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ETHNONYMS: Divehin, Dives, Maldivians


Identification. Divehis are those who speak Divehi, the language of the Republic of the Maldives. They occupy all the Maldives and also the island of Maliku (Minicoy on the maps) to the north, which belongs to India. The people call themselves Divehi (from dive-si, meaning "island-er"), and their country is Divehi Rājje (kingdom). The name "Maldives" is probably from mālā-dīv ("garland-islands" in Indian languages), referring to the double chain of atolls that appears like a garland or necklace. The word atol is Divehi, originally spelled with one l. The country was a nexus of Indian Ocean shipping, and it has remained mostly independent since ancient times.

Location. The Maldives stretch from 0° V S to 7° 0 N, with Minicoy at 8° 2. Longitude is about 73° E. There are about 1,200 islands, of which 201 are permanently inhabited. The islands are low and flat, mostly less than a kilometer long with only 9 as long as 2 kilometers, ringing coral atolls. Total land area is only about 280 square kilometers, and nowhere is the land more than 2 meters above sea level. The Maldives extend for 867 kilometers north to south and claim the surrounding ocean as national territory. Maliku is the largest Island, 16.5 kilometers long and lying 140 kilometers north of the Maldives proper, but it is politically cut off from other parts of the archipelago.

Demography. As of 1991 there were 228,000 Divehis220,000 Maldivians and roughly 8,000 on Maliku. The first census was in 1911 as part of the Ceylon census, and it showed 72,237 Divehis on 217 inhabited islands. Population was previously kept in check by epidemics, famine because of storms that interrupted imports of food, and cerebral malaria, but during recent decades the population has been shooting up rapidly. The 1990 census showed a crude birthrate of 43 per 1,000 and a growth rate of 3.5 percent a year. The government has taken little initiative on family planning because of the momentum of Islamic tradition. Male has 57,000 people, a quarter of all Divehis, though it is only 1.6 kilometers long and the thin groundwater lens has become polluted, so the government tries to curb migration there. Life expectancy is about 62 years for males and 60 for females.

Linguistic Affiliation. Divehi is derived from the old Sinhala of Sri Lanka, and so it is classifiable as an Indo-Aryan language, although at the very end of the Eurasian chain of that language stock. There is an underlying component of Tamil-Malayalam. Since conversion to Islam, numerous Arabic and Persian words have been borrowed. The bounds of the language are clear, but the three southern atolls and Maliku have their own dialects. The script is unique, invented for Divehi three centuries ago from a combination of Arabic and Indian principles of script. It suits the language well and is easy to learn.

History and Cultural Relations

The Maldives were known to very early Indian seafarers, such as sailed from Gujarat in the middle of the first millennium b.c. and settled in Sri Lanka, and are mentioned in early works such as the Buddhist Jātaka tales and the Sri Lankan epics. Early settlement was evidently from Kerala, diffused through the Lakshadvīp (Laccadive) Islands by fishermen and by the kings of Kerala who made conquests by sea, according to Tamil literature of the early centuries a.d. The Maldives were perhaps touched by Indonesian culture (which passed through to Madagascar) roughly at the same time, and the Islands were well known to classical Greek geographers. Persians began trading about the seventh century. The country was conquered several times by Tamil and Kerala kings in medieval centuries. The most significant settlement was by Sinhalas from Sri Lanka, perhaps by political exiles, which gave the Maldives their language, the old Sinhala script, Theravada Buddhism, and Sri Lankan beliefs and foods. This little civilization flourished especially in the tenth to twelfth centuries, held together by a Sinhala type of highly centralized kinship. On several islands there are remnants of Buddhist stupas of coral stone, described by H. C. P. Bell as being of Anuradhapura style. In the twelfth century an Arab saint who claimed that he had power to chase away a powerful jinni by reading the Quran convinced the king to convert the country to Islam and made him a sultan. The national chronicle records ninety-two sultans (and a few sultanas). Through Islam, the Maldives had the advantage of trade links all over the Indian Ocean. Ibn Battuta, the Arab chronicler, came in 1343-1344 and taught Islamic law. The Maldives were visited by the Chinese in the ninth and fifteenth centuries. The Portuguese ruled for fifteen years in the sixteenth century. The British "protected" the country from 1887 on, but they did not leave much of a cultural stamp, and they granted the Maldives independence in 1965. So the old culture is comprised of three main layers: the Tamil-Malayalam substratum with its many subtle roots; old Sinhala culture and language, which is the dominant element; and the phase of Arabic Influence. But the Maldives were touched by every cultural wind that passed over the Indian Ocean. Since independence there has again been influence from Sri Lanka, through its teachers brought over to set up modern education with teaching of English. Unusually rapid change has occurred in Divehi culture in the past twenty-five years.


