Identify the nature and important features of Maldivian society



Archaeologically, the history of Maldives dates back to early 2000 B.C In those times, Maldives had links with the early Egyptians, Mesopotamians and the Indus valley civilization.

Thor Heyerdahl, a noted explorer and an expert in marine navigation, believed that the early sun worshipping seafarers called the Redin were the first settlers in Maldives.

Even today, the mosques in Maldives face the Sun and not the Mecca. Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion of the people as a result of colonisation by south Indian and Sri Lankan settlers from the 6th century AD onwards. Some believe that the name Maldives is derived from the Sanskrit word "maladvipa", which means a garland of islands. Maldives by virtue of its strategic location astride the important maritime trade routes and abundance of cowrie shells (that were used as a form of currency throughout Asia and east Africa till the 16th century) attracted the attention of traders of the Middle East in the 10th century.

Witt the Arab seafarers establishing their monopoly over the Indian Ocean trade routes, their culture began to have a deep influence on the Maldivian society in 1153 A.D, the Buddhist King converted to Islam and adopted Muslim title and name of Sultan Muhammad al Adil. He initiated a series of six dynastic-, consisting of eighty-four Sultans and Sultanas, which lasted until 1932 when the Sultanate became elective. With the rise of the European nations as maritime powers in the 16th and 17th century, the Arab hegemony over the maritime trade routes came to an end. In 1558 Maldives came under the Portuguese rule, which administered it from Goa on India's west coast.

Fifteen year later, a local guerrilla leader Muhammad Thakurufaan organised popular revo' and drove the Portuguese out of Maldives. This event is now commemorate as national day in the Maldives. In the mid-sixteenth century, when the Dutch replaced Portuguese, Maldives also came under the Dutch control for some time. The Dutch, however, didn't exercise any direct control over the internal matters of Maldives, which was governed according to Islamic customs.

In the late 18th century, the British expelled the Dutch from Ceylon and included Maldives as a British Protectorate. In 1887, through an exchange of letters between the British and the Maldivian Sultan, the suzerainty of Great Britain over Maldives was formally recognised and its protectorate status was affirmed. Under this agreement, the responsibility of recognising and installing the Sultan as well as the control of the country's defence and foreign relations were vested in Great Britain.

The colonial power was expected to follow the policy of non-interference in the internal matters of Maldives. During the British era from 1887 to 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of Sultans. The Sultans were hereditary until 1932 when an attempt was made to make the Sultanate elective, thereby limiting the absolute power of Sultans.

At that time, a constitution was introduced for the first time, although the Sultanate was retained for an additional twenty-one years Maldives remained a British crown protectorate until 1953 when the Sultanate was suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muslimabad Amin Didi. In 1954, the Sultanate was again restored.

In 1956, Britain obtained permission to re-establish its wartime airfield on Gan in the southernmost Addu Atoll. On July 26, 1965, Maldives gained independence under an agreement signed with Britain. The British government, however, retained the use of the facilities in the Can and Hitaddu islands. In a national referendum in 1968, Maldives abolished the Sultanate and became a republic under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir.

Ethnicity and language

Social system historically, the Maldivian society was broadly divided into four categories in order of social importance. At the top of this social structure were the King and his direct descendants who were called the Mannipu.

The fourth generation descendants of the reigning Sultan and relatives of former Sultans were endowed with the title Didi. Below the King and his relative were the Great Lords called the Kilegefanu and the Takurufanu. This category included officials of the state and other such persons on whom such title was conferred by the King in return of paying of a sum to the state treasury. The third category comprised of the aristocracy called Maniku. When the Marziku received a title of honour from the Sultan, they were known as Manikufanu.

The fourth category comprised of the common man who were known as the Kulo. Toddy tappers called the Ra-veri formed the lowest in the caste hierarchy, barring the second category of the Kilegefanu and Takurufanu, the rest of the categories were ascribed from birth. Although the caste system was not so rigid in the Maldives it came into existence to fulfill the basic economic needs °f kinship and nobility.

It did provide some social exclusivity with functional specification visa-vis the common man. Social behaviour was controlled by customary sanctions and a rigid code of conduct guided the relations between castes/social categories in the most mundane day-to-day affairs like form of address, seating arrangements or dining, etc.

The advent of Islam, also introduced the ranks of Kazi (Magistrate), Naib and the Khatib (Islam Magistrate) and they perpetuated the unequal social order. However, Islani was also responsible for preventing the further crystallisation of the caste- system in the Maldives. In addition to the above mentioned caste structure, slaves and bonded labourer also existed.

These bonded labourers were called Feniuseri and they formed another exclusive category side the caste system. Despite its stratified structure, the Maldivian social order had flexibility with the King being the dispenser of titles. Thus, though the status of the common people was initially inscriptive, they could presumably have an upward mobility through the royal dispensation.

Even the bonded labourers could become free and absorbed into the various caste systems after paying off their debts. The contemporary Maldivian society, the process of modernisation is gradually eroding the caste system. This in turn is making the society more homogenous and egalitarian. Today only two distinct communities exist in Maldives, the elite population residing in Male, and rest of the population inhabiting the outa islands. Male is the traditional seat of the Sultans and of the nobility and remains an elite society wielding political and economic power.

Members of the several traditionally privileged ruling families: government, business, and religious leaders, professionals and scholars live here. Male differs from other islands also because as many as 40 per cent of its residents are migrants.

The island communities outside Male are in most cases self-contained economic units drawing meagre sustenance from the sea around them. Islanders are in man) instances interrelated by marriage and form a small, tightly knit group whose main economic pursuit is fishing.

Apart from the heads of individual households local influence is exerted by the government appointed island Khatib, or chief Regional control over each atoll is administered by the Atolu verin or the atol chief and by the gazi, or community religious leader. Boat owners, as employers also dominate the local economy and, in many cases, provide an informal, bt effective, link to Male's power structure.