Maldives (pronounced moldeevz) are located is off the coast of South Asia in the North Indian Ocean. Malé is the capital and the largest island. The Republic of Maldives is an archipelago consisting of twenty-six coral atolls. The chain of islands extends 820 kilometers (510 miles) from north to south but only occupies an area of 300 square kilometers (just 116 square miles), roughly 1.5 times the size of Washington D.C. The closest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka. The Maldives are 723 kilometers southwest of of the southern tip of India; 2800 kilometers south of Delhi; 850 kilometers southwest of Colombo, Sri Lanka and 3,400 kilometers west of Singapore.

The Maldives have been independent most of its history. The exceptions of the brief period between 1556 and 1578 when it was under Portuguese rule and from 1887 to 1965 when it was British protectorate, but even then local sultans ruled and had a great deal of say in local governing. The Maldives became a fully independent state on July 26, 1965. After independence, Ibrahim Nasir (b. 1926) was president from 1968 to 1978. He was succeeded in 1978 by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (b. 1937), who ruled for 30 years until 2008. He was reelected the president of the Maldives five times, in 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2003 under a one-candidate referendum. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities. 2006]

The twenty-six coral atolls of the Maldives contain 1,191 mostly very small islands of which 198 are inhabited. Most of the islands are the exposed tops of a submarine ridge and close to the atoll enclosure reef, and some are still in the process of forming. The longest is Gan in Adu atoll. Because the islands are coral-based, they are flat and low-lying. As a result, the water table is high. However, the islands are protected from the elements by the reef and rarely have major storms.

In the older islands a larger layer of topsoil has formed, and these islands are covered with coconut trees, breadfruit, and dense shrubs. Agricultural potential is limited by the high alkalinity of the soil and its poor water retention. However, people grow vegetables, fruits, and yams. The islands are covered with tropical vegetation, particularly coconut palms. They have a tropical monsoon climate modified by their marine location.


The conventional long form name of the country is Republic of Maldives (Dhivehi Raajjeyge Jumhooriyyaa in the local language, Divehi). The conventional short form is Maldives (Dhivehi Raajje). Maldivians are the residents and citizens of the Maldives. Maldivian also refers the nationality of the Maldives and can be used as an adjective to describe anything having to with the Maldives..

The main ethnic group of the Maldives is the Divehi, who speak the Divehi language. The word atoll is of Divehi origin.

The Maldives is likely named after the main island (and capital) of Male; the word "Maldives" means "the islands (dives) of Male". Some have suggested the name may be derived from the Sanskrit word "maladvipa" (“garland islands”), a reference to the fact that the double chain of atolls appear like a garland or necklace. Other have said the name is derived from the Sanskrit word "mahaalay" meaning "big house". Divehi Rajje (Dhivehi Raajje) in Dhivehi means "Kingdom of the Dhivehi people" or “Island Kingdom”. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Identity of Maldivians

Maldivians are a mix of people of Dravidian, Sinhalese, Arab, and African descent bound together by religion and language. Nearly all are Sunni Muslims. The predominant language is Divehi, a Sinhala dialect. Maldivians were originally Buddhists, and converted to Islam in the mid-12th century. Islam is the official religion of the entire population. The earliest settlers were probably from southern India. Indo-European speakers from Sri Lanka showed up in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.. In the A.D. 12th century. Mariners from East Africa and Arab appeared.

Maldives is an isolated nation and is among the smallest countries in the world. Maldives' nearest neighbors are Sri Lanka and India. They both had strong cultural and economic ties with Maldives for centuries.

The Maldivian identity is shaped by three primary influences: 1) Tamil-Malayalam settlers, who began arriving in the 5th century B.C.; 2) Sinhala language and culture, which took root and flourished from the 10th to 12th centuries; and 3) and the Arab and Muslim culture, which arrived in the 12th century.

The Maldives for the most part is poor developing country with most of its population on the island of Malé and other nearby islands and tourism industry that larger caters to wealthy visitors. The islands are threatened by global warming because of its very low elevation. The main natural resources are fisheries and a marine environment conducive to tourism.

Island and atoll identity is strong. Marriages generally take place between couples that are from the same island because island rivalry is so strong it is considered sort of treasonous to marry someone from a different island. Residents of one island often don't like other islands and it is difficult to move.

Brief History of the Maldives

Archeological finds reveal that islands of the Maldives were inhabited as early as 1500 B.C. but the first settlers, most likely Aryans, arrived around 500 B.C. Based on settlement patterns, these early settlers are believed to have originated in Kerala are traveled via the Lakshadvip islands. Indonesians on their way to Madagascar may have also stopped in the Maldives.