The 201 inhabited islands are the larger or best fishing Islands. Houses are made of local vegetation and thatch or coral stones, sometimes with imported iron or tile roofs. People desire pleasant houses, and they often arrange them on streets with the plots marked by stick fences. The island is the social and administrative unit. Everybody has official registration on his or her island and cannot change it to another Island without twelve years' residence. Each island comprises an insular social community, in which its land, people, and products are preferred to those of other islands. The islands are grouped into nineteen administrative atolls. Male is the only city, with some multistoried buildings of coral stone neatly whitewashed and mostly built along the straight sandy streets. It has a pious air, with thirty-five mosques and many tombs. Nearby is the airport island of Hulule, with a runway extending on the reef. Some 60 "uninhabited" islands are now built up as profitable tourist resorts, which especially attract Europeans in winter, but the government tries to minimize their cultural influence.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The main traditional economic activities are trading and fishing. Bonitos and larger tuna are a mainstay of the economy, caught by pole-and-line or trolling-line from sailboats or motorized wooden boats. The famous Maldives fish is prepared by boiling, drying, and smoking. A man maximizes wealth by acquiring fishing boats because the owner gets a larger share of fish than the fishing crew. A boat owner might also obtain the right from the state to lease uninhabited islands, mainly for collecting coconuts. There are three kinds of millets grown and taro in the south. Some homes have breadfruit, mango, papaya, and banana trees, but few vegetables are eaten. Sea trade has always been a vital source of income, and now there is a modern shipping industry; profits from it and tourism accrue mostly to a few prominent families in Male. Income per capita from foreign aid is relatively high.

Industrial Arts. The most striking traditional craft is building wooden boats, both small and large ones with lateen sails, which can fish in the deep sea and carry goods to the continents. Sailing long distances without benefit of maps and charts is a remarkable traditional skill. Maldives rope twisted from coconut coir was always in demand by foreign navies. The islanders also make fine products such as mats woven from local reeds and lacquer work on turned wood. Cotton weaving, silver work, stonecutting, and brass work have mostly died out.

Trade. For many centuries the Maldives were famous as the main source of cowrie shells, used as money in Bengal and Africa. Divehis are skilled in rapid counting, necessary for handling cowries, coconuts, or fish. The traditional method was to count by twos to 96 and mark each unit of 192 by laying 2 coconuts on the side; they thereby could count rapidly to many thousands. The base number was 12, which Clarence Maloney finds significant in Maldives history. What is more peculiar is that Indo-Aryan words for 25, 50, 75, 100, and 1,000 are applied respectively to 24, 48, 72, 96, and 960, as the decimal system has been replacing the duodecimal. Weights and measures are based on multiples of 4 and 12. The main imports have been rice, wheat flour, cotton textiles, kerosene, metal products, tobacco, salt, and condiments. Now the whole country is a duty-free entrepôt, contrasting with the controlled economies of other South Asian Countries, and there is modern banking.

Division of Labor. Men fish, while women prepare and dry the fish. Men grow millets, while women cultivate root crops. Men conduct interisland and overseas trade, climb coconut trees, and are the artisans in cotton, silver, lacquer, and stonework, while women weave mats and do embroidery. Women do the tedious job of twisting coir into small ropes, which men then twist into thick ropes for their boats. However, these sex roles are not absolutely fixed; there are cases of these activities being done by the other sex. Women do most of the housework and child care, but men may also do it. Boat crews and leaders of Islamic ritual and law, however, are all males.

