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LOCATION: Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka
POPULATION: 385,925 (2008 estimate)
LANGUAGE: Divehi or Dhivehi
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni)


Maldivians are known as Divehi. They reside primarily on Maldives, an island-nation southwest of Sri Lanka. In the Divehi language, Maldives is known as Divehi Rājje, which translates as “island kingdom.” Maldivians link much of their identity to islands, and the Republic of Maldives itself consists of 1,190 tiny islands that are organized into approximately 26 coral atolls. The word “dives,” which is found both in the nation of the Maldivian people and in their geographic home, comes from a Sanskrit word, dvīp, for island. The word “dives” also is used to identify many of the other islands within the Maldives archipelago.

Maldivian society is relatively small in size. Its people draw a shared sense of identity through their history, the Divehi language they speak, and their belief in Islam. Individuals value strong community ties, loyalty to their national president, and family obligations. Modern-day Maldives earns much of its revenue through tourism, and the Maldivians are known as tolerant and respectful of those who visit their island-nation.

The Maldivian society is among the world's oldest. However, the origins of the Maldivians themselves are not entirely known. Some scholars believe the first people to arrive in the islands were sailors from Sri Lanka and southern India as early as 2000 BC. Others trace the origins to Aryans who had migrated into northern India at about the same time and continued to journey southward. Archeological evidence indicates that the earliest inhabitants practiced Hinduism and Buddhism, which also were practiced widely in southern India and Sri Lanka.

Arab and Persian sailors who began traveling trade routes through the Indian Ocean in AD 900 brought Islam to Maldives. The first recorded arrival was in AD 947, and by 1153 most Maldivians had converted to Islam. However, Maldivian culture is derived from many other sources as well. Inhabitants of some of its islands are descendents of former slaves while others claim lineage to members of Arabian nobility who arrived in Maldives while making the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that is a vital component of Islam. Intermarriage between these different peoples has made the Maldivian community rich with traditions from many cultures. The Maldivian language, Divehi, also reflects this mixing. Divehi's roots are Sinhalese and Sanskritic, which reflects the migration of people from present-day Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent. However, the spoken language contains many words that are of Persian, Arabian, and Portuguese influence. A fusion of several cultural traditions also is seen in traditional Maldivian medicinal practices, which include uses of Chakra, Ayurveda, and Unani.

Portuguese traders arrived in Maldives in the 16th century, invading the capital of Malé in 1558. Maldivians reacted to the Portuguese with hostility. A local uprising led by Maldivian hero Muhammed Thakurufaanu drove out the Portuguese in 1573. Thakurufaanu established Maldives as a sultanate, which remained in place until 1887 when the sultan at the time signed an agreement with British forces and made the Maldives a British protectorate.

Maldives remained under British control until 1965, first as a protectorate, then as a republic. On 26 July 1965, however, a new nation-state was formed and Maldives became independent. The modern-day country elected its first president, Ibrahim Nasir, in 1968. Nasir remained in power until 1973. Nasir was replaced by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom held the position until 2008 despite three armed attempts to unseat him in the 1980s and riots in 2004. Gayoom managed to stay in power largely because there was only one political party until 2005, when the government introduced more democratic reforms and legalized political parties. A new constitution was ratified in August 2008 and elections took place in October of that year. The elections resulted in a new president, Muhammad Nasheed.

In the years since independence, Maldivians have benefited from a relatively stable economy based largely on tourism, which the government introduced in 1972. Its worst economic disaster occurred in December 2004 when a devastating tsunami swept through the Indian Ocean. More than 80 people were killed in Maldives, and thousands of other residents lost their homes. The country's infrastructure also suffered heavy damage. A rebound in tourism, however, has helped the country recover. Despite growing problems of poverty and drug abuse, the close interdependent community and kinship ties that Maldivians have nurtured for centuries keep the country and its people vibrant today. Even as the country shifts to a more democratic political structure, families who are at the top of Maldives' social structure retain power. Village administrators deal with disputes at the local level by reporting them to the national government and waiting for instructions on how to proceed. More than 70,000 foreign workers also reside in Maldives. Most are from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, and work in the tourism industry.


