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Forbidden Isles Of Paradise

Forbidden Isles Of Paradise

The Maldives


Asia's smallest and least-known nation, the Maldives, lies scattered from north to south across a broad sweep of azure ocean south-west of Sri Lanka. Nearly two thousand islands, together with innumerable banks and reefs, are grouped in a chain of nineteen atolls extending from a point due west of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, to just south of the equator.

The atolls – the name is indigenous, the only word of Maldivian to have been adopted by English – comprise massive rings of coral perched on the peaks of a submerged mountain range. Some are only a few miles wide, but in the far south the great atoll of Suvadiva is more than forty miles across. The northern and central atolls are separated from each other by comparatively narrow channels of deep water, but in the south, especially at Addu Atoll, the channels are wider and more treacherous.

Strung around the rims of the atolls like beads – or in some cases within the central lagoons – are the islands. Most of them are less than a square mile in area and are very low-lying. From the sea they appear as fragile groups of coconut palms in apparently permanent danger of being swept away by the sea – though in fact most islands have a protective coral reef, and the great outer reef which all but surrounds each atoll acts as a massive break water, shielding the islands from all but the worst storms. At various points in this outer reef are narrow and treacherous passages which allow access to the lagoons. Early mariners likened the atolls to fortresses set in the midst of the ocean.

Their structure becomes more apparent from the air – the islands, tiny specks of green coconut palm and white coral sand, are surrounded by massive coral reefs which appear in shades of aquamarine and emerald against the surrounding azure depths of the Indian Ocean. It is no wonder, then, that their name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit mala-dvipa, "Garland of Islands".

Startlingly beautiful they may be, but the Maldives have always been a menace to mariners. Surrounded by massive banks of coral reef and all but invisible from more than a few hundred metres, the archipelago forms a great, semi-submerged shoal five hundred miles from north to south, ready to tear the bottom out of any ship, from outrigger to super tanker, unlucky enough to run aground; just scant metres from the shallow waters of the treacherous reef, the deep abyss, beyond all hope. No wonder ancient mariners steered well clear, whilst medieval maps portrayed the islands as threatening ranks of shark-like teeth.

It is extraordinary, then, that the Maldives, alone of all the remote Indian Ocean archipelagos, have been settled for more than two millennia. When Western sailors first came upon the Seychelles, the Chagos Archipelago, the Cocos-Keeling Islands, even the Mascarenes, they found them quite uninhabited. Not so the Maldives. Here were an ancient people, small, dark-skinned, sophisticated yet circumspect, making a living by selling dried fish, coconut-fibre rope and tiny white cowry shells – the latter, in pre-modern times, a much-valued unit of exchange from the high mountain deserts of Tibet to the wastes of Mali and Mauritania.

When exactly the Maldives were first settled, and by whom, remains a matter of conjecture. Historians suggest that the first islanders may have been relatives of the Veddah aborigines of Sri Lanka, subsequently subsumed in a wave of Indo-European migration from the Indian mainland more than two thousand years ago. When Harry Charles Purvis Bell, Director of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, first began investigating the islands more than a century ago, he found an Indo-European people speaking a language closely related to Sinhalese, but written in a script unique to the Maldives and based on an unlikely but scientific system of Arabic numerals.

Mystified but fascinated Bell returned again and again to the Maldives, making the unravelling of their history a great part of his life's work. The islanders – Muslims all, from the Sultan downwards – showed him every kindness and consideration, but there were some areas they would not – dared not – broach. Some islands were out of bounds at night, others objects of dread even at high noon. Why? Because they were haunted, the nervous islanders explained. But haunted by what, precisely? For thirty years Bell scratched and scraped, both literally and figuratively, at the enigma of the forbidden islands before he discovered the truth. The Maldives, like the Maldivian people themselves, were haunted by the ghosts of their own past.

It was in Bell's footsteps, in search of the mysterious side of these magical islands, that I set out for Addu Atoll, in the far south of the archipelago, some years ago. My sponsor was the Museum of Mankind in London, for whom I was to make an ethnographic collection. Beyond this strictly mundane goal, however, I was anxious to learn more of the "forbidden islands", especially those in the remote southern atolls.

The unique beauty of the atolls was apparent from the moment our plane began its descent towards Malé, the Maldivian capital. Malé is served by Hulule International Airport, a tiny coral islet extended at either end by land-fill painstakingly carried by freighter from the Indian mainland. The result is not unlike a fixed aircraft carrier, moored permanently in the sea a few hundred metres from the tiny capital.

Formalities on landing at Malé are simple, the officials welcoming and helpful. I was asked in a formal way whether I was carrying drugs or alcohol. No I wasn't. Then a stranger question: "Do you have any religious images or Buddha figures?" By chance, and lacking foreknowledge of any prohibition, I did – a smoke-blue Buddha image, in the Mahayana tradition. I had picked it up at a bazaar in Kathmandu, Nepal, which was my previous port of call, intending to take it home as a souvenir.

