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Beyond its picture-perfect tourist islands, the Maldives Archipelago is home to a sophistictated but little-known culture that dates back more than two thousand years

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

Asia's smallest and least-known nation, the Maldives, lies scattered from north to south across a broad sweep of azure ocean south-west of Sri Lanka. Nearly two thousand islands, together with innumerable banks and reefs, are grouped in a chain of nineteen atolls extending from a point due west of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, to just south of the equator.

The atolls – the name is indigenous, the only word of Maldivian to have been adopted by English – comprise massive rings of coral perched on the peaks of a submerged mountain range. Some are only a few miles wide, but in the far south the great atoll of Suvadiva is more than forty miles across. The northern and central atolls are separated from each other by comparatively narrow channels of deep water, but in the south, especially at Addu Atoll, the channels are wider and more treacherous.

Strung around the rims of the atolls like beads – or in some cases within the central lagoons – are the islands. Most of them are less than a square mile in area and are very low-lying. From the sea they appear as fragile groups of coconut palms in apparently permanent danger of being swept away by the sea – though in fact most islands have a protective coral reef, and the great outer reef which all but surrounds each atoll acts as a massive break water, shielding the islands from all but the worst storms. At various points in this outer reef are narrow and treacherous passages which allow access to the lagoons. Early mariners likened the atolls to fortresses set in the midst of the ocean.

Their structure becomes more apparent from the air – the islands, tiny specks of green coconut palm and white coral sand, are surrounded by massive coral reefs which appear in shades of aquamarine and emerald against the surrounding azure depths of the Indian Ocean. It is no wonder, then, that their name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit mala-dvipa, "Garland of Islands".

Startlingly beautiful they may be, but the Maldives have always been a menace to mariners. Surrounded by massive banks of coral reef and all but invisible from more than a few hundred metres, the archipelago forms a great, semi-submerged shoal five hundred miles from north to south, ready to tear the bottom out of any ship, from outrigger to supertanker, unlucky enough to run aground. Yet, just scant metres from the shallow waters of the treacherous reef, the deep abyss, beyond all hope. No wonder ancient mariners steered well clear, whilst medieval maps portrayed the islands as threatening ranks of shark-like teeth.

It is extraordinary, then, that the Maldives, alone of all the remote Indian Ocean archipelagos, have been settled for more than two millennia. When Western sailors first came upon the Seychelles, the Chagos Archipelago, the Cocos-Keeling Islands, even the Mascarenes, they found them quite uninhabited. Not so the Maldives. Here were an ancient people, small, dark-skinned, sophisticated yet circumspect, making a living by selling dried fish, coconut-fibre rope and tiny white cowry shells – the latter, in pre-modern times, a much-valued unit of exchange from the high mountain deserts of Tibet to the wastes of Mali and Mauritania.

  • Andrew Forbes has written widely on Maldivian history, culture and politics for a range of academic journals, for The Encyclopaedia of Islam, the British Museum and for the international press including The Guardian and Far Eastern Economic Review. He had travelled throughout the islands by boat making a collection of traditional artefacts for the Museum of Mankind in London. David Henley has also travelled in the islands on a photographic assignment for the United Nations.

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