The Maldives were known to very early Indian seafarers that sailed from Gujarat in the middle of the first millennium B.C. The Islands were well known to classical Greek and Roman geographers. Persians began trading with the Maldives about the seventh century. The Maldives were visited by the Chinese in the ninth and fifteenth centuries.

The Maldives consist of an 850-km long string of atolls situated north to south some 400 environmental off the Kerala coast of southern India. Compared to other countries in the region, data on the origins of the Maldivians are scarce. Archaeological evidence indicates that human migration and settlement in the Maldives goes back at least 2,000 years. In the ancient and medieval periods navigating the precarious Maldivian waters were a challenging affair. Many shipwrecks occurred.

Over the centuries, the Maldives were visited and influenced by sailors, mariners and navigators that plied the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast — present-day Kerala state in India — harassed the islands. In the 16th century, the Portuguese were the first know Europeans to set fiit on the islands. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]

Early Contacts Between the Maldives and the Outside World

Although the Maldives was located in a geographically remote area, there are historical records of the islanders interacting with some of the greatest human civilisations of the time. The Maldives first became known in the West through the writings of Ptolemy, during the A.D. 2nd century. Roman historical records of A.D. 362 mention of a Maldivian delegation visiting Emperor Julian. A notice written by Ammianus Marcellinus speaks of gifts sent to Emperor Julian by a deputation from the nation of Divi. The name Divi is very similar to Dheyvi who were the first settlers of Maldives.

The Maldives may have been ruled in ancient times by the Chinese. Chinese historical documents from A.D. 662 records Maldivian king sending gifts to the Chinese emperor Kao-Tsung of Tang dynasty. Later, Maldivian rulers paid an annual tribute to principalities of western India. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation ]

Overseas travellers from far-off lands have contributed immensely to the Maldivian history through publishing their experiences. Such noteworthy chronicled contributions from Chinese historian Ma Huan and the famous Arab traveller Ibn Batuta have survived to this day.

Indian Ocean Trade and Navigation and the Maldives

The Maldives is located on a prime marine route through the Indian Ocean traversed by travelers and traders since ancient times. Accordingly the strategic and geographical positioning of the Maldives is believed to have influenced the early settlers to colonise the country. For medieval seafarers the Maldives was a station to resupply their vessels with water, wood, coir and dried tuna.

According to an article on the “Human Genetic Origin” of Maldives people: “The Indian Ocean has been an important corridor for human migrations, and it has been travelled since the classical era (Hourani, 1995). Northern coastal trading route networks emerged around 2000 BP (years Before Present), when civilizations in East Africa; West, South, and East Asia; and the Mediterranean coasts expanded and developed their trading routes (Hogendorn and Johnson, 1986; Hourani, 1995). This Indian Ocean trade network was further developed during the Arab conquest starting around 1200 BP, during contact with China around the same time, and expanded into a global trade network with the arrival of Europeans after 500 BP (Chauduri, 1985). The interaction of such a variety of people during this time has provided opportunities for cultural and genetic admixture. Recent studies highlight unique admixture of Southeast Asians, South Asians, and Africans (from Central and East Africa) in the Malagasy of Madagascar and on the Comoros islands (Hurles et al., 2005; Ruivo et al., 2009; Tofanelli et al., 2009; Cox et al., 2012). The process of migration to Madagascar is still poorly understood. In a study that simulates seafaring routes across the Indian Ocean to explain the settling of Madagascar from Southeast Asia, the Maldives emerge in the center of such seafaring, and suggest that the Maldives could have been an important stopping point for voyages to Madagascar (Fitzpatrick and Callaghan, 2008). [Source: “Indian Ocean Crossroads: Human Genetic Origin and Population Structure in the Maldives” by Jeroen Pijpe, Alex Voogt, Mannis Oven, Peter Henneman, Kristiaan J Gaag, Manfred Kayser, and Peter Knijff1, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, May 2013 May; 15, : 58–67]