"No Buddha image may enter the Maldives," insisted the Maldivian customs man, clearly horrified at this revelation. "What are you thinking of?" I apologised for my transgression and was given a receipt to sign. Meanwhile the Buddha was wrapped in newspaper and taken away, to be reclaimed on my departure from the country. Ten minutes later, sitting in the small passenger boat which ferries passengers to Malé, I wondered about the cause of this strange prohibition.

In his researches Bell had shown beyond all doubt that the islanders had once been Buddhist. The strange, tumuli-like mounds which dotted some of the more remote, uninhabited islands – especially in the south – had long since been revealed as stupas, reliquaries for Buddha artefacts and, mysteriously, a Roman coin – a denarius of Caius Vibius Pansa – dating from 90 BC.

The legend of the conversion of the islanders to Islam is well known. It was recorded by Ibn Battuta, the "Traveller of Islam", as early as 1340 AD. According to Ibn Battuta – and to many islanders today – the sea off Malé, the king's island, was haunted by an evil spirit of great power which demanded the regular sacrifice of young virgins. These unfortunates were taken and left tied to a stake by the shore, only to be discovered ravaged and dead in the pale light of dawn. The monster – seen by Ibn Battuta, who records: "I looked out to sea, and there was something like a great ship, which seemed as though it were full of lamps and torches" – was only driven off when a passing Muslim mendicant volunteered to be tied to the stake in place of a young girl. In the morning the terrified islanders went to the sea shore expecting, as usual, to retrieve a corpse. Instead, to their astonishment, they found the traveller still alive, reciting verses from the Qur'an. "And so the king and all his subjects converted to Islam". Such, at least, is the legend.

It's easy enough to read the facts behind this event when the islanders' name for the sea demon – Budkhanah, a Persian derivative of the name Buddha – is taken into consideration. In recent years this has become still more true, as archaic copper-plate grants have been unearthed, describing Islam's spread to the southern atolls and the gradual extinction of Buddhism. In time the entire archipelago converted, and, as the last followers of the Buddha concealed their venerated images in sand-buried stupas, these lost outposts of the faith of Gautama became forbidden places; haunted indeed – but by the ghost of the islanders' past religion rather than by evil spirits. Here, surely, lay the explanation for Bell's "forbidden islands".

And yet, at night – when the darkness can be near total, dispelled on the outer islands by the narrow flicker of a coconut-oil lamp or, in the vast uninhabited reaches of reef and palm, by no more than the seaborn phosphorescence of a billion algae – it is easy to believe the islands haunted. This much became apparent after we left Malé and sailed south in a creaking wooden dhoni, the universal ferryboat of the Maldives – a mere cockle-shell, wind-driven, no more than fifteen metres long.

My travelling companions on the voyage south were my wife and co-researcher Fawzia Ali, and Ismail Yusoof, an educated and engaging Maldivian with a teaching diploma from the United Kingdom. Ismail was happy to agree with Bell's interpretation of the Maldives' past history. Nevertheless, he assured me no Maldivian, himself included, would voluntarily stay alone on such an island – any island – by night. Not because of the buried stupas, but for fear of something older, more primal, and with more potential for malevolence than the ghosts of religion past. Knowledge of this force was limited to the islanders, and amongst them only certain initiates – known as fanditavaria – fully understood its workings. Ismail believed implicitly in fandita, which he described as "good magic", and promised to introduce me to a powerful fanditavaria on our arrival at Addu, an offer which I was pleased to accept.

What Ismail failed to mention and, when asked, declined to discuss was the opposite of fandita: known in Maldivian as sihuru, which may be loosely translated as "sorcery". When pressed, he allowed that such a thing had once existed, but sorcery was now a thing of the past, its practice forbidden by law, its evil dissipated by Islam. So why wouldn't he stay on an uninhabited island by night? Ismail, looking unhappy, would not answer. Besides, where had I learned of sihuru? It was a secret, privileged knowledge. Only islanders knew about it!

In fact I owed my very limited knowledge to H.C.P. Bell who, after uncovering the Maldives' Buddhist past, went on to reveal – but with more difficulty and in less detail – a still deeper substratum of the Maldivian psyche. Beyond Islam, beyond Buddhism, but drawing on and supplemented by both, there still survives an archaic system of religion. Over the centuries, as first Buddhist missionaries and then Muslims came to the islands, the inhabitants learned to hide their indigenous beliefs from outsiders – as well they might, for to orthodox Islam they represent serious heresy. Even so, the islanders retained a considerable reputation for sorcery down to pre-modern times, and Arab voyagers stopping at Malé to pick up supplies of fresh water, dried fish and coir rope carefully avoided the other atolls.