Land Tenure. All land belongs to the state, which leases uninhabited islands or parts of islands to prominent people for collection of produce, as part of its system of control. All households in the Maldives, except on Male, can claim the right to a plot of land for a house and garden in their island of registration. In Fue Mulaku in the south, residents have the right to cultivate as much taro land as they wish.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Divehi kinship system in origin is a combination of Dravidian and Arab with elements of North Indian kinship derived from Sri Lanka. Although these three systems are sharply at variance, they are resolved in Divehi culture. The Dravidian system is based on preferred cross-cousin marriage, and a male classifies all females as either sister (unmarriageable) or female cross cousin (marriageable) . The matrilineal variant of the Dravidian system occurs most clearly in the Lakshadvīp Islands off the coast of Kerala, from which Tamil-Malayalam culture would have extended to form the cultural substratum in the Maldives. This comes through clearly in Divehi kinship terminology, the history of queens, remnants of girls' menstruation ceremonies, and other features traced out in Maloney's reconstruction of the culture history. Sinhala settlers too brought a form of Dravidian kinship, modified by features derived from North India. The present Divehi system is heavily influenced by Islamic law, so a man can marry any cousin but not a sibling's daughter, a foster sister, or a stepdaughter. There are few lateral kinship ties and no lineage depth except in a few prominent families; some Divehis do not even recall their grandparents' names.

Kinship Terminology. Divehi kin terms are few, of mixed Sinhala, Arabic, and Dravidian origin. The terms "grandFather" (kāfa ) and "grandmother" (māma ), and "father" (bappa ) and "mother" (mamma ) may be applied to other kin of their generation. The terms "elder brother" (bēbe ) and "elder sister" (datta ) are extended to elder cousins. Terms one uses for one's juniors, as "younger sibling" (kokko ), "child" (dan ), and "child-in-law" (danbi ), do not distinguish sex. As for in-laws, all males are covered by one term (liyanu, of Malayalam origin) and females by another (fahari ). In Fua Mulaku atoll there is a word for "mother's brother," māber, to whom a male may have a special relationship, a Dravidian remnant. There are no terms or marriage rules about cousins, any of whom can marry, as in Islam. There are hardly any Ritual relationships with one's own children, and none with Siblings or other kin. In this sparse system, most of the special kin relationships in the three underlying systems historically canceled each other out, compatible with the extreme frequency of divorce and remarriage.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There is a tendency toward preferential island endogamy, because people don't like other islands and it is difficult to move. The wedding ceremony consists only of the elemental Islamic rituals. A woman does not appear at her own wedding, but her prior consent is obtained by the katību who officiates. Every woman has a male guardian who signs for her marriage, and all marriages and divorces are meticulously recorded. Divorce and remarriage are remarkably Common; someone might divorce and marry a neighbor, then remarry the original partner or another neighbor, while the children remain nearby. Marriage and divorce are according to Islamic law, interpreted so as to allow frequent remarriages. A man can divorce his wife by a single pronouncement, and if a woman wants a divorce she can behave in such a way that she gets it. It is common to meet people who have been Divorced and remarried a dozen times; there are people who have married even 80 or 90 times in life, often to previous partners. The marriage rate in the Maldives is 34.4 per 1,000 persons per year (compared with 9.7 in United States, and 7.9 in Sri Lanka where divorce is rare). This is by far the highest rate of legal marriage and divorce of any country listed in United Nations statistics. But divorce does not induce trauma in a child, because the parent who departs the home will be a close neighbor, and the parents might remarry. So a child grows up with a special feeling toward all the citizens of his or her island, who are all related and tend to form a marrying unit.

Domestic Unit. The family is usually nuclear and is a fluid unit. Often a woman owns the house, and in divorce the Children may stay with her. Descent can be classified as bilateral and residence mostly as ambilocal or neolocal, or in a few places duolocal. People try to build houses of several rooms and a kitchen, with a fenced garden, and usually keep them tidy. Old people are not automatically entitled to special Respect, especially if they cannot earn; they live either with a child or alone. By law, an aged person should be supported equally by all his grown children.

