Destination: Maldives

The Maldives is one of the few destinations in the world that presents more than what it promises. Your first view of the country as your plane approaches the runway is magical. From the air it is a dreamlike picture of a thousand gems scattered on a bed of blue velvet, fading into the distance as the sea merges with the sky. The shallow turquoise lagoons surrounding the glistening beaches of so many randomly dotted islands portray a scene unique only to the Maldives.

Made up of 26 natural atolls, stretching from north to south and straddling the equator, the atolls in the central portion form a double chain.

In all, there are about 1200 islands, innumerable sandbanks and countless reefs dotted inside the atolls.

Until tourism began in the early 70s, the country was accessible only to adventurous seafarers. Although it is the isolation of the islanders from rest of the world that has left an intriguing history which is still being unravelled, lying at the crossroads of east-west maritime trade, the islands have been a melting pot for different races and cultures. This has created a nation with a unique culture and tradition, and a language they can call their own.

Facts & Figures

Location:

South West of Sri Lanka, on the equator.

Geography:

Formed above peaks emerging from the depths of the ocean, upon layers of both living and dead coral, and remnants of other marine life, most of the islands are covered with dense tropical vegetation. Coconut palms towering above dense shrubs and hardy plants protecting the shores from erosion are natural features on most islands. The smaller islands and sandbanks under formation are also wonders in themselves. They embody living entities in various stages of formation, interdependent elements in a food chain in which birds, fish, and other marine life co-exist. Humans form the apex, as caretakers.

Out of a total of 1190 islands, 200 are inhabited, and 88 are set aside for exclusive tourist resort development. Measuring 820 kilometres north to south and 120 kilometres east to west at its greatest width, the closest neighbours are India and Sri Lanka.

Climate:

Generally warm and humid, the sun shines all year through. Average temperature is around 29 - 32 degrees Celsius.

Culture:

A proud history and rich culture evolved from the time of the first settlers, who were from various parts of the world and came here while travelling the seas in ancient times. The Maldives has been a melting pot of different cultures as people from different parts of the world came here and settled down. Some of the local music and dance, for instance, show African influences, with the beating of drums, and songs in a language that is not known to any, but certainly represents that of East African countries. As one would expect, there is great South Asian influence in some of the music and dancing and especially in the traditional food of the Maldivians. However, many of the South Asian customs, especially with regard to women - for instance the Indian tradition of secluding women from public view - are not tenets of life here. In fact, women play a major role in society - not surprising considering the fact that men spend the whole day out at sea, fishing. Many of the traditions are strongly related to the seas and the fact that life is dependent on the seas around us.

Language:

Dhivehi is the native language of the Maldives. However, English is widely spoken throughout the country, and in the resorts, a variety of languages including English, German, Italian, French and Japanese are spoken by the staff.

Business hours:

These are from Sunday to Thursday 7:30 - 14:30 in the government sector, and generally from 9:00 - 5:00 in the private sector. Friday and Saturday constitute the weekend.

Communication:

Up-to-date technology and international satellite links allow Maldives to have a sophisticated communications system. IDD facilities are available on all resorts, and card phone facilities are available on all islands. Dhiraagu, the Maldives telecommunications company, and an affiliate of Cable and Wireless, of Britain, provides mobile telephones for rental on a daily basis. Dhiraagu is also the Internet Service Provider.

What to wear:

Dress is generally casual, and T-shirts and cotton clothing are most suitable. In Male', the capital island, and in other inhabited islands, it is recommended that you wear modest, non-revealing clothes.

Population:

This is about 0.3 million, according to the 1997 estimate. The origin of the Maldivians is lost in antiquity, but history reveals that the islands have been populated for more than 5,000 years. According to some observers, travellers who explored the world in reed ships discovered the islands.

Economy:

The Maldivian economy has been growing at an annual average of over 10 percent during the past two decades. Tourism, the main industry, contributes close to 20 percent of the GDP, and traditional fisheries and trade follow close behind. The Maldivian economy is regarded as exemplary in the region, and welcomes foreign investment. Per capita income for 1997 was recorded at US$ 900.00.

