CULTURE OF THE MALDIVES
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:Although Sunni Islam generally restricts arts such as music, traditional Maldivian music and dancing are permitted on the islands, particularly during festivals. [Source: Isaac Henry Victor, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
The customs and social behavior of the Maldivians have been greatly influenced by the Indians, Sri Lankans, Arabs and North Africans who visited the Maldives while traversing through the trading routes of the central Indian Ocean. The Maldivian culture is rich and vibrant due to the infusion of various other cultural elements. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation visitmaldives.com ]
Though Maldives was culturally influenced by other traditions, Maldivians have built and preserved an exclusive cultural identity. Accordingly the Maldivians converse using a language of their own; In 1153 AD Maldivians converted to Islam and the religion has transformed and introduced new fundamentals to the Maldivian culture.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “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. [Source: Clarence Maloney and Nils Finn Munch-Petersen, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: A National Library, founded in 1945, is the only nationally funded public library in the country; it contains over 35,000 volumes. Most primary and secondary schools have small libraries; these facilities suffered major damage during the 2004 tsunami and reconstruction and restocking was underway in 2005. There are a few private libraries in the country, including two health libraries: one at the Institute of Health and another at the main hospital in the country. The Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Finance have small libraries as well. A National Museum was founded in 1952 in Malé to conserve and display historical items. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Folklore and Literature in the Maldives
Maldivians inherited a treasure trunk of ancient mythology and folklore that was passed orally through generations. These myths cover fascinating stories on various aspects of island life. Since the islands are surrounded by sea, most folktales depict fearful sea demons and spirits that haunt the islanders. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation visitmaldives.com ]
There are many folk stories and legends associated with the conversion of the Maldives to Islam. One such story states that the Maldivians were haunted by a sea demon named Rannamaari. To appease this sea demon the islanders were forced to present a virgin girl every month. According to legend Abu al Barakat, who was visiting the Maldives during this period, offered to take the place of the girl. Before the sacrifice, he recited the Koran throughout the night, and the demon could do nothing out of fear of the Sacred Word. Thus Abu al Barakat rescued the Maldives from this sea demon and afterwards convinced the king to adopt Islam. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation visitmaldives.com ]
There are also stories about the first Maldivian settlers, who arrived around the fourth or fifth century B.C. when Southern Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhists first arrived there. According to legend-infused historical records, the first inhabitants of the country were the Yakkas (demon-worshippers) and Nagas (snake-worshippers) who migrated from Sri Lanka. According to Maldivian legend, a Sinhalese prince named KoiMale was stranded with his bride — the daughter of the king of Sri Lanka — in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as the first sultan. [Source: Leena Banerjee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]
Arts and Crafts in the Maldives
Art is mostly in the form of crafts such the making of woven mats, lacquerware and lace. The beautifully carved tombstones in some of the old cemeteries and the fine stone carving of Hukuru Miskiiy (Friday) Mosque in Malé are living examples of Maldivian craftsmanship and bear witness to the intricate skills of Maldivian stone carvers of the past. The skill Maldivian crafts people can be seen in lacquer works, mat weaving, coir rope making and calligraphy. Traditional dresses and ornaments from cowrie shells are unique to Maldives. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation visitmaldives.com ]
Maldivians are deft craftsman producing beautifully crafted pieces mostly out of what is available locally. Although many of the skills have been passed on from generation to generation and lives on even today.The art calligraphy has strong connections with the Islam. Old and new mosques display beautifully penned versus from the Holy Quran. The Islamic Center exhibits some of the finest samples of the work of modern calligraphers in the country.
While many crafts have become obsolete, others have found new life with the advent of tourism. The production of ornaments from tortoise shells and black coral once valued by visitors has now ceased completely over concerns about wildlife and the environment. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
Lacquer Ware and Mats of the Maldives
Perhaps the most distinctive of the Maldivian handicrafts, are the wooden lacquerware crafts produced in Thulhaadhoo in Baa Atoll. Known as Liye Laajehun in Dhivehi, they are made through process that involves of shaping and hollowing out pieces of wood to form beautifully crafted boxes, containers and ornamental objects. Many are made from the local funa, (Alexandrian laurel) which grows abundantly throughout the country. Boxes of various shapes and sizes, vases of various sizes to round and oval plates with lids are are lacquered with red, black and yellow resin and delicately carved with flowing flowery patterns.
Beautiful reed mats are woven throughout the country. The most famous ones are woven by the women of Gadhdhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll. Known in Dhivehi as thundu kunaa, they come in a range of sizes from place mats to a full size single mattress. The women of Gadhdhoo collect the reeds called haa from the nearby island of Fioari. They are dried in the sun and stained with natural dyes, the colour varying from fawn to black. These mats with their intricate abstract designs are woven on a handloom according to the imagination and skill of the weaver.