The Maldives were the main producer of cowrie shells (Cypraea sp.) that were used as a currency throughout the classical old world and even reached West Africa (Hogendorn and Johnson, 1986). Language studies and historical records point to a historical relationship of the Maldivian language, Dhivehi, with the Indo-Aryan language of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese, making it the southernmost Indo-European language at the time the Maldives were populated (Fritz, 2002). Present Maldivian cultural and religious identity is strongly influenced by 800 years of Islamic culture (Bell, 1940; Maloney, 1980; Taj al-Din, 1982). Before Islam, Buddhism was the major religion, thought to be brought with Sinhala settlers from Sri Lanka (Maloney, 1980; Vitharana, 1997). Popular Maldivian board and card games suggest links with Southeast Asia (de Voogt, 2000) and South Asia (de Voogt, 2009).

“Patterns of historical migration and gene flow within the Maldives are largely unknown. The long distances within the Maldives promote a relative isolation of islands, atolls and atoll groups. Its history includes female rulers — Sultanas — and a matrilineal tradition that may have changed over time to a patrilineal and patrilocal system under the influence of Islam (Metcalf, 2009). Noticeable differences between female and male gene flow can be expected between islands, if the present-day population is a mix of descendants from the original matrilocal people and descendants from more recent immigrants with a patrilocal tradition. The northern islands may have experienced a different migration and settlement pattern compared to the southern islands that are up to 800 km away. Only the three southernmost atolls (Gaafu, Gnaviyani, and Addoo) conducted, on their own, commercial activities with Sri Lanka until recently (Bell, 1940). The Maldivian subdialects are divided into two main groups: a northern and a southern dialect. The latter is again restricted to the three southernmost atolls (Fritz, 2002). Finally, it is noted that inhabitants of some islands claim a partly different ancestry than the widely acknowledged South Indian origin. Some islanders of Feridhoo claim to partly descend from African immigrants, which might explain the African influence that is still found in the islands' musical tradition (L. Reurich, personal communication).

“It thus seems that the cultural and linguistic data convey a complex history of migration and settlement into the area that might be difficult to disentangle. This uncertainty about Maldivian history remains without additional reliable historical data. In contrast, a study of the vertically transmitted genetic variation in the present-day population may significantly advance our understanding of the ethnic origins and diversity of the Maldivian population. The population genetic variation in the Maldives is not independent from cultural transmission since successful migrants may confound cultural and genetic variation and remove most of the aboriginal genes and culture, as can be seen in Madagascar (Hurles et al., 2005; Tofanelli et al., 2009). Because of their relative isolation, islands are particularly prone to such processes. However, despite their dependence on cultural processes, genetic analyses are able to detect remnants of historic population processes. In addition, genetic research is particularly powerful in distinguishing gene flow between males and females. In migration events, sex-biased gene flow is the rule rather than the exception for most populations (Seielstad et al., 1998; Destro-Bisol et al., 2004; Heckel et al., 2005; De Filippo et al., 2011), and we expect this to be true in the Maldives as well. Thus far, no studies have explored the genetic ancestry of Maldivians, with the exception of a 1998 study limited to beta-thalassemia genes in beta-thalassemic patients (Furuumi et al., 1998) that concluded that the observed variation was best explained by a multi-ethnic origin from regions across the Indian Ocean, in particular from West Asia.

Cowrie Shell Money and the Maldives

Cowrie shells from the Maldives were sought after by ancient cultures and were used in Africa, China and Bengal as currency. The Maldives were the main producer of cowrie shells (Cypraea sp.) that were used as a currency throughout the classical world and even reached West Africa (Hogendorn and Johnson, 1986). Heyerdahl wrote: “Throughout is people Maldives culture has survived through business with the outside world.”

Shell money is a medium of exchange similar to coin money and other forms of commodity money, and was once commonly used in many parts of the world. Shell money usually consisted of whole or partial sea shells, often worked into beads or otherwise shaped. The use of shells in trade began as direct commodity exchange, the shells having value as body ornamentation. The distinction between beads as commodities and beads as money has been the subject of debate among economic anthropologists. [Source: Wikipedia]

Shell money was used in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. The form most well known to Americans is perhaps be the wampum created by the Indigenous peoples of the East Coast of North America, ground beads cut from the purple part of marine bivalve shells. The shell most widely used worldwide as currency was the shell of Cypraea moneta, the money cowry. This species is most abundant in the Indian Ocean, and was collected in the Maldive Islands, in Sri Lanka, along the Malabar coast, in Borneo and on other East Indian islands, and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique. Cowry shell money was an important part of the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.