Inheritance. Islamic inheritance is observed, in which a daughter gets half the share of a son. But some people will all their property to one child in return for old-age support. A woman tends to inherit the house and a man the boats. When a woman dies, the first share of her property goes to her legal guardian (usually her father) and then in turn to husband, sons, and daughters. Because of the frequency of divorce, married couples have separate ownership of all movable and immovable property. Inheritance is settled by the Islamic judge (qāzi ).

Socialization. Children are mostly raised benevolently, with emphasis on absence of violence and control of emotion. Aggressive play among children is not acceptable, and in the society there is hardly any physical aggression, violence, or murder. Boys may swim, play on boats, climb trees, fly kites, or walk on stilts. Girls do not do these things, but they play hopscotch, shell games, or "kitchens." Children's play is not encouraged. On most islands there is little that is new to explore, no new personalities, and no real schooling. Mothers teach children to read and write Divehi, using chalk on little slate boards, for Islamic teaching, and many islands have Little schools attached to the mosques, so almost all Divehis become literate. Many children learn to intone Arabic letters in order to "read" the Quran, although without any understanding.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In the old society there were three ranks, mostly in Male and the large southern islands, and though descendants of the old elite class still hold most Political power and property, they have no hereditary privileges or titles now. Rank today is determined mostly by wealth. Divehis comprise a single tight sociopolitical system with no significant ethnic minorities, though there are minor cultural differences among the atolls, particularly the three southern atolls. The people of Maliku have been under separate administration for two centuries, and there is little outside knowledge of the society because India does not allow foreigners to visit there. India administers it along with the Lakshadvīp Islands and expects the people to go to school in Malayalam, though they still speak Divehi. In the Maldives, just one castelike group has been described. This group is the Girāvaru, Aborigines who formerly ruled Male. They lived on an eroding island, so the government moved them to Hulule, the airport island, from where they have again been displaced; now they have again been partly absorbed by another island community. They have consciously retained differences in dress, have claimed that unlike the other Divehis they had no divorce or widow remarriage, and have said their ancestors were Tamils, though they have no knowledge of such people and have never traveled outside their atoll. They have also claimed to be strictly endogamous. Other Divehis Traditionally have thought of the Girāvaru as dirty, while they have thought of other Divehis as morally corrupt.

Political Organization. The old aristocratic families from the time of the sultanate are still dominant in Male. Since independence in 1965 the country has been called a republic. It is governed by a president, who maintains tight authority through the ministries of religion and law, the system of appointed atoll and island chiefs, and finances from the tourist and shipping industries. In theory, he governs at the will of the national assembly, the Majlis, which is just now Beginning to assume a modern legislative role.

Social Control. Control is through the island offices and atoll offices, in which religious law is part of the tight state apparatus. All larger islands and atoll offices have a qāzi, who performs marriages, adjudicates disputes and inheritance, examines the accused, and enforces Sharia law as interpreted by the attorney-general. The atoll court has separate sections to deal with religious, criminal, and political violations. The court may punish an accused by giving an order for social boycott or by banishment to some island for a year or for life. Atoll and island headmen study Islamic religious law, and there are a few experts trained in Egypt.