Dhoni Boat Building in the Maldives
A dhoni (thoni or dhoney) is a traditional multi-purpose sailing vessel with a motor or lateen sails that is used in the Maldives, South India and Sri Lanka. Varying in size and shape, they are mainly used for fishing and are key to the livelihood for a large proportion of the population. Others have modified to be used for transportation of passengers and serve as ferries and trading- and cargo ship. In the old days most were built with coconut palm timber and had lateen sails. Now, almost all dhonis are driven by diesel motors. [Source: Wikipedia, Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation visitmaldives.com ]
Although the tools used in the building of dhonis have changed, little has changed in the basic design of the boats and the process in which they are built. As in the past, the boats are still built without a set plan. The design and symmetry of the boat emerges as the boat is being built.
Imported hardwoods are used in the place of coconut wood, which was used in the past to make the hull. Copper rivets are used to hold the planks together instead of coir, which was used for that purpose even half a century ago. The oldest boats had square sail made of coconut fronds. These were replaced by the triangular lateen sail. These days sails are carried on board but are generally used only during emergencies or to ease the strain of the engines.
Small dhonis are about three meters (10 feet) long. They are used mostly to travel across short distances or to traverse the shallow waters of the lagoon. Islanders often use these to go to nearby islands for firewood. The average fishing dhoni used to be around 10 meters (33 feet), however new generation fishing vessels can be twice the size or even larger. The basic design of dhonis have been tested and tuned over centuries and have proven their worth as seaworthy vessels. Even the luxury cruise vessels that are built in the country uses the same basic hull design and can be as long as 30 meters (100 feet) or more.
Modern dhonis are often built using fibreglass. Their low freeboard is ideal for being ideal for operating in relatively shallow water and are extensively used on resort islands for scuba diving and snorkeling trips. Fishing vessels carry eight to twelve persons. Alifushi in Raa Atoll is the . main site for building dhonis. Building a dhoni takes about 60 days.
Music and Dance in the Maldives
Radio Maldives plays mostly Bollywood music. Traditionally Maldivian music is monorythmic and rarely heard. Bodu beru drumming is a feature of traditional Divehi weddings set up for foreign tourists. Many forms of traditional music and dance trace their roots to distant continents. Resort islands organize cultural performances to entertain their guests regularly during which you can observe islanders performing traditional music and dance items. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation visitmaldives.com ]
Dancing is discouraged in some places because of Islam. But in other places it is a major feature of local festivals. Thaara and Gaa Odi Lava. Most of these items involve rhythmic music and dances using various cultural props. There are some cultural routines exclusively performed by Maldivian women. Bandiyaa jehun, Maafathi Neshun and Bolimalaafath Neshun. Some of these acts were designed to perform in the royal courts. Indian and Western music have also greatly influenced the musicians of the country. Frequently resorts host performances of local bands to enliven their guests.
Kadhaa Maali is a form of traditional music and dance that can be found only in Kulhudhuffushi in the south Thiladhunmathi atoll. From where did this Kadhaa Maali folk dance come from is unknown. To initiate the Kadhaa Maali folk dance of Maldives, a number of drums are beaten. It is accompanied by the beating of an instrument made from copper rod or copper plate named 'Kadhaa'. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
While playing music, about 30 men dressed in different costumes dance to the tunes of music. Their garments exhibit various ghostly figures and evil spirits. It is these ghosts or the evil spirits that are addressed as "Maali". When there is any kind of terrible sickness spreading in the island, people do a late night walk to ward off the evil spirits. The walk continues for three nights and it is on the third night that this dance is performed. This dance show also takes place to celebrate the festivities.
Bodu Beru Music
One of the most famous Maldivian cultural displays which involve singing and dancing is called the "Bodu Beru". The Bodu Beru performers, numbering around 20 will be wearing traditional garb of sarongs and white sleeved shirts. Bodu Beru performances often get audiences to stand up and sway along with the drumbeats.
Bodu beru is one of the most popular forms of folk music and dance that is found in the inhabited islands of Maldives. People of all age groups participate enthusiastically in Bodu Beru folk music. The musical instruments that are used consist of three or four drums made from hollowed coconut wood and a variety of thumping instruments. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
In Bodu Beru, there is one lead singer and a band of 10-15 people, who sing in chorus. As the song continues, the rhythm picks up and people come out of the troupe and dance to the tunes of the music. Spectators join to clap and dance. Maldives folk dance of Bodu beru is a tribal dance that usually takes place during the festive occasions and is enjoyed by all.
