Getting to know the Maldives

The Maldives offers so much more than sand, sun and sea as the islands are blessed with a rich culture and heritage. A holiday in the Maldives is a chance to gain an insight into this unique country, by exploring island villages, sourcing local handicrafts, visiting heritage sites and the National Museum, tasting local cuisine, and watching cultural performances.

With a total area approximately the size of Portugal but a land area comprising islands and sandbanks about the size of Singapore, islanders were isolated from each other by the ocean that forms over 99% of the country. Their self-sufficiency is reflected in the implements and clothes they fashioned for themselves, which have become today’s handicrafts, and in agriculture. Some islands are very fertile, lush with mangroves and with interior ponds. Every island supports vegetation of some kind with coconuts somehow managing to thrive in a small, sparse land area. Careful nurturing on islands devoted to agriculture has fostered the growing of papaya, peppers, eggplants, melons, limes, breadfruit and bananas.

As in the past, Maldivians today are adapting to the climate. Before mechanization they depended on the monsoon winds to enable them to sail between the islands or to Ceylon for trade, when voyages back and forth would take many months. Now climate warming is seen as an issue and the Maldives is in the forefront of creating a worldwide awareness of this potential problem.

Island Hopping

With 1,190 islands and scores of uncharted sandbanks, the Maldives provides plenty of opportunities to go island hopping to discover how Maldivians really live. Since inhabited islands have opened up to tourism, ferry boats travelling between Male’ and those islands have become more frequent. However, hopping from one island to another in the same or neighbouring atoll takes patience as you look, or wait, for a boat going your way. The operators of guesthouses will advise on how to get to their islands. To islands far away from Male’, it would be easier to catch a domestic flight and then charter a boat from the destination airport to get to the island you want to visit. With ten domestic airports, travel between islands can be swift and comfortable by scheduled flights. Short trips by boat to visit neighbouring islands could be arranged while being based in a guesthouse on the domestic airport island. If you want to hop between resort islands, that can be done by using Ibrahim Nasir International Airport as the hub, arriving on one resort boat and leaving on another. However, you would need to make room reservations in advance at the next resort to guarantee a boat will meet you. The easiest way for guests to visit other islands while staying at a resort is to take one of the resort’s guided tours. These typically include a visit to an inhabited island with an escorted walk around the sandy streets, an opportunity to buy souvenirs and have tea in a café. Some tours take in a visit to a genuinely uninhabited island, for a chance to swim or for a picnic. Some resorts will organise a daylong Robinson Crusoe experience on an islet or sandbank. Since boats are the taxis of the islands it’s possible to hire one to get from one island to another. From Male’, you can easily visit the residential islands of Hulhumale’ or Vilingili by inexpensive ferry running regularly from their Male’ terminals. If you are in a group wanting to visit several islands, then chartering a LiveAboard safari vessel for a few days is the best way, as you can arrange with the boat’s skipper to visit islands off the tourist trail.