The archipelago that makes up Maldives is in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka. The land mass consists of 1,190 coral islands. Those islands are then grouped into 26 atolls. About 200 of the islands are inhabited by local Maldivians. An additional 80 islands maintain tourist resorts. Although the archipelago stretches in a north-south direction for 820 km (509.5 mi), the total land-mass of Maldives is fairly small, about 300 sq km (186 sq mi). That mass is roughly 1.7 times the size of Washington, D.C. Most of the islands are no more than 8 km (5 mi) in length, and the main vegetation is palm trees. About 80% of the islands' land has a very low elevations of about 1 m (3 feet). These low elevations have made Maldives quite vulnerable to rising sea levels that are being produced through global warming. Although a sea wall protects Malé, the nation's capital, many geographers predict that the archipelago may eventually become completely submerged.

Lagoons, deep blue waters, coral reefs, white sandy beaches, and palm trees characterize the appearance of the Maldivian islands. That natural beauty along with year-round balmy temperatures has helped in developing the archipelago's tourist economy. Some islands also have fresh water lakes, as well as swamplands and clusters of mangroves. The overall climate is typical of a tropical monsoon area. The weather is generally warm and quite dry from December through March, which is the northeast monsoon season. From May to October, during the southwest monsoon season, Maldives receive a great deal of rainfall. Temperatures remain relatively constant throughout the year, ranging between 25 and 30°C (77 and 86°F).

The Maldives lies along major maritime travel routes in the Indian Ocean. Winds that accompany the yearly monsoons historically made Maldives favorable to trade, and many Maldivian sailors traditionally planned trading expeditions to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka around the seasonal schedule. Today, most Maldivians live in small villages and earn their living through fishing and tourism. Dolphins, manta rays, whale sharks, basking sharks, and sea turtles all inhabit the waters around the archipelago. About 13% of the land is useful for agriculture, but most agricultural activities are of a subsistence nature. Maldivian villagers plant coconut, bread-fruit, taro, cassava, millet, sorghum, bananas, papaya, and drumstick (a long tough stem vegetable that tastes a little like a cross between asparagus and green beans). Maldivians also raise goats and chickens. Most homes include a small vegetable garden that provides for the needs of family members.

Maldivians obtain drinking water by sinking shallow wells into the sand. Rain percolates through the sand, which creates a series of fresh water aquifiers that the islanders long have taken advantage of. These aquifiers, however, are growing depleted and a loss of fresh water supplies is one major threat facing Maldivians.

The geography of the archipelago has influenced the character of the Divehi people. Generally, they consist of three ethnically distinct groups. A central group of Maldivians, who make up about three-fourths of the population, are the main group and live between an island known as Ihavandippuḷu (Haa Alif) and an island known as Haddummati (Laamu). A southern group occupies the atolls closest to the equator and makes up about 20% of the total population. The final group, the people of Minicoy, live on one long island (10 km or 6.2 mi in length) at the northern end of the archipelago. Their island is administered by India, and the Minicoy make up about 4% of the total population. The Minicoy community is both geographically and politically isolated from the rest of Maldives.


The official language of Maldives is Divehi (Dhivehi). It is part of the Indo-Aryan language group and grew out of Sinhala (the main language spoken in Sri Lanka) and Sanskrit (the language from which many of the languages of the Indian subcontinent including Hindi were derived). Divehi is spoken only in the Maldives. On Minicoy, the area under Indian administration, the language is known as Mahl. Divehi also contains words borrowed from Arabic, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, French, Persian, Portuguese, and English.

