Officially named The Republic of the Maldives, these romantic islands form a South Asian sovereign state, in the Indian Ocean. The chain of 26 atolls lies southwest of Sri Lanka and India. The capital is Malé.
The Maldives archipelago sits on top of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, which is a vast submarine mountain range in the Indian Ocean. Consequently, the average ground-level elevation is only 1.5 metres above sea level. Notably, it is the world’s lowest country. Subsequently, there is great concern by the government regarding the risks of rising sea levels led to their 2009 pledge to make the Maldives a carbon-neutral nation within ten years.
The breathtakingly beautiful area has been popular with honeymooners and as a hideaway holiday destination for decades. Therefore, luxury tourism is the backbone of the local economy. However, on Boxing Day in 2004, a tsunami devastated the islands. The catastrophy destroyed six islands, and fourteen islands faced total evacuation. The total damage estimate was more than US$400 million. 102 Maldivians and six foreigners died.
What´s in a name?
The ancient Sri Lankan chronicle Mahawamsa refers to an island called Mahiladiva meaning the “Island of Women”. Historians consider this to probably be a mistranslation of the similar Sanskrit word which means “garland”. The Dutch called the islands the “Maldivische Eilanden”. The British then anglicised this name, first to become the “Maldive Islands” and then later, to just “Maldives”.
The Buddhist period is significant in the history of the Maldives. It was during this period that the culture of the Maldives both developed and flourished, a culture which survives today. The Maldivian language, the architecture, and customs originated at the time when the Maldives were a Buddhist kingdom back in the third century BC. Nearly all the archaeological remains in the Maldives are from Buddhist monasteries and temples. Examples of mandala shaped Buddhist temples exist in the region. The temple’s construction orients according to the four cardinal points and always has the main gate facing east.
Middle Eastern traders began to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the 10th-century. The Maldives was an essential link to those routes. Trade involved cowrie shells – used as a form of currency throughout Asia at the time. In the Bengal Sultanate, cowrie shells were legal tender. The Bengal–Maldives cowry shell trade was the largest shell currency trade network in history. Another important product of the Maldives was coir – the fibre made from dried coconut husk – because it was resistant to saltwater. It formed the rigging for the dhows that roamed the Indian Ocean. The export of coir created a large part of the economy, with customers from China, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf.
By the 12th-century, the Arabic influence led to the area becoming an Islamic sultanate. Strong commercial and cultural ties with Africa and Asia developed. From the 16th-century, the region started to become more European. It was a British protectorate in 1887. The Maldives gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965.