One of the world’s most desirable tropical getaways, there are almost two parallel cultures that operate in the Maldives – the Sunni Muslim locals and the tourist-resort goers. The country also lies close to the former trade routes between Europe and the Orient so the Maldives is blessed with an interesting history influenced by both sides.
The Maldives was first inhabited by Dravidian and Sinhalese populations, and Buddhism became the dominant faith in the country until the 12th century. Even today, ancient Buddhist sites can be explored throughout this largely Islamic destination. The Maldives didn’t begin to experience ‘Western’ influences until the arrival of European and Arab traders.
By the 12th century, the Maldives was converted into an Islamic nation. Over the next few centuries, society began to flourish as sailors and trade merchants kept the local economy flowing. Textiles, wooden goods and coir (dried coconut husks – used for making sturdy products and rope) became the main Maldivian exports along the trade route.
Despite the fact that the Maldives was an Islamic sultanate from 1153 to the mid-1900’s, the British colonial forces transformed the islands into a British Protectorate at the end of the 19th century. This meant local Muslim culture could continue as long as it influenced British foreign policy. The protectorate began on December 16, 1887 and in return for signing, Britain provided the Maldives with a military force and promised not to interfere with local government proceedings. That lasted until 1965.
Following WWII, Britain lost its advantage in the colonial stranglehold of Asia, which was felt as far south-west as the Maldives. On July 26, 1965, the islands became an independent sovereignty as British control ceased. Two years later, the archipelago became the Republic of Maldives. Tourism began in the 1970’s, sparking an economic boom that changed the face of the modern Maldives forever. The commonly labeled ‘autocrat’, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, seized power in 1978 and stayed in office as an unopposed leader through fear-mongering tactics for 30 years. His reign came to an end in 2008, which saw Mohammed Naseed take control.
In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami destroyed much of this low-lying country, causing more than US $400 million dollars in damage. In addition, a military coup forcefully ousted the President, leading to political unrest and social upheaval in the capital. Sultan Park and the National Museum (Chaandhanee Magu, Male, Maldives) provide great insight into the history of this atoll-filled nation. A stark reminder of the 30-year Gayoom regime is evident at the Maldives National Defense Force HQ (Bandaara Koshi, Bandeyrige, Male).
The Maldives is one of the strictest nations on the planet when it comes to religious freedom. The practice of another faith outside of Islam is prohibited; meaning anyone residing within the country must be of the Islamic faith. A majority of the citizens in the Maldives are Sunni Muslims. The country’s cultural influences come from southern Indian origins, Sinhalese influences and Arabian backgrounds.
However, despite the fact that alcohol and pork is banned throughout the streets of Male (Maldives’ capital city), the island resorts around the Maldives are relatively free of Islamic restrictions. Tourists will notice that hotels reside in a bubble, complete with a separate culture to the modern Maldives.