Regional variants in pronunciation and vocabulary have developed across the archipelago. Malé Bas, which is the form of Divehi spoken in the nation's capitol, is considered to be the most mainstream form of the land. The language sounds distinctly different, however, in some of the southern atolls such as Huvadu, Fua Mulaku, and Addu. Variants also have developed in Haddummati and on Minicoy. Malé Bas is the main form used in writing. However, popular songs and poetry often draw on the richness of the regional variants. Divehi uses a written script, Thaana, which, like Arabic, is read from right to left.

The use of Divehi is primarily local. In business settings, English is widely used and is taught in schools. The tourist industry also has brought Maldivians into contact with numerous Europeans, and it is not unusual for those who work in the tourism industry to speak several languages in order to communicate with the Europeans who visit the islands.


Much of Maldivian folklore appears to have come from Buddhist culture, and features an emphasis on the superstitious and supernatural. Many of the myths that survive today are based on the islanders' dependence on coconut trees and fish for survival. One story holds that many Maldivians died until a fanditha (sorcerer) created coconut trees from the skulls of the deceased settlers. In a different story, the tuna fish, a major fish eaten by Maldivians, is said to have been brought to the seas around the archipelago by Bodu Niyami Kali fanu, a mythical sea traveler who voyaged to the end of the world and found the fish at Dagas, a mythical tree.

A story about a prince from the Indian subcontinent known as Koimala is associated with the founding of the present day capital of Malé. In this story, Koimala was welcomed by Maldivians and invited to settle on a sandy bank that had been stained with fish blood. Koimala planted trees in the bank and from them, the first papaya fruit was harvested. Eventually, Maldivians accepted Koimala as their ruler. Koimala ordered a palace to be built and to name the island Maa-le Malé.

The arrival of Islam to Maldivian society also has come to be associated with a folk tale. In this story, a visiting Muslim named Abu al Barakat ul Barbari triumphed in battle with a sea demon known as Ranna Maari. That act convinced the Maldivian king to convert to Islam. The story persists, even though other versions of the story describe the visitor as a saint from Persia whose tomb occupies a central site in today's capital.

Myths of extinction preoccupy Maldivians, with some predicting that a great catastrophe will cause the islands to be submerged by the ocean. Other stories warn of evil spirits, sea monsters, and heroic sea creatures such as fishes, crabs, and seabirds. Folk tales also have arisen around local plants and trees. Some stories that came to the islands through interactions with foreigners have been adapted to fit the needs of island living.


Maldives is an Islamic society. The Maldives government follows the Sharia (laws and practices based on the Quran), and businesses generally close for 15 minutes each time that Muslims are called to perform their five daily rounds of prayer. Nearly all Maldivian locals are Sunni Muslim, although Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity are practiced by expatriates and foreign workers. These practices are allowed by the government as long as they remain confined to private homes.

The government limits contact between natives and tourists, partly to protect its Muslim traditions from outside influences. As a result, most resorts have been built on previously uninhabited islands and locals generally were not allowed to spend extended amounts of time in the tourist areas. These rules are beginning to be relaxed, but contact between tourists and natives remains fairly limited.

Despite the adherence to Islamic law, Maldivians continue to use charms and spells to protect themselves from evil spirits. Most of these practices, which are related to the magical-religious system of fanditha, continue mainly in remote, rural areas. Traces of mother-goddess worship practiced by Dravidians and of Buddhism also remain a part of life within these rural settings.


Maldivians observe all of the major Islamic holidays. Ramadan is a 30-day fasting period that occurs in the ninth month in the Muslim calendar. The observance of Ramadan greatly affects the Maldives daily way of life. Government offices close after 1:30 p.m. during that month, and businesses generally shut down at 3 p.m. The end of Ramadan is known as Kuda Eidh or Eid al Fitr and is celebrated with three days of festivities. Maldivians traditionally go back to their home islands for this festival and take part in such activities as a traditional tug-of-war game. During Bodu Eidh, the Feast of the Sacrifice, Maldivians celebrate with a week of dances, plays, sporting events, and other cultural activities. It is common during this period for Muslims who can afford to do so to travel to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage. Maldivians also celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

Secular holidays include Independence Day on July 26; New Year's Day on January 1, Republic Day on November 11, the day that Muhammed Thakurufaanu defeated the Portuguese in 1573.


