Introduction

The Maldives are an archipelago of numerous small islands located in the Indian Ocean. The country consists of 1,190 coral islands formed around 26 natural ring-like atolls, spread over 90,000 square kilometres. Since 99 percent of the Maldives is sea, the people of the islands are widely dispersed across the atolls, with about 200 inhabited islands. The rest of the islands are developed exclusively as tourist resorts, uninhabited or used for agriculture and other livelihood purposes.

The pearl-shaped island nation has a population of about 350,000, with approximately 100,000 people residing in the capital city of Male, and an estimated 100,000 foreign workers. Heralded as an idyllic tropical haven, this secluded island formation has in recent years made a name for itself as a delightful holiday destination, attracting leisure travellers from around the globe. Beautiful atolls, inhabited by over 1,100 species of fish and other marine life, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and all year round.

KEY FACTS ABOUT MALDIVES

  • Full Name: Republic of Maldives
  • Population: 320,000 (UN, 2011)
  • Capital: Male
  • Area: 298 sq km (115 sq miles)
  • Average Temperature: 29-32 ˚C
  • Local Time: GMT +5
  • Language: Dhivehi. English is widely spoken throughout the country.
  • Religion: Islam
  • Life Expectancy: 76 years (men), 79 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary Unit: 1 rufiyaa = 100 laari
  • Main Exports: Fish
  • GNI Per Capita: US $6,530 (World Bank, 2011)
  • Internet Domain: .mv
  • International Dialling Code: +960
  • Electricity: 230-240 volts -AC

History

With stories such as Rannamaari, a tale about a sea monster than demands a virgin sacrifice every full moon, and conflicting accounts of the origin of the first settlers in the country, Maldives has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. The indigenous people of the Maldives are believed to be settlers from the shores of southern India and western Sri Lanka as well as some migrants from more northern regions of India. 

Maldivians practised Buddhism – a religion widely followed in neighbouring Sri Lanka – up until 1153 AD, when, according to local folklore, a Sunni Muslim visitor named Abu al Barakat convinced the reigning king to embrace Islam.

Maldives was visited by people from all over the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, due to the availability of important commodities such as cowry shells. These visitors left a strong influence on the people, their religion and the culture of the Maldives. Trade with cowry shells was the mainstay of the Maldives for many centuries. These precious shells were used as an international currency in Africa, China, Arabia and India – and Maldivian cowries have been found as far away as Norway.

KEY EVENTS IN THE HISTORY OF MALDIVES

  • 1st Century AD: The Roman manual of Navigation, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, mentions islands that are assumed to be the Maldives.
  • 2nd Century AD: Ptolemy refers to the Maldives in his geography.
  • 362 AD: A Roman historian records a visit of a Maldivian delegation to Rome, bearing gifts to Emperor Julian.
  • 662 AD: A historical Chinese document records that the king of the Maldives sent gifts to the Chinese Emperor Kao-Tsung of Tang Dynasty.
  • 1153: Maldives converts to Islam.
  • 1558: The Portuguese invade the Maldives.
  • 1573: Mohamed Thakurufaanu liberates the Maldives from the Portuguese.
  • 1752: The Malabars invade the Maldives for a three-month period.
  • 1887: Protectorate signed with Britain.
  • 1932: The first constitution enacted.
  • 1953: The first republic created with Mohamed Ameen as president.
  • 1954: End of the first republic as Ameen is ousted; the Maldives reverts to a sultanate with Mohamed Fareed as the king.
  • 1965: Independence from the British.
  • 1968: End of the sultanate; second republic formed with Ibrahim Nasir as president.
  • 1972: The first island resort is developed; tourists begin arriving to the Maldives.

Politics and Government

A sultanate since the 12th century, the Maldives became a British protectorate in 1887 and remained so until 1965 when then Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir – who would later become the first president of the second republic – signed the declaration of independence. The country became a republic for the second time in 1968, three years after independence.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom dominated the nation’s political scene for 30 years, elected to six successive terms by single-party referendums. Following fierce opposition, including large-scale demonstrations in the capital Male, the government pledged to embark upon democratic reforms such as a more representative political system and expanded political freedoms. Although progress was sluggish and many promised reforms were slow to be realised, political parties were legalised in 2005.

In June 2008, a constituent assembly finalised a new constitution, which was ratified by the president in August. The first-ever presidential elections under a multi-candidate, multi-party system were held in October 2008, and Gayoom was defeated in a run-off poll by Mohamed Nasheed, a political activist who had been jailed several times earlier by the former regime.

In early February 2012, after several weeks of street protests following his detainment of a top judge, Nasheed resigned and handed over power to his vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. The legitimacy of the regime change was later challenged by Nasheed and his supporters. However, a Commonwealth-backed enquiry into the controversial transfer of power found no evidence of a coup.

KEY FACTS ABOUT THE POLITICS AND GOVERNANCE OF MALDIVES

  • Form of Government: Presidential Republic
  • Executive: The president (Mohamed Waheed Hassan since February 8, 2012) serves as both the head of the state and head of the government. The president is elected by direct vote and elected for a five-year term (eligible for a second term). A vice president (Mohamed Waheed Deen since February 22, 2012) is also present.
  • Legislative Branch: Unicameral parliament (77 seats; members elected by direct vote to serve five-year terms).
  • Judiciary: Supreme Court (Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president with the approval of parliament). High Court, Civil Court, Criminal Court and Juvenile Court form the upper courts. All lower court judges are appointed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).