In olden times, the Maldives provided the main source of cowrie shells, then used as currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast. Moreover, historically Maldives has had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. Because the Maldives lied on important trade routes between Arabia and the Malacca Strait they were settled and influenced by people from all over the world. The Maldives were frequently raided by people from south India during the northeast monsoon season.

Maldivians consider the introduction of Islam in A.D. 1153 as the cornerstone of their country's history. The Maldives have been an independent state for the entire known history except for 15 years in the 16th century (1558-73) when it was occupied by the Portuguese. It was a sultanate since the 12th century and was a British protectorate in 1887 until it became a republic in 1968, three years after independence. Although under nominal Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences after the sixteenth century, Maldivians were left to govern themselves under a long line of sultans and occasionally sultanas.

Starting in the 16th century with the coming of the Portuguese, the Maldives were intermittently under European influence. In 1887 they became a British protectorate and military base but retained internal self-government. The Maldives obtained complete independence as a sultanate in 1965, but in 1968 the ad-Din dynasty, which had ruled the islands since the 14th cent., was ousted and a republic was declared. [Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Timeline of the Maldives’ History

12th century — Islam introduced. It is said Islam was introduced to the Maldives in AD 1153 by a Moroccan named Abdul Barakaath Yoosuf Al Barbary. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002; BBC, September 24, 2018]

1558-1573 — Portuguese colonize the islands only to be driven out in 1573 by locals.

17th century — Islands become a protectorate first of the Dutch rulers of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

1887 — British officially declared the Maldives a protectorate.

1932 — First democratic constitution proclaimed. The sultanate becomes an elected position.

1953 — Becomes a republic within the Commonwealth as the sultanate is abolished. However, the Sultan is restored within months.

1965 — Maldives become fully independent on July 26.

1968 — Sultan deposed after referendum; republic reinstated. Amir Ibrahim Nasir elected president.

Timeline of the Gayoom Era

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (born 1937) was one of Asia’s longest serving rulers. He was president of the Maldives from 1978 until 2008, when he was finally elected out of office after a series of protests gained traction in the mid 2000s. He won his sixth five-year term in a one candidate referendum in October, 2003 in which he claimed about 90 percent of the vote.

1978 — Maumoon Abdul Gayoom becomes president after Ibriham Nasir retires. Gayoom is elected president. [Source: BBC, September 24, 2018]
1981 — Maldives Monetary Authority is established and Malé International Airport is opened.
1982 — Maldives rejoins Commonwealth.
1988 — Coup attempt involving Sri Lankan mercenaries foiled with the help of Indian commandos.
1980s — Development of tourist industry fuels economic growth.
1998. Gayoom is re-elected as president for the fifth consecutive term.
1999 November — Parliamentary elections take place, with more than 120 independent candidates contesting 40 seats.
2002 September — President Gayoom warns low-lying islands at greater risk than ever before, and calls on international community to take urgent action to prevent global environmental catastrophe.

Protests Against Gayoom Start: 2003 September — Unprecedented anti-government riots break out in Male, sparked by deaths of four prison inmates.
2003 October — Mr Gayoom re-elected for unprecedented sixth term in presidential referendum, winning more than 90 percent of the vote.
2004 June — President Gayoom promises constitutional changes to limit presidential term and allow formation of political parties.
2004 August — State of emergency imposed after a pro-democracy demonstration turns violent. Almost 100 people are jailed.
2004 December — Scores of people are killed and many islands suffer severe damage when a tsunami generated by a powerful undersea earthquake off the Indonesian coast hits the Maldives. The government says the disaster set development work back by 20 years.
2005 June — Parliament votes unanimously to allow multi-party politics.
2005 August — Opposition party leader Mohamed Nasheed is charged with terrorism and sedition.

Roadmap for Democracy: 2006 March — President Gayoom unveils a "roadmap" for democratic reforms, which he says will enhance multi-party politics.
2006 August — President Gayoom pardons senior opposition figure Jennifer Latheef, who was serving a 10-year term on terrorism charges, but she refuses to recognise the pardon and demands a retrial to clear her name.
2007 August — Voters in a referendum back President Gayoom's proposal for a presidential system of government.
2008 January — President Gayoom survives an assassination attempt after 15-year-old boy scout Mohamed Jaisham wrestled a kitchen knife from the would-be killer's hands.
Pro-democracy campaigner won the islands' first democratic presidential election but says he was ousted in a coup
2008 August — President Gayoom ratifies new constitution that paves the way for first multi-party presidential elections.
2008 October — Opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed defeats President Gayoom in second round of voting, inaugurated as president in November.

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 (, Ministry of Tourism Maldives (, Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC,, 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

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