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Maldives: A Land of Atolls

By Manik, Hassan Ahmed | UNESCO Courier, October 1986 | Go to article overview

Maldives: A Land of Atolls


Manik, Hassan Ahmed, UNESCO Courier


Maldives A land of atolls

THE Republic of Maldives (formerly the Maldive Islands) is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The islands are grouped into twenty-six natural clusters or atolls (the English word atoll is derived from the Maldivian atolhu), but are divided for administrative purposes into nineteen atolls with the capital, Male', forming a twentieth division. Stretching 750 km from north to south, thne islands are the coral crowns of a vast submerged mountain range. Out of some 1,200 islands, only 200 are inhabited. The northernmost atoll is some 550 km from the Indian sub-continent.

The ring-shaped atolls of coral reef are pierced by openings which are in some cases deep enough for shipping. All the islands are low-lying, usually not more than 1-2 metres above sea level. They have white sandy beaches and crystal clear lagoons with tall coconut palms.

Most of the population inhabit tiny villages on remote islands, and live from fishing, which forms the basis of the economy, and from collecting coconuts. Male' is the collection centre for the entire export trade and the distribution centre for the entire import economy.

Arable land is minimal and, while small amounts of coconuts, millet, sorghum, maize and yams are grown, virtually all the main food staples have to be imported. Apart from fishing, the other most important sources of income are tourism and shipping. Maldivians speak a common language, Dhivehi (referring to themselves as Dhivehin--"islanders" and to their country as Dhivehi Raaje--"the island realm") and practise a common religion, Islam. In Male' itself there are no less than thirty-one mosques.

The early history of the Maldives is shrouded in mystery, although according to one authority the islands may have been originally colonized, probably by people from Sri Lanka or India, several centuries before the Christian era. Until the twelfth century AD, Buddhism seems to have been the prevalent religion, and a number of ruins of Buddhist temples and other sacred places have been excavated in modern times. Then, through gradual contact with Arab traders, for whom the Maldives lay on the direct route to Malacca and China, the country was gradually prepared to receive Islam, which was officially accepted by Sultan Mohammed ibn Abdullah, who in 1153 proclaimed this religion throughout his realm.

Two important features stand out in the history of the Maldives. First, the orderly fashion in which this small but scattered kingdom was ruled; second, the valour with which the Maldivians have defended their country's independence against all odds and superior powers.

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