts written on copper plates (Lōmāfānu), make it very clear that the general conversion to Islam was ordered by the king. Lōmāfānu edicts were etched on long copper plates held together by a ring of the same metal. The oldest lōmāfānu that have hitherto been found and preserved are from Male', the royal capital, and from the islands of Isdu and Dambidu in Haddummati Atoll, where there were large Buddhist monasteries. These copperplates were issued at the end of the twelfth century AD.[51]

The lōmāfānu were written in the curly Evēla[52] form of the divehi akuru[53] or old Maldive alphabet, which has strong similarities with the Tamil Grantha script of the 7th century Pallava and Pandya dynasties.[54] In certain documents, a form of old Nagari or Protobengali script is also present, which shows that there were contacts with the centers of Buddhist learning of Nalanda, Ratnagiri and Vikramaśīla. These must have taken place from the 8th century AD onwards, when Buddhist culture revived and flourished in Eastern India owing to the patronage of the Pāla kings of Bengal.[55]

The religious and cultural relationship between Maldives and Bengal was made possible by regular seaborne trade with that region of the Subcontinent[56] facilitated by favorable winds and currents. The large wooden trunks used by traders in their journeys were known in Divehi as ‘bangalufosi’ (Bengali box) and in the oral tradition of the Maldivians there are legends telling that trade with Bengal was very important in the distant past.

The Pala dynasties were rulers over the last Buddhist coastal kingdom in South Asia. In spite of some squabbles with the Cholas to the South and the Senas to the West, their reign was generally so peaceful that in 1196 it was possible for a small party of Muslim horsemen to ride directly to the Pala palace and slaughter the dynasty’s last king with impunity. The Muslim armies went on to thoroughly destroy the great centers of Buddhist learning named above. It is said that the vast seven-storied library of Nalanda University kept burning for six months and that fifteen thousand monks were burned to death trapped inside while having their midday meal. Some of the monks who escaped the massacre took refuge in Burma, Nepal and Tibet. These events took place but a few years after the conversion of the Maldives to Islam.

Even at that time, the actual Maldive archipelago was under the control of a single king (Radun) or royal family. This king must have been very secure in his power to be able to deal with the strains of the country’s mass-conversion from Buddhism to Islam. In the Dambidu lōmāfānu[57] the Radun addresses his edict to all islands between Kela (in Tiladummati Atoll), one of the northernmost islands of the group, and Addu (Atoll) in the Southern end. It is interesting to note that Maliku[58] (Minicoy) is not mentioned in those documents, even though it is known that, besides sharing the Buddhist faith, this rather isolated atoll already had both ethnic and linguistic affinities with the rest of the Maldive Islands at that time.

However few, a number of archaeological remains from the Buddhist period have survived. Thanks to the lōmāfānu it is known that the monasteries in Haddummati Atoll were of great importance within the Maldive Kingdom. In other atolls, many islands have mounds or low hills which indicate where a Buddhist Stupa was located.[59] In fact, these remains quite accurately indicate which islands were inhabited during Buddhist times.

Unfortunately, these mounds have been heavily vandalized, especially in the recent past when certain ancestral superstitious beliefs were overcome. According to those beliefs, going near old ruins or interfering in any way with them, like removing stones or earth, would bring disgrace to the intruder. As an example, in Malos (Ari Atoll), a man who had tried to break a little hemispherical coral block (probably a small Stupa) known locally as Mudu, complained that he had horrible nightmares that same night.[60]

Another cause of heavy destruction during recent years has been archaeological excavations on those sites themselves. Regrettably, these investigations were either done carelessly, or left the site unprotected after excavation. The removal of the sheltering jungle exposed the site to subsequent vandalism. Often local inhabitants plundered the place in the vain hope of finding gold or other treasures, as soon as the archaeologists and accompanying government officials left the island.[61]

Perhaps the fact that most endangers the preservation of ancient archaeological remnants in the Maldive Islands is that among Maldivians, save rare exceptions, there is a definite lack of pride in their ancient history, especially in what has come to be labeled as ‘pre-Islamic’. Hence, it is not surprising that disrespect for the ruins of Buddhist monuments is very common among islanders of all walks of life.

Much of the general disinterest in their ancient cultural heritage lies in the confusion arising from the lack of definition of Maldive cultural identity. In every Maldivian mind there is a sharp struggle between inherited customs and Muslim ideology. Since this conflict remains unresolved, there is a widespread feeling of guilt and frustration at being unable to adjust the ancestral cultural heritage to the Islamic ideological pattern.

After the country’s mass-conversion to Islam in the 12th century AD, the culture of the Maldivians and the Islamic ideals were only overlapping to a certain extent. Large areas of the Maldive cultural heritage had no compatibility with Islamic ideology (albeit these have been greatly reduced during the 1980’s and 90s as government-sponsored Arabic cultural influence grew exponentially). At the same time, all through the post-Buddhist history of the country there were large areas of Islamic cultural patterns incompatible with the ancestral ideals of Maldivians.

To illustrate the latter point, when Ibn Batuìta, the Moroccan traveler who had been appointed as supreme judge by the Maldivian queen, ordered the hands of people guilty of stealing to be cut off according to Islamic Sharia’ law, most spectators in the hall fainted.62 Although this event took place in the 13th century, average Maldivians still privately consider acts of violence, even if committed in the name of the religious law, barbaric. Paradoxically, these strengths, fruits of an inherited cultural refinement that the Maldive islanders possess as a nation, have been made to appear as their weakness by elements propounding greater arabization.