The making of handicrafts in the Maldives reflects the heritage of the islands because items are generally made from locally sourced materials and are intended as useful utensils rather than as tourist souvenirs. Household implements used to be made from coconut shells, food covers and mats from reeds, and vases from hand-turned wood lacquered with colours created from local pigment. Now that Maldivians no longer need these items because of the easy availability of imported substitutes, the making of handicrafts has become an arcane practice. Maldivians became skilled craftsmen from necessity. They built sturdy wooden boats (dhonis) with sleek lines, long tillers and tall, curving prows, for fishing and travel between the islands. The sails were made of woven coconut fronds and the cabins roofed with palm thatch. They constructed island mosques with coral stone and wood decorated with elaborate carvings. Mats were plaited from dried reeds as covering for beds and swings. Locally grown cotton was woven for long dresses and robes that were embroidered intricately with fine strands of gold and silver obtained from merchant traders. The ubiquitous coconut palm tree is the source of the material used in many handicraft creations and nothing from the tree is wasted. Unique to the islands is the container made from two coconut shells for carrying toddy collected from the sap of the palm tree. Fibres extracted from the soaked husk of ripe coconuts are spun and plaited into coir rope of various thicknesses for domestic and marine use. Coir was being produced in the Maldives in the 10th century and became an important trading commodity Coconut palm leaves, heated to make them last longer, are woven together to make containers like the gonu, a triangular basket for storing chillies, or the rectangular mulbi used to carry betel leaves. Young coconut leaves, bonthi fan, are used to make toys shaped as birds, fish, pyramids and stars. Another handicraft utilising a product of the coconut tree, in this case the long narrow strips cut from the stem of palm fronds and known as rukufathi, is used for making food covers (goshi) of various shapes, baiypolhi, a utensil used to winnow rice, and hulani, a food strainer. Some are dyed to add colourful designs to the basket-like shapes. Rush mats, known as kunaa, are made in Huvadhu Atoll where a Cyperacca type of reed called hai is grown. This is sun-dried and then dyed using natural black, brown and yellow dyes and combined with the un-dyed strips to form long-lasting mats of intricate designs. Saanthi is a different kind of mat, woven from screwpine leaves, and used for sleeping mats and wall coverings. The sharp edges of the long leaves are shaved and the leaf is split down the middle before being sun dried and softened for weaving by hand. The leaf strips are usually left their natural colour although some are dyed to add patterns to a plain mat. Saanthiviun, the name of this craft, is mostly done by the women of the northern atolls. The use of lacquer (laa in Dhivehi) to decorate wood items exported to India and Ceylon was popular in the 17th century. The lacquer colours of black, red or gold were applied to the wood as it was being carved into shape on a lathe, to make Quran holders, decorated beams, vases and containers. The lacquerware handicraft of Laajehun is famous in Thulhaadhoo (Baa Atoll). The carving of wood and stone has been practised in the Maldives for centuries, as can be seen in the painstaking artistry on the walls and beams of old mosques, such as Hukuru Miskiyy in Male’. Most of the patterns are traditional symmetrical or floral designs, in accordance with Islamic art and with no human or animal forms. Cotton used to be grown in the Maldives as well as being imported and islanders were adept at spinning and weaving on handlooms built from wood, bamboo and coir rope. Dyes were natural, made from plants that grew locally. The making of the traditional long dress, libaas, with high embroidered collar, scarves (rumaa), the men’s sarong, mundi, and the distinctive sarong style wraparound cloth of black with white stripes worn by both men and women, were all island products. Although gold and silver had to be imported, Maldivian gold and silversmiths developed a refined skill in making not just jewellery but also gold and silver lace to adorn the neckline of a woman’s dress as well as necklaces, bangles and earrings.

Heritage Sites

The most convenient heritage sites to visit to understand the background of the Maldivian side of life are within walking distance of the landing jetty in Male’. That a defunct minaret (the Munnaaru) over 340 years old survives while traffic swirls past and ten-storey apartment blocks tower over it, is remarkable. There are several such monuments in Male’ that reflect a noble past in contrast to the cacophony of modern city life. Some of the ancient coral stone and timber mosques in Male’ with their magnificent carvings and grand design are under consideration by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. The Hukuru Miskiiy, known as Friday Mosque, dates from 1656 and is surrounded by coral stone tombs of nobles adding to the atmosphere of deep reverence. It has heavy wooden doors that slide open to reveal inner sanctums glimpsed through ancient latticework, lamp hangings of wood and panels intricately carved with inscriptions in Arabic and the old Maldivian script, Dhives Akuru. The ceiling is of carved timber while the walls are hewn and filigree-carved from coral. The mosque is still used for contemplation and prayer. Outside the mosque’s compound in Medhuziyaarai Magu is the distinctive medieval-looking minaret of classic proportions known as Munnaaru. The round tower is so well preserved, it is hard to believe it was built in 1674. It was used originally for calling believers to prayers, a function taken over in 1984 by the minaret in the Grand Mosque at the Islamic Centre. Across the road is the Medhu Ziyaarath, the shrine painted vivid blue and white with an imposing embossed door as a memorial to the Moroccan Abu Barakath Yoosuf Al-Barbari who converted the Maldives to Islam in 1153. In the same street a more modern heritage site dating from 1906 is Mulee-aage, now restored and used as the official resident of the President. With wrought iron gates and fretwork friezes on its roof edges, the building shows influences of Ceylonese and British colonial architecture. It was built on the site of a house dating from the 17th century by a Sultan who was deposed so it became a general administration building. Vegetables were grown in its garden during food shortages. In 1953 it became the official residence of the President until 1994 when President Gayoom moved out to the newly built Presidential Palace in Orchid Magu. That building is now the Supreme Court and Mulee-aage has returned to its residential role. The tomb of Mohamed Thakurufaanu, the hero who led a band of Maldivian seaborne guerrillas to defeat the occupying Portuguese in the 16th century, and himself became a Sultan, is in the compound of the Bihuroazu Kamanaa Miskiiy in Neeloafaru Magu. Bodu Thakurufaanu was born in Utheemu in the northern Haa Alifu Atoll and, because of his role in preventing the enforced conversion of Maldivians to Christianity in 1573, his home has been preserved and is one of the islands’ most fascinating heritage sites. Tourists visit Utheemu by LiveAboard boat or launch from nearby resorts, or by chartered boat from the northernmost airport of Hanimaadhoo. Trained guides are on hand to escort visitors to the homestead, since renamed as a palace, where Thakurufaanu was born and lived as a youth and from where he launched the campaign that ousted the Portuguese. It is constructed in the traditional style, no longer seen elsewhere in the Maldives, of wood with sliding doors and windows and a low roof. The interior is hung with white flags and contains fascinating relics of Thakurufaanu’s era. The Bodu Thakurfaanu Memorial Centre has been built on one side of the sandy, open area that forms Utheemu’s public square. To visit this heritage site is to gain a glimpse of a heritage that has otherwise disappeared.

