Surfing, a sport that captures the essence of the sea's untamed beauty and the thrill of riding its waves, has become a global phenomenon. Yet, in the heart of the Indian Ocean, amidst the breathtaking palm-frond trees and charm of the Maldives, this aquatic art form holds a unique place in our history and cultural tapestry. Beyond the postcard-perfect landscapes, the Maldives' rich surfing heritage, intertwined with captivating folk stories, is a testament to our profound connection with the sea. In the midst of globalisation's relentless march, we embark on a journey through these lesser-known narratives, exploring the hidden depths of the Maldivian surfing identity.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Maldivian folk stories is the deep-rooted connection between Maldivians and the sea. The fact that we have folklore and folk stories about surfing too, is a testament to the enduring legacy of this sport in the Maldives. It is a practice that predates the introduction of the word "surfing" itself, a reminder that the ocean has always been an integral part of Maldivian life.
To understand the significance of these stories, we must journey back in time. Sikkagey Dhon Manikufaanu's research from the 1930s reveals that both women and men were avid surfers during that era. This research is more than just historical data; it is living proof of the longevity of the surfing tradition in these pearlescent islands. Every child born as recently as the 1980’s can recount stories of "raalhaa-elhun," their early encounters with the sea's mighty waves. Without access to proper surfboards, Maldivians used Malhufathi, a name for a thin wooden board akin to a surfboard. Children were once sent out to surf with their Malhufathi, a practice that not only imparted surfing skills but also instilled a deep connection with the waters surrounding us. After all, Maldivians have long been referred to as the "people of the sea." Bodyboarding was the dominant surfing style back then, but some older individuals recall a time when a few gifted children could stand while surfing. Tony Hussein is often credited with introducing standing surfing to Maldives, but interviews with older Maldivians suggest that a select few already possessed this skill in our island nation: we just didn’t have a word to associate it with.
However, over time, in a shift that reflected changing times and values, parents stopped sending their children to the sea. This cultural practice experienced a temporary gap due to the impact of the Great Depression. The skills passed down through the generations such as raalhaa-elhun experienced a tangible loss by the early 70s and 80s. The folklore and folk stories, intertwined with evidence of Maldivian craftsmanship and resilience, are now some of the only remnants that offer a glimpse into the surfing spirit of old.
The fact that Maldivians have countless unique names for various types of waves reveal our intimate knowledge of the sea's moods. Many a time you will hear mothers shout at their children, ‘Eyoh ananee dhamaiganna raalheh’ as a warning that the wave they see heading towards their children are likely to have an exceptionally strong backwash. There are people alive today who still claim that the reason why Fuvahmulah island was never invaded was because it had no reef or jetty, so no enemies could approach it. At this point we must ask , how did the islanders get on and off the island? Small bokkura were used to "surf" to the beach, showcasing the ingenious ways Maldivians utilised their natural surroundings, and the ease with which we have always handled ourselves in the sea. This is not merely nautical knowledge; it is the wisdom of a seafaring nation.
Maldives' surfing history includes fascinating origin stories, not just for waves but also the different surf points still popular today in this nation. Golaa Kanu in Laamu, for instance, has a narrative associated with it: the story of two jinni who were lovers, one of whom drowned the other, leading to the creation of the relentless waves at the surf point. The most interesting and well-documented story, however, is the story of Varunulaa Raalhugandu, one of the most well-loved and popular surf spots in the nation.
The story goes that the younger brother of Sultan Wadi Kalaminja, who ruled the Maldives between 1213 to 1232 (in the hijri calendar) fell deeply in love with a young slave girl aboard a merchant ship that docked here. The young slave girl in question was so beautiful that the merchants had been forced to lock her in a glass box, and apparently kept a bear in front of the box at all times to guard her against lecherous hands. To their chagrin, she disappeared. Everyone eventually surmised that it was the Sultan’s younger brother, Hudai Kalaminya, but he immediately fled into the forest to evade capture from the merchants. In the end, the merchants had to depart having found neither Hudai Kalaminya nor the beautiful slave girl in the box. After they left, Hudai Kalaminya went to retrieve the girl from where he hid her, only to find out his brother had taken her to the Sultan’s Palace. He built the Maaveyo Mosque to atone for his sin of kidnapping her and absconding. As soon as he was done, he went to retrieve the slave girl from his brother the Sultan. There, the two brothers argued raucously, for even the Sultan had fallen for the beauty of this girl. In the end, the Sultan decided that rather than fight with his younger brother over her, he would put her back in her glass box, tie weights on it, and drown her in the sea outside what is now known as Lonuziyaaraiy Kolhu in the capital city. More shocking than this decision was what Hudai Kalaminya did. When the King ordered the weighted box thrown in the sea, Hudai Kalaminya jumped after her, holding onto the glass box with his beloved trapped inside. The star crossed lovers drowned together, angering the sea, and the large waves that began to break the moment that box was thrown into the sea still have not relented. This is the origin story of the beloved Varunulaa Raalhugandu in the capital city of the Maldives.
These stories from our past serve as a reminder that every wave in the Maldives has a history, a legend, and a soul. It is our prerogative to preserve our rich surfing culture to safeguard a vital part of the Maldivian identity. These narratives are not just tales of the past but living connections to a tangible heritage that has thrived for generations. In a world where cultures are increasingly homogenised, preserving our place as a surfing nation is an act of resilience, and a commitment to keep the unique cultural identity of the Maldives alive for generations yet to come.