In China, cowries were so important that many characters relating to money or trade contain the character for cowry. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency. The Classical Chinese character for "money/currency", , originated as a pictograph of a cowrie shell. Cowries were used as means of exchange in India. In Bengal, where it required 3840 to make a rupee, the annual importation was valued at about 30,000 rupees. In Southeast Asia, when the value of the Siamese tical (baht) was about half a troy ounce of silver (about 16 grams), the value of the cowrie was fixed at 1∕6400 Baht. In modern Thailand, it refers to interest paid for the use of money borrowed or deposited. Bia wat, a term derived from the Thai word for cowrie, describes a military pension. In Orissa, India, cowry (popularly known as kaudi) was used as currency until 1805 when it was abolished by the British East India Company and rupee was enforced. This was one of the causes of the Paik Rebellion in 1817.

History of the Cowrie Shell Trade in the Maldives

In an article titled “Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives”, Anne Haour, wrote: “The Maldives are often assumed to have been a main source of” cowrie shells used as money” but “this has never been archaeologically tested. From the 9th century onwards, sporadic mentions were made of these islands, their trade links, and the importance of cowries. Such allusions were made by Arab authors such as al-Bakri and ibn Battuta (Carswell 1975- 77; Hiskett 1966a,1966b; Hogendorn and Johnson 1986), many, incidentally, also describing West Africa. But apart from a survey of pottery unearthed in the Maldivian capital Malé (Carswell 1975-77), no archaeological work had ever investigated the Islamic period. [Source: “Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives” by Anne Haour, Annalisa Christie, Shiura Jaufar, Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2016]

“The importance of cowries in the West African past is well known. They are inevitably mentioned as markers of Africa’s global connections (e.g., Johnson 1970; Mitchell 2005; York 1972), and their role within the West African social fabric suggests a deep history. Cowries in West Africa are first mentioned in the mid-10th century, as ornaments in women’s hair (Hopkins and Levtzion 2000: 35). In the 11th century al-Bakri states (in Hopkins and Levtzion 2000: 83) that cowries are among the most sought-after commodities in Kugha (seemingly an early capital of the Songhai Empire, in present-day Mali or Niger); by the 14th century, cowries are described as currency, and an import on which vast profits were made (al Umari, in Hopkins and Levtzion 2000: 260, 269). In the 14th century, ibn Battuta saw 1150 cowries sold for one gold dinar in Mali. Simon Lucas, in the late 18th century, explicitly writes that sub-Saharan consumers valued cowries for both ritual and currency usage. Oral traditions today evidence the centrality of cowries to West African thought (see especially Iroko 1987), while archaeology confirms the antiquity of cowrie usage. They are routinely recovered, some well-known instances being the first-millennium necropolis of Kissi, Burkina Faso (Magnavita 2009), a 10th century burial at Akumbu, Mali (Togola 2008), the 11th century ‘lost caravan’ from the Mauritanian Sahara (Monod 1969), the mound of Yohongou in the Atakora mountains of Benin (Petit 2005, 9th/10th century), and the 15th/16th century site of Durbi Takusheyi, Nigeria (Gronenborn 2011).

“Although cowries occur throughout the IndoPacific, it is the Maldives specifically which have been described as main exporters of these shells, and we wanted to discover whether this was likely to be accurate. This presumed long-distance connection needed to be adequately tested. The key study of the cowrie trade remains the book by Hogendorn and Johnson (1986), who combined fieldwork in the Maldives with first-hand knowledge of West African economic history to offer detailed data on cowrie flows for the 16th to 19th centuries. Through the cowrie, they sketch a compelling picture of daily life in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and of the succession of merchant groups who brought the shells to West Africa. This is the only detailed synthesis of the topic but, useful as it is, it remains concerned with fluctuations in currency rates following global markets, and gives little in-depth information on local constructions of value. But because in preindustrial societies the value of a medium of exchange may be inextricably linked to social, political or spiritual significance, this economic approach to cowries can only give a very partial story (for this, see especially Ogundiran 2002). Finally, most problematically, beyond the oftcited medieval sources Hogendorn and Johnson’s book gives little insight into the longer time-scale for cowrie usage in West Africa.