Maldivians traditionally celebrate the birth of a child with a naming ceremony seven days after the child is born. Bondibai, a sweet dish made of rice, is served. Spiced meats or chicken are given to family and friends, and the newborn receives his or her formal name. Boys undergo circumcision at age six.

Dating remains uncommon among Maldivians. Many Maldivian young men and women meet each other through group picnics to uninhabited islands that family groups arrange. It is typical to marry someone from one's own island or atoll. When a marriage is set to occur, families of the bride and groom notify their island's chief. Ceremonies are civil services with large celebrations afterwards. Most Maldivian women are in their early 20s when they marry. New couples often live in the home of the man's parents.

Upon death, family members bury the deceased within 24 hours. Memorial ceremonies honor the deceased on the third and fortieth days after the burial occurs, and on the anniversaries of the death.


Maldivian culture is Islamic based. As a result, children learn at an early age to respect their elders. Greetings are relatively formal, consisting of a handshake and a smile. Women typically do not take the last names of their husbands but retain their own last names, which they inherit from their fathers.

Unarranged visits are common in Maldives. Visitors are welcomed, and both hosts and guests sit together to converse. Tea, cool drinks, and pastries typically are served. The atmosphere is casual.


The traditional island home in Maldives is a one-storey compound that includes several rooms, a courtyard, and an open-air bathroom. Homes may be built of concrete or coral, and roofs are made of either coconut thatch or corrugated iron. Many homes receive electricity through generators. More and more Maldivians are abandoning the traditional way of life to seek work on resort islands. Those who work in the tourist industry often are away from their homes and families for up to eleven months out of the year. They live in cramped apartments that are located mostly in Malé. Many tourism workers save money to build dream homes on their home islands. They often spend their vacations working on these homes. Much of this construction was ravaged during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and families were relocated, often against their will.

Fishing, water-gathering, and household duties were traditional practices on rural islands. These practices continue even though work in the tourist industry is breaking up many Maldivian families. More industrial businesses also are being developed on the islands, such as fish-canning and shipbuilding.

The birth rate in Maldives is among the world's highest, with 14.84 births recorded annually for every 1,000 persons, according to 2008 statistics. Many infants do not survive; about 30.63 infant deaths are recorded for every 1,000 live deaths. The average life expectancy for Maldivians is approximately 74 years. Overpopulation is a threat, in that the islands are becoming less self-sufficient and more reliant on imported goods. Water supplies are growing brackish, and many islands face the prospect of overflowing solid waste and sewage disposal systems.

The government of Maldives has developed excellent health care facilities, with a regional hospital placed in each group of atolls and clinics on every island. However, the government does not provide much financial assistance to families in need of urgent medical care. As a result, many Maldivians prefer to first use a more traditional method of healing. Uses of herbal remedies and sand massages are common. One of the more serious health issues facing Maldivians is a blood condition known as thalassemia. The condition requires frequent transfusions, and it can be passed from one generation to the next.


The tourist economy upon which Maldivian families rely makes it difficult for families to spend much time together. It is not uncommon for spouses to be separated from each other for several months or for a parent not to see children more than once or twice a year. Nevertheless, the government emphasizes the importance of the family unit in Maldivian society and encourages the nurturing of family ties during extended holiday periods in the islands.

Men who do not work in tourism may carry out small-scale fishing enterprises. Many women also work in tourism. Th ose who do not work in tourism take responsibility for childrearing, cooking, cleaning, and collecting water. Women are expected to run their households even if they work outside the home. Salaries earned by resort workers typically are sent home and divided among family members. The lure of steady income that jobs in tourism offers drives some families to put education and other matters on hold so that at least one family member can take a tourism position.