Always suspicious of any type of religious syncretism, the government has been responsible for the enforcement of religious orthodoxy in the island communities. This activity has known no respite throughout Maldive history and, as a result, it has brought about periodical repression of all type of Divehi cultural expressions deemed un-Islamic. As this has been the pattern since the 12th century, there was no small amount of perplexity in far-off islands at the paradox of a sudden official interest in preserving the remainders of “Kafir ruins” in recent times, when tourists and foreign archaeologists have begun to pay regular visits to ancient Maldive Buddhist sites.

Undoubtedly, the most conspicuous physical destruction happened at the time when the King ordered the islanders to abandon their ancestral religious practices. The converted monarch was ruthless in his resolve to erase all traces of the former religion of the Maldivians. According to the Isdu lōmāfānu , monks from monasteries of the Southern Atoll of Haddummati were brought to Male' and beheaded.[63]

All anthropomorphic and zoomorphic iconography and other important religious symbols were systematically vandalized. The Dambidu lōmāfānu tells us that Satihirutalu (the Chatravali crowning a Stupa) were broken to disfigure the numerous Stupas. It tells us also that statues of Vairocana, the transcendent Buddha of the middle world region, were destroyed; and the destruction was not limited to sculptures.

The wealth of manuscripts - probably written on screwpine leaves - that Maldivian monks in their Buddhist monasteries must have produced was either burnt or otherwise so thoroughly eliminated that it has disappeared without leaving any trace. Therefore there are no samples of paintings from the Maldive Buddhist period itself. The only actual remains of the art of those times are a few sculptures and etchings on coral stone. Most of these are preserved in a little room in the Male' Museum.


  • [51] The Isdu lōmāfānu  was issued precisely in the year AD 1194, however, the conversion of the Maldives to Islam was in AD 1153 according to the Maldivian ‘Taìrikh’ chronicle.
  • [52] The ancient Divehi alphabet. ‘Evela akuru’ was a tentative name given by H.C.P. Bell to differentiate it from the more recent forms of the same script (divehi akuru) which were in use between the 12th and the 19th centuries. H.C.P. Bell, ‘The Maldive Islands. Monograph on the History, Archaeology and Epigraphy.’
  • [53] Wilhelm Geiger and H.C.P. Bell in their writings erroneously called this alphabet ‘Dives akuru’. The word ‘Dives’ is a misspelling. The real name of that alphabet, as quoted by Bodufenvaluge Sídí in his authoritative work, is ‘Divehi akuru’, meaning ‘Island letters’ or ‘Maldivian letters.’ Previously Christopher and Young had referred to this alphabet as ‘Divehi Hakaru’. W. Geiger, ‘Maldivian Linguistic Studies.’ H.C.P. Bell ‘Excerpta Maldiviana.’ Bodu Fenvaluge Sídí, ‘Divehi Akuru’ Vol 1. Lieut. I.A. Young & W. Christopher, ‘Memoirs on the Inhabitants of the Maldive Islands.’
  • [54] Some authors claim that the old Divehi script resembles the medieval Sinhalese Elu alphabet, but the fact is that the affinities with the Tamil Grantha script and with the earlier forms of Malayalam script are much greater from a graphic point of view, even though the Divehi language itself is closer to the Sinhala language.
  • [55] The Pala kingdom included Bengal (made up of present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh), Bihar and part of Orissa (Ganjam).
  • [56] Trade between Sri Lanka and Bengal also flourished during that time. When the Pala Kingdom fell, Mahayana and Vajrayana influence in Ceylon came to an end. In time, the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Lanka became practically landlocked. Nandasena Mudiyanse, ‘Mahayana Monuments in Ceylon.’
  • [57] A tentative transcription of this lōmāfānu was made by M. Loutfi and was subsequently published in ‘Faiytura’, the organ of the Maldivian Cultural Affairs Council.
  • [58] A culturally Maldivian island now part of the U.T. Lakshadweep, India. Oral tradition says that in centuries past Minicoy was devastated by a cyclone that broke most of the coconut trees. The island was then ruled by the Maldive king, so Minicoy islanders sent a delegation to MaleØ asking for financial assistance. Since the king told them that he had not enough money in his treasury, this delegation went onwards to the Malabar coast, where they found favor with the king of Cannanore who agreed to help them rebuild their island. Thereafter the Minicoy people owed allegiance to this kingdom of the SW Indian shore (Information: Magieduruge Ibrahím Dídi)
  • [59] Stupas were said to have been built by the Redin. V. Rasovesi: Havitta uhe haudahau, Redin taneke hedí ihau (How tall is the Caitya! A Redin place built in ancient times). Thor Heyerdahl made much speculation around that word, but I am convinced it is just a name that Maldivians used in the first centuries after conversion to refer to their Buddhist ancestors.
  • [60] Information by Ahumadu Salímu, Victory House, Malos, Ari Atoll.
  • [61] Information by the late Magieduruge Ibrahím Didi
  • [62] Ibn Batuìta, ‘Travels in Asia and Africa’.
  • [63] H.A. Maniku & G.D. Wijayawardhana, ‘Isdhoo Loamaafaanu’.