Things to do

Surfing

With consistent waves amongst tropical beaches and reefs, Maldives is the ideal surfing destination for holidaymakers. The surfing season runs from mid-February to November when swells are produced by low pressure systems in the southern Indian Ocean. It is advisable to choose a holiday home in an island located on the eastern side of North Male Atoll as most of the recognised surf breaks are in Male Atoll. Some of the well-known and easily accessible surfing spots in the Maldives include: 

1. Cokes: Located near the island of Thulusdhoo in Kaafu Atoll, this big wave tube spot has a steep barrelling take-off, then a very shallow inside section that opens up even more than the take-off. It is accessed by boat, and is ideal for surfing on mid to high tide.

2. Chickens: Situated near the uninhabited island of Kuda Villingili in North Male Atoll, this long, excellent left-hander has two sections and a pleasant thin peeling racing lip. 

3. Honkey’s: This excellent, long, world-class right-hander is located near the uninhabited island of Thamburudhoo in North Male Atoll. It has some of the most consistent waves of the atoll, which never close out even on the biggest swells.

Diving
The Maldives’ amazing white sand beaches, coral reefs, clear warm waters, many scuba diving sites and rich marine life have made the island nation one of the world’s premier scuba diving destinations. In addition to the scuba diving facilities available at some of the islands, a number of liveaboard operators offer scuba diving cruise holidays. The diving season runs all year round, but the period from November to May is considered to be the recommended months for confirmed liveaboard departures. Among the most popular and easily accessible dive sites are:

1. Thamburudhoo Thila (also known as the H.P. Reef): With depths ranging from 5m to 30m, this superb site located in the North Male Atoll is suitable for diving all year round. It features spectacular reef formations along with caves and crevices.

2. Kudarah Thila: Featuring caves, overhangs and outcrops, this Ari Atoll dive site is accessible all year round, and has depths varying from 14m to 30m. Best suited for experienced scuba divers, this thila – a large coral structure that has sections both in and out of water – boasts a wide variety of marine life, including sharks, triggerfish and barracuda.

3. Banana Reef: Being one of the first dive sites to be discovered in the Maldives, the fish inhabiting its numerous caves have become quite tame and are responsive to feeding. At this reef located in North Male Atoll, you can expect to see puffer fish, wrasse, fusillier, squirrelfish, grouper, grubfish, etc.

Fishing
Fishing has been the lifeline of Maldivians for generations, but it is also becoming increasingly popular among both locals and foreigners as a favourite pastime activity. Night fishing in the Maldives is an experience that should not be missed.  Grab a fishing rod, get into a dhoni and go on the lookout under the night sky for groupers, snappers, emperors, jacks, squirrel fish and barracudas. Facilities needed for big game fishing and night fishing, including speedboats and modern fishing equipment like international fish rods and fish finders, are available from almost all the islands.

Snorkeling
Snorkeling over the shallow reefs of the islands is an ideal way to explore the breath-taking underwater beauty of Maldives. The house reefs of most of the islands are just a few metres away from the beach, and the shallow nature of the reefs allows you to simply walk up to the reef.

Culture

From local cuisine to music, the culture of Maldives reflects a blend of the many cultural aspects that were introduced by the seafarers who settled in the country in the ancient times. The Maldives’ culture has deep influences from many different countries, including neighbouring Sri Lanka and India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Despite being a small community living in an island nation, Maldivians have a language of their own to be proud of. The language, known as Dhivehi, is from Indo-Iranian Sanskritic origin, and is closely related to the Sinhalese language, which is widely spoken in neighbouring Sri Lanka. However, it has gradually evolved overtime due to influences from Islamic and Arabic traditions.

Since Maldives embraced Islam in 1153, Islam has been central to the life of Maldivians. The main events and festivals of Maldivian life revolve around the Muslim Hijri Calendar. From infancy, children are taught the Arabic alphabet and the Muslim holy book of Qur’an. Religious education is provided both at home and at school, and Islam is part of the school curriculum.

‘Bodu Beru’, literally translated as Big Drum, is the most popular form of local music and dance. Believed to have originated from East Africa, it is a performance by a group of drummers, singers and dancers, starting with a slow beat and ending on a frenetic note. Other popular cultural dances include ‘Thaara Jehun’ – introduced by Arabs – for men and ‘Bandiyaa Jehun’ – similar to Indian pot dance – for women. Today western and Indian music is much popular among both young and older Maldivians.

Weather and Climate

In a country with more than 99 percent sea, the weather plays a major role in day-to-day life of the people. Western travellers often describe the weather and climate of Maldives as a “never-ending summer”.

The Maldives has a tropical climate which consists of two monsoons: the dry Northeast Monsoon – locally known as Iruvai Moosun – from December to March, and the wet Southwest Monsoon – referred to as Hulhangu Moosun by locals – from May to November, with more strong winds and rain. Although the temperature remains remarkably consistent at around 30°C throughout the year, April is considered a transitional period noted for clear water and heat.