Mangrove forests are wild places. The roots of Rhizophoraceae thrust into the Earth and intertwine with Acanthaceae, Lythraceae, and Arecaceae. Saltwater meets freshwater in these forests. Diverse life dwells in the mangroves’ waterlogged soils. Crabs, molluscs, shrimp, lizards, and birds are just a few among the hundreds of species that call the mangrove home. Shark pups, ray pups, and turtle hatchlings attend the mangrove nurseries before they graduate and head out into the open water. Mangroves and wetlands play a central role in Maldivian folktales. The mangrove is home to spirits, ghosts, and cunning creatures. The lakes are often gateways into realms beyond ours.
July 26th, in addition to being the Maldives’ Independence Day, marks the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem. It is a day to recognise the mangrove as a unique and vulnerable ecosystem and to protect the sustainable conservation and management of these precious ecosystems.
To celebrate mangroves, we want to tell you a short story about the Sultana of the Mangrove Forest. We call it Kulhavah Falu Rani. As all folktales go, the story of the Sultana has many versions. This is the story my mom used to tell me many years ago.
The Tale of Kulhavah Falu Ranin
Deep in the marshy wetlands lived a young, impoverished couple. They were outcasts from the unremarkable village on the eastern edge of the island. The pest-ridden mangrove was no place for a human; the food was scarce, the air was thick, and even on the brightest days, the forest remained dark. The husband spent the long humid days fishing in the murky waters while his wife foraged. Kulhavah (the mangrove apple) was heaven-sent for the couple and helped them survive and persevere in the harsh forest. In time, they were blessed with a baby girl.
The baby played, cried, and slept under the shade of the large mangrove trees. With little to eat, the mother lovingly prepared a paste from ripe kulhavah. The fruit nourished the baby. She grew up intimately connected with the foliaged labyrinths of the forest. Where others saw a pest-infested wasteland, she saw a haven of life and beauty. She watched ray pups glide across the olive green waters as shark pups fed on small crustaceans, molluscs, and krill.
“They must hide in these murky waters.” she thought to herself.
She spent many hours watching her winged friends too. From the maakana (grey heron), she learned grace and patience. The Kanbili (Maldivian Water Hen) taught her agility. She would sometimes even imitate the kanbili's distinctive call.
No tree was too tall for the girl born in, and truly of, the mangrove forest. Often, she’d climb the tallest tree and watch the endless sea of green. From the highest vantage point, she could see how the mangrove forest changes throughout the day. Water floods in and out. The complex roots hide beneath the water and reveal themselves later. Rarely, she’d even sight sails in the far distance. She was aware of the world beyond the mangrove and she was always curious about it. But the mangrove was her home, her haven. It was all she knew.
After all, Kulhavah grows in the mangrove forest. Oh, did she love Kulhavah? She could identify all the different variations of the fruit. Even when they emitted an intensely putrid smell, she still loved it. She had kulhavah for breakfast, lunch, teatime, and dinner. Sometimes she’d wait and watch the dark red flowers that bloomed only at night.
The girl of the mangrove forest loved her simple life. Her parents were growing old, and they too had become accustomed to the ways of the forest. The family would get together at night to share stories, laugh and cherish each other’s company.
She was perched on the highest mangrove tree when she first saw the sails of Radun’s fleet. Radhun, the Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the Twelve Thousand Isles and Sultan of Maldives, was the absolute monarch of the Maldivian Sultanate. The girl had seen nothing quite like it. His sails were as tall as the tallest palms.
Unlike his predecessors, the young Sultan wished to visit every single island under his reign. Never had he seen such a wild forest in his Sultanate. “That is a mangrove forest, Your Highness”, the Sultan’s advisor stated. “A pest-ridden, humid, harsh and terrible place”, he added.