Currency:

The Maldivian currency is the Rufiyaa, with an exchange rate of 11.72 to the US Dollar (1999). The Rufiyaa comes in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500. The smaller denomination of the currency is called the Laaree and one Rufiyaa is equivalent to 100 Laarees. The US Dollar is the most commonly used foreign currency; however, payments in the resorts can be made in most hard currency, Travellers Cheques, or credit cards. Commonly used credit cards are American Express, Visa, Master Card, Diners Club, and JCB.

Education:

The functional literacy rate is 98 per cent. Educational standards are among the highest in the region, and schools follow the British education system.

Health:

Health care facilities are continually improving. The Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male' is the biggest hospital in the country, providing sophisticated medical care. Additionally, ADK Hospital is the biggest private health care provider, and follows high medical standards; experienced European doctors work at the AMDC Clinic; and some resorts have an in-house doctor. Decompression chambers are within reach of most resorts in case of a diving emergency.

Local time:

GMT +5 hours.

Language

The language of the Maldives is Dhivehi and displays great resemblance to several other languages from Sri Lanka, South East Asia and North India. It also contains many Arabic, Hindi and English words.

Historically speaking, the early people spoke Elu, a form of ancient Sinhalese. The language has undergone many transformations, and the present-day Dhivehi is written from left to right, probably to incorporate many of the Arabic words used. Modern Thaana script was invented in the 16th century, following the overthrow of the Portuguese. The earliest Dhivehi is inscribed on copper plates known as the Loamaafaanu.

The script is written with consonants in the middle, and vowels either on top or below the letters, depending on the sound.

Dhivehi is used equivocally in the administration of the country. Until the 1960s, Dhivehi was also the medium of instruction in all schools, but with the need for further education, Dhivehi-medium syllabuses have given way, to a large extent, to English-medium teaching. For this reason, English is widely understood, spoken and written by the locals.

Sunshine and Rainfall

The climate of the Maldives is warm year round, as determined by the monsoons. However, being on the equator, the monsoons are mild and not as well-defined as in neighbouring countries. Of the two monsoons, the southwest monsoon from May to October brings some rain and wind. The northeast monsoon, from November to April, is the dry season, with very little wind. The temperature varies little, with an annual average daily maximum of 30.4 degrees Celsius and a minimum of 25.9 degrees Celsius.

The annual rainfall stood at just over 1,900 millimetres in 1996. In the same year, the country had over 2,800 hours of sunshine, an average of about 8 hrs a day.

History

According to folklore, the Maldives was first colonised by an Indo-Aryan race, between the 4th and the 5th centuries BC. However, it is certain that early settlers came via Sri Lanka and practised age-old Buddhist customs.

The conversion to Islam took place in 1153. Legend tells us that during this time a demon rose from the depths of the ocean once every month and demanded that a virgin girl be sacrificed. A pious Moroccan saint, Abu al-Barakat, who visited Maldives at that time, learned of the story and exorcised the demon by reading verses from the Quran. The event led the King to embrace Islam.

The country has remained independent except for short periods of time, the longest being the 17-year Portuguese rule in the 16th Century.

It is said that the sea grew red with Muslim blood as the invaders tried to enforce their Christian beliefs upon the islanders. In 1573, Mohammed Thakurufaanu, the greatest Maldivian hero, led a band of men into Male harbour and, in the pitch darkness of the night, searched for and slaughtered their enemy.

In 1782, the Malabars from the East Coast of India attacked the Maldives, destroying the palace and driving the Sultan into exile. Their rule was short-lived: within months the people became resistant and a group led by Ghaazee Hassan Izzuddeen fought against the enemy forces and defeated them.

In 1887, the Maldives became a British protectorate. However, the British never interfered with the internal politics of the country, and in 1965 the country became a fully independent state. In 1968 a Republic was declared.

People

About 270.000 people live in the Maldives, 1/3 of them in the capital Malé. There are about 20,000 expatriate workers, mainly Sri Lankans, but also Europeans and Indians employed in the tourism and education sector.

Maldivians are of the Indo-Aryan race with Arabic, African influences due to their geographical location.

Nearly 50% of the population is under 15 years, an astonishing number, but easy to believe when one walks down the main road in Malé.

Just before the beginning of school thousands of children in white school uniforms swarm the streets eager to go to school.

Maldivians are friendly, hospitable and peace loving people, at the same time reserved and in control of their emotions.

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