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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Maldivian Notes

Don¡¯t think I would do a full story on Maldives. Just some observations and notes:
  1. It looks like a very Middle Class society. It's Haj holiday today and many Maldivians are wandering around, or relaxing. They look very relaxed and satisfied. They also dress well and generally speak English, even the fishermen at the harbor from the atolls. Not surprising, as they have a literacy rate of almost 100%. The Maldives is the richest country in South Asia and hence the larger middle class. I don¡¯t know the state of things in the outer atolls but Male¡¯ now accounts for half the national population and to a certain extent reflective of the country.
  2. It rained really heavily yesterday and I was reminded of global warming issues. Maldives could potentially be one of the first countries (the other is Tuvalu in the Pacific) to disappear into the sea because its elevation is too low.
  3. The airport can be seen from my hotel ¨C after all, it¡¯s only 1km away.
  4. Maldivian civil servants look well groomed and professional.
  5. Traditional Maldivian food is tuna, tuna and tuna. I had minced tuna-onion-chili mix wrapped in a pancake (roshi) for breakfast. Last night, I had tuna fried noodle for dinner.
  6. For someone just dropping by from India, Maldives looks expensive but that is an unfair comment because the standard of living is higher here. The prices do look reasonable from a middle income country perspective. With only less than 300,000 people, the cost of operating here must be very high. No economies of scale at all.
  7. Maldives may look peaceful but it has a complicated and rather bloody past that involved several Portuguese and Malabar invasions and counter-offensive by Maldivians. In the 1950s and 1960s, the monarchy was overthrown twice, with a First Republic in between. According to Wikipedia:
¡°¡­Britain encouraged the development of a constitutional monarchy, and the first Constitution was proclaimed in 1932. However, the new arrangements favoured neither the aging Sultan nor the wily Chief Minister, but rather a young crop of British-educated reformists. As a result, angry mobs were instigated against the Constitution which was publicly torn up. Maldives remained a British crown protectorate until 1953 when the sultanate was suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi.
This first elected president of the country introduced several reforms. While serving as prime minister during the 1940s, Didi nationalized the fish export industry. As president he is remembered as a reformer of the education system and a promoter of women's rights. Muslim conservatives in Mal¨¦ eventually ousted his government, and during a riot over food shortages, Didi was beaten by a mob and died on a nearby island.¡±
  1. There was even once a separatist movement in southern part of Maldives, as noted in Wikipedia: ¡°¡­challenged in 1959 by a local secessionist movement in the southern atolls that benefited economically from the British presence on Gan. This group cut ties with the Maldives government and formed an independent state with Abdullah Afif as president.
The short-lived state (1959-63), called the United Suvadive Republic, had a combined population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered in the southernmost atolls Huvadu, Addu and Fua Mulaku. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats from Mal¨¦ with government police on board to eliminate elements opposed to his rule. One year later the Suvadive republic was scrapped and Abdulla Afif went into exile to the Seychelles, where he died recently.¡±
  1. Since full independence from the UK, Maldives had experienced a few attempted coup d¡¯etats, including one organized by two Sri Lanka-based businessmen who engaged Tamil mercenaries to invade Male¡¯. According to Wikipedia, ¡°although the mercenaries quickly gained the nearby airport on Hulule, they failed to capture President Gayoom, who fled from house to house and asked for military intervention from India, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi immediately dispatched 1,600 troops by air to restore order in Mal¨¦. Less than 12 hours later, Indian paratroopers arrived on Hulele, causing some of the mercenaries to flee toward Sri Lanka in their freighter. Those unable to reach the ship in time were quickly rounded up. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, and several taken hostage also died. Three days later an Indian frigate captured the mercenaries on their freighter near the Sri Lankan coast.¡±
  2. Wikipedia also wrote about Maldives¡¯ Buddhist heritage: ¡°Despite being omitted or just mentioned briefly in most history books, the Buddhist period has a foundational importance in the history of the Maldives. It was during this period, that the culture of the Maldives, as we know it now, flourished and developed. Buddhism probably spread to the Maldives in the 3rd century BC, at the time of the Mauryan emperor Asoka the Great, when it extended to the regions of Afghanistan and Central Asia, beyond the Mauryas' northwest border, as well as South to the island of Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. Serious studies on the archaeological remains of the Maldives began with the work of H. C. P. Bell, a British commissioner of the Ceylon Civil Service. Bell was shipwrecked on the islands in 1879, and he returned several times to investigate ancient Buddhist ruins.