This valuation did not stop the Sultan from entering the forest, joined by his royal guard. Yet within a few minute’s walk, he found himself completely alone. The labyrinth was uninviting to those who did not know its ways. The Sultan, however, was unfazed. The interloping roots and the heaviness in the air captured him in an almost trance-like state. He had seen the clear lagoons, humble forests, and wondrous coral reefs in the Maldives. Yet, he never once saw the dense mangrove forest. The crabs, birds, and lizards carried on with their lives. The Sultan of the Twelve Thousand isles mattered little in this strange cathedral.
The Sultan heard a cracking twig. He looked back to find wild human eyes staring back at him. In those deep brown eyes, he saw the warmth of the mangrove itself, the hue of every root, branch, and flower.
The girl of the mangrove forest had never seen such an imposing figure before. The golden threads on his silk fabric glistened even in the darkness. The Sultan took a careful step closer, and she immediately ran away.
“I’ve heard tales of spirits that take on the form of beautiful women in the forest. That must have been a spirit,” the Sultan thought to himself.
But the idea of this maiden transfixed him. He ordered his troops to scour the forest until they found her. The soldiers, trained in city streets, had great difficulty navigating through the forest. Some got caught by the menacing roots, while others fell headfirst into the odd ponds. Yet, on their Sultan’s command, they persevered and followed her footprints in the mud until they reached the humble shack, deep in the forest.
She hid inside, trembling and afraid. She screamed and shrieked like a wild animal as the guard grabbed and dragged her out of her measly hut. Her father stepped in and one of the guards unsheathed his sword. The parents were defenceless against the royal guard. She cowered and kicked as the guards carried her to the Sultan’s ship.
“You are going to be the Sultana of the Twelve Thousand isles”.
The Sultan told her of the riches and prestige awaiting her in the city. His words meant nothing to her. She has never heard of the Twelve Thousand isles. The rough waters drove her violently ill- there was no end to her seasickness. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she saw the roots of the mangroves. She’d hallucinate fiddler crabs crawling all over the ship. Worst of all, there was no Kulhavah aboard. She couldn’t bring herself to eat anything else. Soaked in vomit and tears, she didn’t believe she could survive the long violent journey, but her parents’ perseverance and strength lived in her. The grandiosity of Malé was overwhelming. Even the humble shacks caught her eyes. She had never seen so many people before. As the Sultan’s guard escorted her to the palace grounds, she felt the gaze of a hundred thousand eyes. As soon as she arrived, the palace workers bathed and dressed her. The Sultan instructed the most powerful medicine woman in the Sultanate to treat her.
Tales of her beauty and grace reached the northernmost and southernmost isles of the Sultanate. She was exotic and beautiful beyond comparison. Graceful? Questionable. The noblewomen in Malé took a great interest in her strange ways. They found it charming, strange, and outlandish exotic. With time, she learned to imitate the grace of a noblewoman but she missed the mangrove forest, but even those memories eventually faded. She formed a new love for the palace and the intoxicating power of the crown. The Sultan taught her about the many islands scattered across the ocean. Islands so beautiful that only angels could have sculpted them, he’d say. The mangrove forest turned into a distant dream.
One uneventful afternoon, a lowly trading dhoni (boat) docked at Malé and the crew requested a meeting with the Sultana. “We are from her island and we come bearing gifts for the Sultana”, the sailors exclaimed. The palace granted them an audience with her, and upon approach, they presented the Sultana with a mangrove apple.
“We heard from your parents that you are quite fond of this fruit. We also know they don’t have this in Malé.”
The Sultan watched with astonishment as his loving Sultana, the wild woman he found in the mangrove forest, took the fruit and replied with vague curiosity, “Oh, what an interesting fruit. How strange this is. Is it attached to the tree from the left or the right”.
What happens next is different in different tellings of the story. Some say the Sultan was so disgusted with this display that he divorced and banished her back to the mangrove forest from which he found her. Other tellings say that the bewildered Sultan only reprimanded her for forgetting her roots, and the very fruit that she subsisted on for most of her life.
Anytime a Maldivian forgets their roots and background, it’s all too common to hear the phrase “Thee Kulhavah falu Ranin dho? You’re just like the Sultana of the mangrove forest”.