Temperatures in Maldives range between highs of 30°C (86°F) and lows of 25°C (77°F). As a result, most Maldivians dress casually. Men wear T-shirts with shorts, lightweight trousers, or sarongs. Women might wear a long-sleeved dress. However, many also dress quite simply in a blouse or tunic worn over a skirt or slacks. T-shirts and jeans also are common, as well as a head covering in accordance with Muslim customs.

Women generally follow Islamic dress codes and keep their thighs and shoulders covered. Women also tend to avoid wearing swim suits or bikinis, even when visiting the beach or swimming.


Traders and visitors from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Europe have influenced many aspects of Maldivian culture, including the Maldivian diet. Traces of Arabic, Indian, Sri Lankan, and East Asian spices, ingredients, and cooking methods can be found in Maldivian meals.

The staple diet consists primarily of rice and fish. Tuna is the most widely consumed fish. Maldivians also eat pumpkin, coconuts, papaya, pineapple, and sweet potatoes. To these basic foods are added chilis and other spices. Many Maldivians will eat betel nuts with cinnamon or cloves after meals to cleanse the digestive system and the breath. Most abstain from alcohol in accordance with Islamic codes. The most widely consumed drink is tea. During Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, Maldivians typically drink fruit juices and eat dates to break the fast at the end of each day.

Maldivians traditionally have eaten with their fingers, a custom also practiced in the neighboring nations of India and Sri Lanka. The right hand is generally used for eating, and it is believed that the practice of eating with the fingers completes the cooking of the food. In the past, families would eat together. Now, the practice of sharing meals is less common. Men often are gone for long periods of time on fishing trips, and many Maldivians—both male and female—are away from their families for several months working in the tourist industry. Restaurants in the tourist areas serve Indian and Sri Lankan foods as well as many European dishes. Many Maldivians working in these areas eat at such restaurants, as well.


Although education is not compulsory, Maldives has a highly literate population. Approximately 96% of all Maldivians over age 15 can read and write. Most attend primary schools on their home islands, although some will attend private, religious-based schools. After five years of primary school, Maldivians can attend up to seven years of secondary school. Schools emphasize basic mathematics as well as reading and writing in Divehi and English.

At age 16, students take “O” or Ordinary Level exams. These are followed by “A” or Advanced Level exams taken at age 18. To qualify for “A” level courses, Maldivians often must leave their home islands and reside in the nation's capitol. That dislocation often prompts Maldivians to end their education after age 16 and begin working in the tourist industry to help support their families.

Maldives has one university and several colleges. Still, some Maldivians choose to attend university abroad. The government and several private organizations have set up sponsorship programs to help students who leave the country for educational purposes.


Maldivian cultural traditions reflect their ancient ties to southern India and Sri Lanka, as well as their contact with Arabic and African peoples who settled on their shores. The popular film industry in India, based in Mumbai and known as Bollywood, has also influenced Maldivian culture. North Indian dances, such as kathak, are widely enjoyed. Many elderly Maldivians enjoy Hindi songs from the 1950s and 1960s.

A local form of music and dance is known as bodu beru. The term translates as “big drum” and refers to an instrument made from the trunk of a coconut tree that has been hollowed out. Men will play the drum while others sing and dance. Any celebration is likely to feature the bodu beru, but the drum also is brought out for everyday entertainment. The bodu beru is said to have originated in the northern atolls in the 11th century, and some scholars trace the drum to African settlers in Maldives. The dance and music practice begins with a slow, rhythmic beating of the drum. The beat gradually gets faster and louder. Along with the bodu beru are other instruments including the bulbul, which resembles an accordion, and a form of music that is said to have Arabic roots known as thaara.

Culturally, Maldivians also have a rich tradition in calligraphy and stone-carving. Many art pieces reflect these works, including tombstones in older cemeteries, stonework at mosques, and verses from the Quran that are on display at the country's Islamic Center.