Folk Music in the Maldives
Thaara is a popular form of folk music performed in Maldives. The credit for its introduction in the Maldives goes to the Gulf Arabs, who visited this beautiful island in the mid 17th century. In the Thara folk music of Maldives, there are about 22 performers, who are made to seat in two parallel rows facing each other. It is only the men who can participate in Thaara. This folk performance involves both singing and dancing. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
Traditionally, Thaara folk music was performed in the fulfillment of vows. Earlier, the songs that accompanied the Thara were in Arabian language. Thaara songs start at a slow tempo and then gradually pick up to reach a crescendo. The performing team wears white sarongs and white shirts with a green scarf wrapped around their necks. Maldives Thaara folk music is very soothing and has a semi religious touch. Fathigandu Jehun is a popular form of folk music, in which only men can participate. It is basically a stage music show that usually takes place in the evening time. In the Fathigandu Jehun folk music of Maldives, each performer holds two bamboo sticks in his hands and beats them, so as to bring out the sound of music. These bamboo sticks are about 6 inches long. While hitting the bamboo sticks against each other, the dancers sway their bodies and dance in rhythm with the music. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
The group consists of a drummer, who beats on a tin and initiates the song. The songs that are sung in Maldives Fathigandu Jehun folk music are usually epics. The songs are meaningful and infact narrate different stories. One of the most popular Fathigandu Jehun songs is "Burunee Raivaru" that explains the story of a sultan who had gone in search of a wife.
Gaa Odi Lava is a popular folk music and dance performance that is carried out by people as a means to express their satisfaction on having completed a hard manual work. The origin of Gaa Odi Lava folk music of Maldives can be traced back during the reign of Sultan Mohamed Imadudeen I (1620-1648AD). [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
In order to defend Male, the capital city of Maldives, the Sultan decided to build a break water around the island. To accomplish the goal, he divided his workforce into various "odi" or vessels to carry the coral stones from the various reefs. On completion of the task, each worker ceremonially visited the Sultan. To express their happiness, these workmen sang songs and danced to the tune of music and this is how the concept of Gaa (stones) Odi (vessels) was born.
Dances in the Maldives
Bandiyaa Jehun is a popular dance form that takes place in the Maldives Island. Though, western pop and Indian music are becoming increasingly popular, but this traditional Bandiyaa Jehun folk dance of Maldives has its own importance. It is like the Indian pot dance, in which the women carrying metal water pots sing and dance to the tune of music. While singing, they tap the pots with their finger rings. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
There is no specific dress for the performers, but definitely they all dress up in uniformity. Usually, women wear a long skirt and a blouse called 'Dhigu hedhun'. In the present times, many new things have been incorporated like the use of a number of instruments like drum and harmonica. Even as far the music & apparels are concerned, lots of modifications have been made to keep up with the changing trends.
Langiri is a folk performance of Maldives, the origin of which can be traced back in the early 20th century during the rule of Sultan Shamsuddin III. It is basically the Thaara performance that was modified by people to suit their taste that gave rise to the Langiri performance of today. Maldives Langiri folk dance and music usually takes place as an evening stage show to entertain the people. [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
In the Langiri folk music, the dancers hold two beautifully decorated sticks in their hands. These sticks are about 2 feet long and are known as "Langiri Dhandi". The performers sit in two parallel rows and lift their bodies with their waist up. Simultaneously, they keep clapping the Langiri Dhandi in different styles. In this folk dance, each participant hits the six Langiri Dhandi belonging to his three neighbors seated in the front row. Usually, the Langiri show consists of six to seven songs.
Folk Dances in the Maldives
Bolimalaafath Neshun is a famous folk dance of Maldives. This dance performance is carried out by women. It depicts the old tradition, when women used to offer presents to the Sultan on special festive occasions like the Eid festival. Usually, the gifts basket consists of the shells that are kept aside in a small beautifully decorated vase called "Kurandi Malaafath". [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
In the Bolimalaafath Neshun folk dance of Maldives, a group of about 24 persons sing and dance to the beats of music. While dancing, they form small groups of two, three, four or even six and step towards the Sultan to present the "Kurandi". The songs act as an expression of their sentiments. Owing to the change in govt style from monarchy to republic in the year 1968, the old custom of offering gifts ceases to exist. But, the dance performance is still prevalent. Infact, today also, it is one of the most important dances carried out by Maldivian women.
Dhandi Jehun is a popular dance form of the beautiful islands of Maldives. The style in which the Maldives Dhandi Jehun folk dance is performed varies from island to island. A group of 30 men participate in this dance. It is believed that Dhandi Jehun dance has come from Malik (Minicoy Islands). [Source: Oceana Maldives Holidays visitmaldives.info ]
The dance consists of a lead singer, who usually sings the "Thaara" songs or "Unbaa" songs. Other group members sing in chorus and dance to the beat of the song. In the Dhandi Jehun folk dance show, each performer holds three sticks called Dhandi. While dancing, he hits his Dhandi with that of the performer facing him. There is no specific dress for the dancers. However, they all dress up in uniformity.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Republic of Maldives Department of Information, the government site (maldivesinfo.gov.mv), Ministry of Tourism Maldives (tourism.gov.mv), Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC, visitmaldives.com), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022