Museum Visit

A visit to The National Museum of the Maldives is not just a chance to find serenity after the heat and the traffic of Male’, it is also a gentle introduction to the noble past and depth of identity of the country. That progressive, modern Maldives has developed from a bucolic, feudal lifestyle within the recent few decades is vividly apparent from the mix of exhibits, ranging from sculpted coral of the pre-Islamic period to the country’s bulky first computer (CPU). The first National Museum was opened in 1952 and was housed in the Usgekolhu, the then sole remaining wing of the Sultan’s Palace. The atmosphere there was more like the dusty jumble of an old curiosity shop than a stuffy museum and provoked an easy intimacy with the past. This air of being able to step into bygone days has been preserved in the spacious, high arched halls of the new Museum, which has inherited the original collection of artefacts while adding more. It is an impressive building built solely to display and honour items representing the history of the Maldives. The exhibits are arranged over two floors with ample space between them to study them in detail. They begin with Ancient Maldives, the Pre-Islamic Period, represented by coral stone carvings and caskets from the 1st to 4th centuries as well as fascinating Hindu and Buddhist relics including a robust sculpture of an attacking demon. The Medieval Period from 1150 to 1799, the early to late Islamic Period, includes “Loamaafaanu” copperplates detailing events from the 12th century, as well as a Portuguese cannon from the period of their occupation of the islands, 1558-1573. An 18th century Sultan’s turban is placed on a lacquered stand complemented by a beautifully woven waste cloth worn by men and women. There is also a model of a traditional 19th century Maldivian house made, not of coral, but of wood and thatch with sliding doors. More recent items illustrate the Contemporary Period from 1800 to the present. An odd lacquered stand from 1835 was used to fold the Sultan’s headscarf and several pieces of elaborately woven fabric and robes from the 19th century are on display. There is also a vividly scarlet “long sleeved jacket worn by the Sultan over his clothes when he practised shooting.” A strange instrument called a “Tafu” was used in the 19th century to measure the speed of sea-going vessels. In a separate section, exhibits bring alive the development of the police service from 1933 and there are colourful displays of the various uniforms, ranging from a red collared white tunic worn over a white sarong, to the smart blue uniforms of today. A counter has unusual souvenirs for sale including caps with POLICE on the peak and badges of the Maldives Police Service. A visitor could pass several hours in the museum, gaining a rewarding insight into the country’s heritage. The Museum, off Chandhaanee Magu within five minutes walk inland from the northern waterfront and Jumhooree Maidan, is open from Sundays to Thursdays from 10.15 to 17.00hrs and closed on Fridays, religious and public holidays. Admission is MVR100 for foreign adults, MVR20 for children.