Conflict. Divehis are extremely reticent to show aggression or to make threats, and there is hardly any murder. But there are serious contests to seize national political power, and a loser may be banished to an island for many years. There is a historic tendency for the southern atolls to claim autonomy, but this tendency is not overt now, and there is no other organized or open conflict in the society. Divehis on small Islands may have hardly any knowledge of the outside world, and they often fear strangers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. All Divehis are Sunni Muslims, of the Shafi tradition, and will remain so because a non-Muslim cannot marry or settle there. Every island has its mosque with the katību in charge, who is paid by the government. Most men attend Friday prayers and give to charity. Women Perhaps more than men pray five times a day and read scripture. The ethos of Islam appears to be very strong, but some feel it tends to consist only of perfunctory fasting and prayers. Islamic mysticism and Sufi ideas are officially disapproved of as leading to emotionalism rather than to Sunni legal observance. Islam overlies an earlier religious system having many deities and spiritsoriginally Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain deities and local ghostsbut people now think of them as jinnis and deal with them by Islamic strategies. The outside world is unknown and fearsome, and people are concerned about strange lights on the ocean. There is a system of religious practice called fandita, which is used to chase away jinnis and fearsome lights, catch fish, heal disease, increase fertility, facilitate divination, make a person give up his or her spouse, cast out a spirit, or solve any problem in life. When a new boat is launched there is a fandita ritual combined with Arabic prayers for its good performance. Fandita is performed at Several stages in growing a taro or millet crop. Black magic is also known, but it is prohibited by law. Fandita has many elements similar to village religion in south India and Sri Lanka. Pre-Muslim concepts of the evil eye and pollution have been absorbed into Islamic values. Menstrual pollution is strongly observed.

Religious Practitioners. The katību of an island preaches Friday sermons, settles disputes, reports behavior deviations to the atoll office, and also runs the island office. He is assisted by a functionary to care for the mosque, make calls to prayer, and bury the dead. Fandita practitioners were at one time licensed by the state. Fandita men and women seldom go into trance, which they think Islam disapproves of; their purpose is to help others in difficult life situations. Larger Islands also have astrologers.

Ceremonies. Divehis know five calendrical systems: a naksatra or zodiacal system from India; an Indian solar calendar; an Arabic solar calendar; the Arabic religious calendar; which is ten days shorter than the solar year; and now the "English" calendar. Weather is keenly observed, along with fishing seasons and agricultural festivals, according to the naksatra (nakai ) system. Other festivals are observed according to their respective calendrical systems, but the new-moon festival that came from Sri Lanka has now almost disappeared. Divehis are assiduous about observing the Ramzan holiday, enforced by the state. But at night in Ramzan the food is abundant. The two ïd festivals are important, and the Prophet's birthday is celebrated by special foods. Personal ceremonies include giving a name about a week after birth, circumcision of boys at age 6 or 8, symbolic circumcision of baby girls (which may be declining), and girls' puberty Ceremony as a carryover from Sri Lanka and south India. Marriage is less important as a life ceremony.

Arts. The arts are very poorly developed because of the isolated and scattered population. Divehi music is monorhythmic and infrequently heard; Radio Maldives tends to play Hindi cinema songs. Dancing has been disfavored by Islam. There is some artistry in living crafts such as lace making, lacquer work, and mat weaving.

Medicine. Most people seek healing from fandita which uses both mantras invoking Allah's power and factual advice. The diverse medical systems of India are not developed, but there are a few practitioners of the Islamic system of Unani. There is a government hospital in Male providing scientific medicine, and donors have funded the beginning of a healthcare system.

Death and Afterlife. The death ritual is important. The katību is informed and a conch shell is blown. Then the body is washed, tied, and shrouded as specified in Islam and laid in a coffin or in a leaf box. The grave is dug by family members or friends, and then the corpse is laid in with the face toward Mecca, while passages from the Quran are read. Death is not greeted with much emotion, and questions about life after death are not of much concern.


Bell, H. C. P. (1940). The Maldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archaeology, and Epigraphy, Colombo: Government Press.

Maloney, Clarence (1984). "Divehi." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, Vol. 1, 232-236. Rev. ed., edited by Richard Weekes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Maloney, Clarence (1980). People of the Maldive Islands. Madras: Orient Longman.

Munch-Petersen, Nils Finn (1982). "Maldives: History, Daily Life, and Art Handicraft." Bulletin du C.E.M.O.I. (Brussels). 1:74-103.

Ottovar, Annagrethe, and Nils Finn Munch-Petersen (1980). Maldiverneøet øsamfund i det Indiske Ocean (The Maldivian Island community in the Indian Ocean). Copenhagen: Kunstindustrimuseet.


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