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The Divehi (Maldivians) of the Maldives

Population:     359,008 (July 2006 est. World Factbook)
Religion:        Islam
Registry of Peoples code:  Maldivian:  106169
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Maldivian:  div

An Islamic state, the Republic of Maldives is made up of a chain of almost 1,200 islands 600 kilometers southwest of Sri Lanka.  Although seemingly a tropical paradise, it was once said that it was to these islands that Allah had exiled the Jinn (evil spirits) of the world.  The name of the country in the local language is Dhivehi, as indicated in the name of one of the political parties:  Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (Maldivian People's Party).

The people are mainly descendants of the Sinhalese from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries BC.  Recent archaeological findings indicate that Aryan settlers from India and Sri Lanka may have settled in the Maldives as early as 1500 BC.  These immigrants were part of the Indo-Iranian people who engaged in general migrations out of Central Asia over several centuries.

There was at least one indigenous people in the islands when the Aryans first came.  These were the Giraavaru who lived on Kaafu atoll.  The Giravaaru gave their permission for the first settlers to move there.  Later immigrant sailors from East Africa and Arabia joined the gene pool, arriving in the twelfth century AD.

Originally Buddhists, the Divehi were converted to Islam in the year 1153 by a Moroccan traveler.  Their original myths of origin are legends from the early Buddhist, in the style of the Indo-Iranian epic dramas.

Their language is classified by the Ethnologue under the name Maldivian, with an alternate name of Divehi, based on the local word Dhivehi.  It appears the trend recently in Western sources has been to use the Maldivian spelling, Dhivehi.  The Ethnologue comments that some dialects may not be mutually intelligible with others.  The Dhivehi language is an Indo-European language related to Sinhalese but has borrowed many words from Arabic and Persian.  Maldivian (Dhivehi) and Sinhala both are descended from a parent language called Elu).  English spoken by most government officials.

Some sources report that the people use the term "Dhivehi" for themselves, indicating that the word means Islanders.  One recent source has protested that this word refers to the language only, not to the people [Personal email communication].  As noted above, however, the word is also used by the people to refer to the islands themselves, and the word is used in the official name of the republic. [See Politics below.]

The Ethnologue reports that the Maldivian language is also spoken by about 4,500 in Minicoy Island in the Laccadive Islands in India.  The language is written from left to right in a script called Thaana.  Thaana was developed during the 16th century, derived from Arabic.  Sources report the literacy rate in Dhivehi on the islands to be 97-98%; in India perhaps lower.

Traditionally, fishing is the main industry of the Islands, where they fish with poles instead of nets.  The cowry shells formerly used in the Maldives as money were at one time a common currency all around the Indian Ocean and in East Africa.  In recent years tourism has become a successful industry with some of the world's most beautiful beaches on small coral islands.  Tourism and development took a big hit with the Tsunami in 2004.

Despite the appearance of a tropical paradise, social problem present a problem to the stability of the society.  The divorce rate is 85% — the highest in the world!  Beneath the cover of a strict Islamic society lie serious problems of adultery and incest.

Political Situation:
In English the country is called Republic of the Maldives, or for short, Maldives."  The official name of the country Dhivehi Raajjeyge Jumhooriyyaa.  The government operates under a parliamentary system, with a single house of 50 representatives.  In 1153, an Islamic sultanate was set up. The Islamic overlay incorporated the earlier Buddhist history, and legend now reports that the first founder of the country became the first Sultan of the Maldives.

The country has been independent for most of its history, though under temporary occupation on occasion, including a protectorate under the Dutch.  The British established a protectorate from 1887 till independence in 1965.  Declared a Republic in 1968, the Maldives is estimated to be among the 20 poorest countries in the world.  Only 202 of the islands are inhabited.  Each island averages only about half a square mile in size.  The entire country is less that 2 meters (6 feet) above sea level.  Poor soil, water shortage and a fragile economy with a fast growing population pose great challenges.

The low-lying island country was greatly affected by the Tsunami of 26 December 2004.  Destruction and loss was equivalent to about 62% of annual GDP.  In Maldives 83 deaths occurred, mostly young children and the elderly.  About 7% of the population was displaced. Reconstruction is still underway near the end of 2006.

The calendar and general structure of the formal society is organized around the celebrations and observances of Islam.  A form of folk Islam known as 'Fandita' is observed with the reverence of saints and belief in astrology and magic.  Some Maldivians seem embarrassed about this folk form of Islam, or even deny its existence.

One Maldivian correspondent recently stated that Fandita has no place in Islam.  He indicates that Fandita is just a "cultural belief," no longer an active religious practice.  "Fandithas has absolutely no existence in Islam.  It is purely a cultural belief in the same way as many read their horoscopes" [Personal email communication].  Since this commentator, however, likens Fandita to horoscopes, it seems to represent a deeper layer of worldview reality than he is willing to allow.

Various sources indicate that visitors to the country report that fear seems to inhabit every aspect of life.  Homes are built windowless, so Jinn cannot enter.  Many of the older homes have low walls across the doorways to help keep Jinn out.  Many Divehi are afraid to go out in the dark for fear of evil.  Islanders turn to the Fandita religious practitioners to perform daily rituals in their homes to drive the Jinn away.

There are no known Maldivian Christians in the country.  There are no known expatriate Christians among them and there is no Christian missionary work being done there.  Western sources indicate the Maldivians are among the least evangelized people of the world.

Any evangelism is strictly prohibited.  One Christian tourist even reported that his own personal Bible was confiscated.  To date, no attempt has been make to translate the Bible into Dhivehi.

For more on Maldivians and their Country
Affected by the Tsunami
Background Note:  Maldives
History and Origins
Maldivian Language — Ethnologue
Maldives — Office of the President
Maldives — InfoPlease
Maldives — Office of the President
Dhivehi Language — Wikipedia

Written 1996
First Posted on Thoughts and Resources August 2000
Revised 13 April 2006
Last edited 3 December 2007

Copyright 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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