Divehi - History and Cultural Relations

The Maldives were known to very early Indian seafarers, such as sailed from Gujarat in the middle of the first millennium B . C . and settled in Sri Lanka, and are mentioned in early works such as the Buddhist Jātaka tales and the Sri Lankan epics. Early settlement was evidently from Kerala, diffused through the Lakshadvīp (Laccadive) Islands by fishermen and by the kings of Kerala who made conquests by sea, according to Tamil literature of the early centuries A . D . The Maldives were perhaps touched by Indonesian culture (which passed through to Madagascar) roughly at the same time, and the Islands were well known to classical Greek geographers. Persians began trading about the seventh century. The country was conquered several times by Tamil and Kerala kings in medieval centuries. The most significant settlement was by Sinhalas from Sri Lanka, perhaps by political exiles, which gave the Maldives their language, the old Sinhala script, Theravada Buddhism, and Sri Lankan beliefs and foods. This little civilization flourished especially in the tenth to twelfth centuries, held together by a Sinhala type of highly centralized kinship. On several islands there are remnants of Buddhist stupas of coral stone, described by H. C. P. Bell as being of Anuradhapura style. In the twelfth century an Arab saint who claimed that he had power to chase away a powerful jinni by reading the Quran convinced the king to convert the country to Islam and made him a sultan. The national chronicle records ninety-two sultans (and a few sultanas). Through Islam, the Maldives had the advantage of trade links all over the Indian Ocean. Ibn Battuta, the Arab chronicler, came in 1343-1344 and taught Islamic law. The Maldives were visited by the Chinese in the ninth and fifteenth centuries. The Portuguese ruled for fifteen years in the sixteenth century. The British "protected" the country from 1887 on, but they did not leave much of a cultural stamp, and they granted the Maldives independence in 1965. So the old culture is comprised of three main layers: the Tamil-Malayalam substratum with its many subtle roots; old Sinhala culture and language, which is the dominant element; and the phase of Arabic Influence. But the Maldives were touched by every cultural wind that passed over the Indian Ocean. Since independence there has again been influence from Sri Lanka, through its teachers brought over to set up modern education with teaching of English. Unusually rapid change has occurred in Divehi culture in the past twenty-five years.

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