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Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Maldives - an introduction

The Republic of Maldives or Dhivehi Rajje’, (the land of the Dhivehi people) is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean. Its closest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka. The Laccadives lie to the North and the Chagos Group to the South.

The 26 coralline atolls that form the Maldives archipelago are situated on top of a volcanic ridge 960 kilometers in length, which runs from north to south. The only break in this natural barrier occurs only towards the south, where the One an Half Degree Channel and the Equatorial Channel allow safe passage through the archipelago. Almost all the atolls are enclosed by a coral reef which is considered to be some of the most abundant in marine life and beautiful in the whole world.

The approximately 1190 islands that make up the Maldives are small and low lying with the highest barely three meters above mean sea level. Although some larger atolls are approximately fifty kilometers long and thirty kilometers wide no individual island is longer than eight kilometers. There are no rivers or mountains in the Maldives.

The climate is warm and humid with the temperature ranging between 24°C and 33°C throughout the year. The relatively high humidity is tempered by the constant sea breeze which helps to keep the air moving. There are two monsoons in the Maldives; Iruvai, the northeast monsoon and Hulhangu, the southwest monsoon. The northeast monsoon lasts roughly from November to April and the climate is generally dry. The southwest monsoon lasts roughly from May to October with rough seas, heavy winds and showers.

The tropical vegetation comprises coconut palms, breadfruit trees, dense tropical scrub and shrubs. The soil is sandy and highly alkaline, and a deficiency in nitrogen, potash, and iron severely limits agricultural potential. Therefore only ten percent of the land is cultivated, mostly with taro, bananas, coconuts, and other fruit.

The first known language spoken in the country was called ‘Ellu’, which is an archaic form of Singhalese spoken in Sri Lanka. The language used in the Maldives today, is called Dhivehi. Spoken only in the Maldives, Dhivehi belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. It has numerous loanwords from Tamil, Malayalam, Singhalese, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese and English.

 Although there are dialect differences between the atolls, more pronounced in the four southernmost atolls, Dhivehi is spoken throughout the country. The traditional script, Thaana, is written from right to left. This locally invented script contains twenty-four letters. English is used widely in commerce and increasingly as the medium of instruction in schools.

The written history of the Maldives begins with the country’s Buddhist monarch embracing Islam in 1153 AD. It is however, believed that the Maldives archipelago was originally settled by fishermen from neighboring India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), shipwrecked sailors, and other ancient travelers in the Indian Ocean. According to legend, a prince from Serendib (identified as Sri Lanka), named Koimala Kaloa, and his bride were becalmed in the Maldives and stayed on to rule the country.

Although the country managed to preserve her independence for the most part of her long history, lying at the crossroads of the ancient sea trade routes, the Maldives was influenced by sailors and travellers from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast incessantly harassed the country. In the 16th century, the Portuguese subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73), before being forced to flee by Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al-A’zam.

The Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued till November 11, 1968, when it was abolished and replaced by a republic.





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