Was this exclusively because of the danger posed by thousands of miles of submerged reef, or because of the eerie, other-worldly quality of the outer islands? Common sense would suggest a combination of both. The Maldivians believe their islands and reefs to be inhabited by a plethora of demons and spirits, some evil, some benevolent, some merely aloof from the doings of humanity. Islam allows for the existence of jinn, creatures of fire where man is of earth and angels of air. Yet in the Maldives the fourth element, water, is everywhere prevalent, and Maldivians – whilst excellent sailors – retain an inherent fear and awe for the immensity of the sea.

I was reminded of this as our dhoni crossed the great Equatorial Channel between Suvadiva and Addu Atolls – fifty miles of wind-tossed, surging waters, thousands of feet deep, separating two tiny groups of sandy islets, remote coral outcrops resting on the highest peaks of a submerged mountain range. This was at once the uttermost part of the earth, and – at least for the visitor – a kind of paradise. Far from the crowded strains of city life, covered with craning coconut palms and surrounded by waters rich in fish, the outer atolls are blessedly free of the internal combustion engine, the only omnipresent sound the muffled beating of wave against reef.

Illusions of paradise were quickly dispersed as I staggered ashore. Ten days at sea had altered my sense of balance, and the very island seemed to be moving. It was fully twenty four hours before I felt well enough to eat. Soon after, over a meal of rice and tuna fish curry, Ismail told me that he had made arrangements for me to meet the fanditavaria. It was better, I was assured, to meet him alone without my wife, as the presence of a woman on such an occasion would be inauspicious.

That evening, as the setting sun turned the Arabian Sea a myriad sparkling shades of amber, I visited the magician in his house. Sitting by an open fire, he poured me glass after glass of strong, sweet tea whilst telling me, through Ismail, some secrets of the outer islands. Fandita – from the Sanskrit, pandit, a learned man – is a positive force which, properly managed, can cure sick people, make crops grow, ensure a good fishing catch, and dispel evil spirits. Whilst not a formal religion like Islam, its power, he was quick to assure me, derived ultimately from the One God: Allah.

As the evening wore on, he told me of the demons and spirits of the Maldives. The islands fairly swarm with these denizens of darkness, from the terrifying Kandumathi seen by Ibn Battuta, through the seductive Kandu Handi which arouses lust in men and the disgusting, dirty Kudafulu which causes epilepsy, to the harmless Avateri who may enter homes and do the housework, unbidden, by night.

At midnight, as I rose to leave, the fanditavaria drew me aside and asked if there was something – some charm, or potion – which he might prepare on my behalf. Fascinated by the information he had divulged, and more than a little captured by the magical atmosphere of that tropical night, I agreed. But what had he in mind? "Something to control your wife, to make her obedient, to ensure your mastery," he suggested. This seemed an excellent, if unlikely idea, and a price of 250 rufiyaa (about US$25) was agreed upon. Two days later I received a tiny silver cylinder, exquisitely formed, on a leather thong to wear about my neck.

I kept this matter a secret from my wife until, on the long voyage back to Malé, I could no longer suppress the information. I had expected some amusement, but was amazed by the amount of laughter my revelation produced. All became clear when she revealed, about her own neck, a similar cylinder procured from the magician's wife. This good lady, on being advised by her husband of his efforts on my behalf, had taken my wife aside, explained the situation, and offered to provide a counter-charm which would emasculate my new-found powers. The price: 200 rufiyaa; the lesson, even in paradise, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

As we sailed northwards towards Malé I pondered the extraordinary irony of the Maldives' "forbidden islands". Once closed to the outside world and shunned by the islanders themselves, many have now been transformed into elegant resorts for travellers from abroad, anxious to exchange the travails and stress of work for a few days or weeks of tranquil isolation. How many such visitors, I wonder, realise that their paradise island was once shunned as a place of the spirits, unsuitable for human habitation?

Details, Details, Details...

The Maldives first opened to foreign travellers in 1972 when Kurumba Village, the first tourist island, was established. There are currently more than seventy tourist islands in the Maldives, most located in the proximity of Malé, the capital, and the neighbouring atolls. Visitors may travel to the inhabited outer atolls, but only with permission from the Maldivian authorities. Tourism has become the largest single earner of foreign currency in the Maldives, and its importance seems certain to grow.

1997 has been named Visit Maldives Year by the Maldivian Government. Details are available from the Maldives Tourist Board via the internet at . Another site worth checking is the US State Department's Advice for Travellers to the Republic of Maldives at:

The Maldives are widely believed to be threatened by global warming and the resulting rise in the level of the oceans. For a thought-provoking analysis of this problem, access:

[Blue Lagoons by Adrian Neville].


Text and photos by Andrew Forbes & Pictures From History - © CPA Media