The Buddhist Stupa at Kuruhinna in Gan Island (Haddhunmathi Atoll). Western SideEarly scholars like H.C.P. Bell, who had been residing in Sri Lanka most of his life, claimed that Buddhism came to the Maldives from Sri Lanka)¡­ There is also a small Porites stupa in the Museum where the directional Buddhas (Jinas) are etched in its four cardinal points as in the Mahayana tradition. Some coral blocks with fearsome heads of guardians are also displaying Vajrayana Iconography. All these relatively recent archaeological discoveries are today exhibited in a side room of the small National Museum in Male' along with other artifacts.
Buddhist remains have been also found in Minicoy Island, then part of the Maldive Kingdom, by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in the latter half of the 20th century. Among these remains a Buddha head and stone foundations of a Vihara deserve special mention.
Following the Islamic concept that before Islam there was the time of Jahiliya (ignorance), in the history books used by Maldivians the introduction of Islam at the end of the 12th century is considered the cornerstone of the country's history. Islam remains the state religion in the 1990s. And yet the Maldivian language, the first Maldive scripts, the architecture, the ruling institutions, the customs and manners of the Maldivians originated at the time when the Maldives were a Buddhist Kingdom.
Buddhism became the dominant religion in the Maldives and enjoyed royal patronage for many centuries, probably as long as over one thousand and four hundred years. Practically all archaeological remains in the Maldives are from Buddhist stupas and monasteries, and all artifacts found to date display characteristic Buddhist iconography. Buddhist (and Hindu) temples were Mandala shaped, they are oriented according to the four cardinal points, the main gate being towards the east. Even today, many mosques in Maldives face the sun and not Mecca. Since building space and materials were scarce, Maldivians constructed their places of worship on the foundations of previous buildings.
The ancient Buddhist stupas are called "havitta", "hatteli" or "ustubu" by the Maldivians according to the different atolls. These stupas and other archaeological remains, like foundations of Buddhist buildings Vihara, compound walls and stone baths, are found on many islands of the Maldives. They usually lie buried under mounds of sand and covered by vegetation. Local historian Hassan Ahmed Maniku counted as many as 59 islands with Buddhist archaeological sites in a provisional list he published in 1990. The largest monuments of the Buddhist era are in the islands fringing the eastern side of Haddhunmathi Atoll.¡±
  1. Maldives does not promote mass tourism. The Law No 15/79 ¡°Law on Tourism in Maldives¡±, as noted in the Bradt Guide to Maldives, included clauses that specify that no hotel may be built on any inhabited island, and water from inhabited islands shall not be used in any tourist resort. This prevents excessive negative influence of tourism on local culture and customs, as well as protect the fragile local environment and resources from being overstrained by tourism.
  2. Pedestrians and drivers appear to follow traffic rules. Compared to the Subcontinent, it is quite safe on the roads here. People actually follow traffic lights even when there is no traffic. That is so Singaporean (or Swiss or German for that matter).
  3. Whilst this is a Muslim country, women work in many fields and industries. Some wear conservative headwear while others dress like women anywhere else. Women ride motorbikes too. I think this is a liberal and progressive country.
  4. The Maldivian rifiyaa is a controlled currency. I would need to use up all the cash I have changed.
  5. Maldivian stamps are purely for revenue purpose. Very expensive. Each set between US$4 to US$7, and of topics that are not Maldivian at all (e.g., flowers of the world, Kennedy, Diana, world painters, etc).
  6. The water is crystal clear here. Even at Male¡¯s pier, I see the seabed and lots of colourful fishes, though most are bright blue or yellow. Amazing! Must be great diving here.
  7. Maldives has a open tourist policy that encourages people who have the money to come here as tourist, no matter where they are from. I see a number of young Mainland Chinese ¨C not the usual middle age group tourist types travelling on state expenses that we see everywhere, but the new yuppies who come here to dive, with all their gear. The tourism board even publishes brochures and official guides in Chinese and Russian.

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