Local Cuisine

One of the greatest pleasures in the Maldives, after the sunbathing and snorkelling, is eating. While resorts spoil their guests with international cuisine and gargantuan buffets, most of them also offer a taste of typical Maldivian cuisine. This naturally includes what is plentiful on the islands: fish and coconuts in a variety of preparations. Chicken is the main alternative to fish and is usually prepared in a curry boosted with coconut milk to bring out the flavours. Sometimes a resort’s breakfast buffet will feature the true Maldivian breakfast: “Mas huni” (mashed tuna fish mixed with grated coconut, onions, chilli and lime juice) eaten with “roshi” (a griddled pancake made of wheat flour). The best way to sample Maldivian cuisine, though, is to drop into one of the many cafés in Male’ or in the teashops on inhabited islands which are patronised by Maldivians having a “short eat” (small snack) known as “hedhikaa.” Many of the short eats are based on the samosa principle of fried pastry of different textures wrapped in various shapes around a filling, usually spicy and, this being Maldives, fishy. Maldivians enjoy fish, usually tuna, for virtually every meal of the day. Combined with onions, chillies, coconut, lime juice and rice, fish forms the basic diet. The tuna can be freshly caught or it could be smoked and sun-dried (called “hikimas”) or only smoked (“valhoamas”). “Bajiyaa” are made with thinly rolled, half circles of dough formed into a cone shape into the centre of which a filling of tinned tuna, onions, chilli, ginger and lemongrass is placed. The pastry is folded down over the filling and sealed with a flour and water paste. These triangles, akin to a samosa, are shallow fried. “Gulha” are fish balls formed by hand using a mix of valhoamas, coconut, onions, chilli, ginger and lime juice which is encased in a dough made with grated coconut, flour and water, and shallow fried. “Kulhi Boakibaa” consists of rice that has been soaked overnight in water and mixed with valhoamas, onions, chilli and coconut and kneaded vigorously and cooked in a greased baking dish. It is served cut into squares. “Mas roshi” begins with dough made from flour, water, coconut and salt, moulded by hand into thick rounds. A mixture of coconut, fish, onions, chilli and lime juice is placed in the centre and the dough is closed around the filling and patted with the hands to form a flat cake. This is then cooked on a hot griddle. “Garudhiya” is a clear liquid containing chunks of tuna. While tourists might prefer it as a soup, islanders use it to smother rice, which has been cooked with coconut milk and served with lime, chilli and onions. A firm favourite with Maldivians is a concentrated tuna paste called “rihaakuru.” This can be mixed with cooked rice, chilli and onions, or it can be spread on warm roshi. Many Maldivians like to have it with grated green mango and chilli. The main source of carbohydrates in the Maldivian diet is rice, which is imported. Some islands are lush enough to grow vegetables like taro and sweet potato as well as breadfruit, which plays an important part in the diet. When eaten as a curry, breadfruit is called “babukeylu hithi.” It is also served as a snack of thinly sliced, fried chips. Maldivians like sweet items as well as savoury. “Huni folhi” is a short eat of coconut, honey and water cooked to a paste and then used to fill a roshi which is shaped like a spring roll and shallow fried. “Foni boakibaa” is baked and served cut in squares like its savoury version but is sweet and made with coconut, rice flour, water, sugar and rose water. A Maldivian meal is usually finished by serving a tray of thinly sliced betel (areca) nut, betel leaves, lime paste and cloves, and chewed as a digestive.

Cultural Performances

Some resorts arrange occasional cultural performances of local dances performed by visiting villagers from neighbouring islands, or the residents of an inhabited island might demonstrate local dances for visitors arriving by LiveAboard boat or staying in the island’s guesthouses. The music for dancing has evolved into a distinctive (if unmelodic to some ears) form of expressing the islanders’ lifestyle handed down from generations and revealing influences of Africa, Arabia and Asia. These dances and the music are taught to schoolchildren to help keep traditional rhythms and steps alive. Adults in some islands have formed dance troupes and enjoy dancing at festival times and even when no tourists are present. Several dances involve an intricate interplay of sticks or batons and are great fun to watch for the dexterity of steps and hands. The “Dhandi Jehun” is particularly fascinating as it is an hour long and a very energetic dance for 30 people moving in complete coordination with each other. “Bolimalaafath Neshun” derives its origins from the ceremonial presentation of gifts to the sultan and is a graceful dance performed by women. A festival dance for women, “Maafathi Neshun” is performed to music provided by three drummers. Indian influence is obvious in the dance involving the carrying and banging of water pots, called “Bandiyaa Jehun.” This is only danced by women who take delight in beating on the pots with metal rings, marking time to the accompanying drummers. The “Kadhaa Maali” is performed as a ritual to ward off evil by 30 drummers dressed in ghoulish costumes, some beating on a copper plate with a copper rod. The most frequently witnessed dance that both participants and spectators enjoy is Bodu Beru, known as Baburu Lava (“Negroid song”). It’s normally only danced by men in sarongs in a group of about 15 featuring at least three drummers and a lead singer. Other instruments played are a small bell and a piece of bamboo scraped to produce a rasping sound, called an “onugandu.” The songs (which sometimes the performers, like the audience, don’t understand) are African or invented words supposedly telling of heroism, hardship and romance. The music begins slowly then - as it reaches a crescendo - the non-musicians in the group seem to enter a trance; they gesticulate wildly, make faces, and dance individually, sometimes challengingly, with wild abandon. A more disciplined performance is that of “Thaara.” This involves 22 men seated in two parallel lines facing each other playing tambourines (the “thaara”). The participants wear white sarongs and shirts with a green scarf around their necks. The music seems to have an Arab influence. Similar music is “Gaa Odi Lava” which is traditionally performed to celebrate the completion of a task.