Though the ancient history of the enthralling Maldives is enshrouded in mystery, it is believed that the island nation was inhabited over 2500 years ago. Besides the recorded early history of the Maldives is limited and few archaeological remains of the prehistoric period survived.
The first settlers of the country are believed to be natives of the South Asian subcontinent. Correspondingly similarities in culture and language attest to settlers from neighbouring India and Sri Lanka inhabiting the Maldives.
The Maldives is located in a prime marine route traversed by travellers and traders to navigate through the Indian Ocean. 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.
Contact with 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.
Roman historical records of 362 AD mention of a Maldivian delegation visiting Emperor Julian bearing gifts. Similarly Chinese historical documents of 662 AD records, Maldivian king sending gifts to the Chinese emperor Kao-Tsung of Tang dynasty.
Copper plates called Loamaafaanu scribed with Maldivian texts on the orders of Kings survive to this day and are displayed at the National Museum. These copper plated texts preserve some significant historical information about the Maldives.
In the medieval period navigating the precarious Maldivian waters were a challenging affair. Consequently many shipwrecks occurred. One such shipwreck resulted in the French navigator François Pyrard of Laval enduring a Maldivian adventure from 1602-1607. Pyrad’s chronicle which was published in 1611 portrays a detailed insight on the life of Maldivians.
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.
For a long period the Maldivians were followers of Buddhism. It is widely believed that Buddhism was introduced to the islands from the neighbouring 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 Paganism and Hinduism as well.
Maldivians began to embrace Islam en masse in the year 1153 AD. There are many folklores and legends associated with the conversion story. One such folklore 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 a Moroccan scholar, Abu-al Barakath Yusuf al Barbaree who was visiting the Maldives during this period, rescued the Maldives from this sea demon and convinced the king to adopt Islam.
The Medhu Ziyaarai shrine, a popular tourist attraction found a few steps away from the Friday Mosque in Male’ is believed to be the final resting place of this Moroccan scholar.
Throughout the recorded history the Maldives existed as an independent polity for the most part. However, there were brief periods of foreign aggressions perpetrated by colonial masters and neighbouring powers.
The Maldivians love and value their freedom. Hence, whenever the country faced any foreign aggression, the heroes of the nation fought bravely to preserve the sovereignty of the country.
Starting from 1558 the Portuguese invaded the Maldives for a period of 15 years. The Maldivian national hero, Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al-Auzam led a successful uprising against the Portuguese aggressors and freed the country. This event is marked annually as the National Day of the Maldives.
There was a brief period during the mid-seventeenth century where the Dutch asserted control over Maldivian affairs. Subsequently on 1887 under an agreement the Maldives became a British Protectorate.
The British Royal Air Force operated an airfield on the Gan island of Addu Atoll. This airfield was active during the Second World War. Today this airfield has become the Gan International Airport, the gateway to the southern region of the country.
Becoming a Republic
For much of the known history, the Maldives were ruled by successive kings and queens belonging to different dynasties. However, on 1932 the first constitution of the country was adopted paving way for a republic.
The short lived First Republic was declared on 1953 with Mohamed Amin as the First President. However, the sultanate again made a comeback and lasted until 1968 when the Second Republic was proclaimed.
Under the premiership of Ibrahim Nasir, who became the First President of the Second Republic, Maldives gained independence from the United Kingdom on 26th July 1965. A new constitution was adopted and the Maldives embarked on a rapid modernisation process. The existing fishing industry was upgraded, and the first airport of the country was opened in Hulhulhe’ island on 12th April 1966.
During this period the Maldives began to explore new economic opportunities. This resulted in the opening of the first resort in 1972. Since, then the tourism industry has flourished in the country. Today the Maldivian tourism Industry is regarded as one of the best in the entire world.Although the Maldives is small in size, the country has built and enhanced a respectable reputation in the international arena. At present the Maldives leads the way in advocating for the protection of small countries and preserving the environment.