Buddhist Kingdom In the Maldives

The Buddhist period in the Maldives lasted for 1,400 years from the 3rd century B.C. to the A.D. 12 century. Despite this the period is generally mentioned only briefly in most history books. In the early 11th century some of the atolls in the Maldives were conquered by the Chola Empire, a Hindu Tamil kingdom in southern India. [Source: Wikipedia]

It is widely believed that Buddhism was introduced to the Maldives from Sri Lanka. From 1878 onwards H. C. P. Bell, a British archaeologist conducted extensive investigations on the Buddhist ruins found in the Maldives. Before Buddhism became the dominant religion of the Maldives, there are signs indicating that since antiquity Maldivians practiced versions of animism and Hinduism as well. [Source: Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation ] Buddhism probably spread to the Maldives in the 3rd century B.C. at the time of Emperor Ashoka's expansion across the Indian subcontinent. Before embracing Buddhism, Maldivians had practised an ancient form of Hinduism that incorporated ritualistic traditions known as Srauta and the veneration the Surya. The ruling caste were of Aadheetta or Suryavanshi origins. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “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. [Source: Clarence Maloney and Nils Finn Munch-Petersen, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]

Unification of the Maldives archipelago has traditionally been attributed to King Koimala. According to a legend from Maldivian folklore, in the early 12th century AD, a medieval prince named Koimala, a nobleman of the Lion Race from Sri Lanka, sailed to Rasgetheemu island (literally "Town of the Royal House", or figuratively "King's Town") in the North Maalhosmadulu Atoll, and from there to Malé, and established a kingdom, named Dheeva Mari Kingdom. By then, the Aadeetta (Solar) Dynasty had for some time ceased to rule in Malé, possibly because of invasions by the Cholas of Southern India in the 10th century. Koimala established the Homa (Lunar) Dynasty, with the Chandravanshi ruling cast, which intermarried with the Aaditta Dynasty. This is why the formal titles of Maldive kings until 1968 contained references to "kula sudha ira", which means "descended from the Moon and the Sun".

Buddhist Culture, Religion and Temples in the Maldives

The Buddhist period provided the foundation for the history and culture of the Maldives. It was during this time that the culture of the Maldives, which survives today, both developed and flourished. The Maldivian language, early Maldive scripts, architecture, ruling institutions, customs, and manners all originated in period when the Maldives was a Buddhist kingdom.

The ancient Maldivian Kings promoted Buddhism. The first Maldive writings and art and culture in the form of sculpture and architecture originated from that period. Nearly all archaeological remains in the Maldives are from Buddhist stupas and monasteries, and many artifacts are Buddhist in nature. Buddhist (and Hindu) temples were Mandala shaped. They are oriented according to the four cardinal points with the main gate facing east. Local historian Hassan Ahmed Maniku said in 1990 that as many as 59 islands have with Buddhist archaeological sites. . The largest monuments of the Buddhist era are in the islands fringing the eastern side of Haddhunmathi Atoll. [Source: Wikipedia

Since building space and materials were scarce, Maldivians constructed their temples and stupas on the foundations of previous buildings. Monasteries found in the Maldives had compound walls and stone baths., are found on many islands of the Maldives. Early scholars like H.C.P. Bell, who was a British commissioner based in Sri Lanka. claim that Buddhism came to the Maldives from Sri Lanka and that the ancient Maldivians had followed Theravada Buddhism like that found in Sri Lanka. Since then, new archaeological discoveries point to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist influences, which are likely to have come to the islands straight from India rather than Sri Lanka. An urn discovered in Maalhos (Ari Atoll) contains the same script used in the ancient Indian Buddhist centres of learning in Nalanda and Vikramashila. Some coral blocks with fearsome heads of guardians in a Mahayana, Tibetan Buddhist style.

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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