Most Maldivians work in tourism and the industry makes up nearly one-third of the gross domestic product of Maldives. Fishing, agriculture, and manufacturing also employ Maldivians. It is not unusual for families to send one or more members to resort islands to work and earn income to support the rest of the family.

Maldivians who remain on their home islands tend to work in fishing or subsistence farming.


The deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean that surround Maldives and its year-round tropical climate have made swimming a favorite sport. Most Maldivian men are excellent swimmers and many free-dive long distances for pleasure. Islamic codes discourage women from revealing their bodies. However, many women enjoy the ocean waters by swimming fully clothed.

Maldivian men also enjoy playing soccer and volleyball. Early evening matches take place frequently on the non-resort islands. Women enjoy the game of bashi, which is similar to softball but is played with a tennis ball and racquets.


Watching Hindi films from India and listening to Hindi songs is a favorite pastime among Maldivians, particularly those of older generations. Younger people enjoy playing sports such as football and tennis, and making day trips to resort islands. Evening walks along the beaches and marinas are extremely popular as well.

Nearly all Maldivians engage in fishing, either for work or pleasure. Night fishing is a particularly unique form of entertainment in the archipelago. Maldivians will anchor a boat to a reef just before sunset, prepare their fishing lines, and drop them into the water. Through the evening, they will sit under the stars quietly, relaxing and feeling the gentle rock of sea waves. The hope is to catch a red snapper, but many find the experience of being out on the water satisfying enough.


Maldivians are known for weaving, ceramics-making, wood-carving and painting. The rise of tourism has helped revive many traditional crafts, and beautiful, bright-colored, intricate reed mats are a favorite souvenir item for visitors. Vases made from local woods and painted in bright colors also have found a tourist following, as have large pots and jars.


A rapidly increasing population, overcrowding, and the threat of rising sea levels produced by global warming are major problems that face Maldives. The tiny island-nation's birth rate has long been one of the highest in the Asia Pacific region. As a result, more than 50% of the local resident population in the state capitol is under the age of 15, according to a report on the Maldives prepared by the United Nations' Ministry of Planning, Human Resources, and the Environment for the Asia Pacific region. The report also notes that housing in the capital is so tight that many dwellings are literally jammed together side-by-side along the one-kilometer (0.6-mile) length of the island. The high rate of births and a correspondingly high number of infant deaths have made issues of malnutrition and poverty serious concerns among Maldivians. The government has taken steps in recent years to launch a population control program and is developing an information campaign that is aimed at educating Maldivians on the uses of contraception and on the importance of reducing the size of families.

The low elevation of Maldives makes it quite vulnerable to rising sea levels. Former president Mamoun Abdul Gayoom warned of the threat in 1992, stating that scientists had predicted that the archipelago could disappear altogether within the next century if steps were not taken to reduce global warming. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami occurred, ocean waters submerged the islands for several minutes. Only nine islands did not experience flooding. Fifty-seven islands experience serious damage, and fourteen islands were completely evacuated. Six islands were destroyed forever. The tsunami left more than 100 people dead, and displaced 12,000 others from their homes. Damage estimates exceeded $300 million. Although the economy has since rebounded, the experience of seeing islands that are no more than three feet in elevation submerged by waves that were reached fourteen feet illustrated the threat that a rising sea level poses for Maldivians.


Maldives had one of the world's highest divorce rates until recently, when the government instituted laws that required the person requesting a divorce to pay child support to the other. Males typically had requested divorce, but the financial obligation has lessened that likelihood.

The change in divorce laws has been accompanied by a general improvement in the status of women. Women used to marry as early as age 14. Now, they wait until their early 20s. Males used to engage widely in the practice of polygamy. Today, even though Maldivian laws allow men to have up to four wives, most have only one.

More than 25% of Maldivian women work outside the home. Some work for the government and while others work in the tourism industry. In more rural areas, women tend crops and make handcrafts. Maldivian laws allow both men and women to inherit property.


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—by M. Njoroge