Mesmerising Maldives

Maldives is a country like no other. A brief stay there convinced me of that. I had come here to attend a maritime conference, with my wife accompanying me as a tourist. Soon after our arrival at the Male international airport in the dead of night, we were whisked away to the nearby Hulhule Hotel. When awakened by the sunlight trickling in through the expansive window, we instinctively looked out to catch a view of breath-taking beauty. The serenity and the splendor was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Soon after breakfast, we shifted to the nearby island resort of Bandos, which is one of the earliest to have come on line after the country’s liberalization policy took effect.

Maldives is an archipelago of about 1192 islands, a fifth of which only are inhabited. It has a population of around 330,000, one third of which live in Male alone. Male, being the seat of governance, is crowded and congested, with much more than its share of vehicles plying around. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy and the country accordingly goes to a great deal of trouble to ensure that visitors to its various resorts are not inconvenienced in any manner. The resorts are kept clean and the waters surrounding them are likewise kept free of pollution.

Maldives is also a country that boasts a 100% Sunni Muslim population, possibly the only one of its kind. A number of its inhabitants are indeed restive, or made so through a subtle form of exploitation, and do not take kindly to the kind of free-wheeling lifestyle on offer at the resorts. The Maldives government has to do a careful balancing act, which while maintaining the tranquility and sanctity of the national tourism industry, keeps the general populace at arm’s length from the numerous island resorts. Those working at the resorts are accordingly carefully screened, with a vast majority of Maldivian employees coming from the more liberal south. By making the ex-British airstrip of Gan into an international airport, the southern atolls are also well on their way towards the establishment of an equally vibrant tourism industry.

Maldives has certainly had an interesting history: permanently inhabited since 500 BCE, a Sultanate from the 12th century and never really having been colonized, though it became a British protectorate from 1887 onwards till gaining complete independence in 1965.

The renowned traveller Ibn-e-Batuta had a brief though eventful stay here in the mid-fourteenth century. He was quite taken in by the natural beauty of these islands and equally captivated by the ‘pleasing behaviour’ of their womenfolk, partaking liberally of the latter, taking four wives, all from royal households, and two slave-concubines besides. While acting as a qazi, he was quite strict in the implementation of Islamic injunctions in a liberal society, though the one thing he couldn’t manage to curb, to his everlasting shame, was to make their women cover up above the waist. He found the men to be physically and mentally frail, citing as evidence the fainting of two of them that were present when once he pronounced the ‘hadd’ punishment of cutting of hands. Prior leaving the country, he reluctantly divorced his wives because as he put it ‘though any visitor who wished to marry could easily do so, but while leaving had to divorce them as their women never leave the country’.

The famous Chinese Admiral Zheng He made various forays into the Indian Ocean in the early 15th century as a show of presence, during which he also touched base at the Maldives. While appreciative of the beauty of these island atolls, he, like Ibn-e-Batuta before him, found it to be a rich source of coconuts and cowrie shells. It’s coir rope was also a popular item for sturdy ship-building.

The cowrie shells in particular is what the place was enormously famous for. This product, of which the Maldives produced the finest, were much prized as an alternate currency, by virtue of its quality of being durable, aesthetically pleasing, counterfeit-proof and even melt-proof. These shells were extensively traded since the ninth century in Indian, African, Arab and Chinese shores and even found their way into the hinterland. During the time the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, exerted a stranglehold over the Indian Ocean trade, these shells of marine snails were considered as important as, if not more so, than gold, for barter purposes. It is said that in the year 1763 alone, as many as 86 million such ‘money cowries’ were transported out of the Maldives.

Maldives has always been an open society, exceedingly receptive to visitors but intolerant to occupiers. It was in this spirit that they permitted the Portuguese to build a fort and a factory in 1504 but seeing their intentions, as expressed through their ruthlessness, they forced them out within 15 years through armed resistance.

To the uninitiated, it is a cause of wonderment as to how such a group of low-lying group of Islands, barely a metre above sea level, has managed to survive in the hostile environment of an ocean raging all around its periphery. The reefs forming the atolls are actually composed of coral debris and living coral which acts as a natural protective barrier. The lagoons thus created furnish the fabled peace and tranquility to these atolls. Though nature can be threatening, it has traditionally been very kind to the Maldives, with the ubiquitous coral being put to unimaginable uses.

Being an archipelagic country, the culture, traditions and working habits of its inhabitants are closely linked with the sea. Its marine life is abundant and fascinating. Influences from all across the oceanic rim can also be discerned in its people, its language and its culture.

Maritime threats like terrorism, piracy, natural disasters, climate change, poaching and pollution are viewed not only as problematic in their own right but also because of their potentially disruptive impact in the nation’s vibrant tourism industry. Such fears are recurrent themes during all policy-related debates.

The state owes its existence to a 1000 km long submarine ridge, with the coral reefs above it acting as a natural barrier against the sea. It’s westernmost islands are now interconnected via link roads running over the reef.

Though its Armed Forces had been institutionalized in the late nineteenth century following on from the initiatives of Sultan Ibrahim Sikander, the current nomenclature of the Maldives National Defence Force came about in April 2006. The Police service was subsequently separated and placed under the Home Ministry. The MNDF includes the Coast Guards, Marine Corps, Special Forces, Air Wing and Services Corps. Its assets are allocated to its four commands, Male, Northern, Central and Southern, for functional purposes.

Boats provide the main means of conveyance between islands and are also widely used for recreational purposes. In the Coast Guard boats that we travelled in, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the quality of the workmanship that went into their construction and their architectural simplicity. It was heartening to learn that most of the smaller craft in use are built in a local boat construction and repair yard, which we visited during our stay and which is privately-owned by a UAE national.

Maldives as an archipelagic country is widely dependant on fishing as a source of livelihood. It has accordingly enacted stringent laws for ensuring its sustainability and its Coast Guards are highly proficient in enforcing them. Let alone fine mesh fishing nets, whose ban we in Pakistan feel powerless to implement, Maldives has completely banned the use of all types of nets, which eliminate all destructive practices and makes policing simpler, all in one stroke. There is much that we can learn from the Maldives in this regard.

The closest piracy incident that took place was 95 nm away from the Maldives, while around 27 incidents of illegal entry by Somali pirate boats were investigated by the Maldives Coast Guards between 2005 and 2011. Worried by such developments and having become a member of a regional alliance against piracy, the Maldives People’s Majlis or Parliament is currently discussing the passage of two vital bills:

  1. Piracy and Related Offenses
  2. Combating and Protection from Migrant Smuggling and Human Trafficking

This would not only criminalize piracy and human smuggling but lay down severe penalties for deterrence purposes.

It appears that the Maldivian leadership tends to view country-to-country relationships in a very pragmatic manner, which is as it should be. Close relationships with India and Sri Lanka are considered indispensable owing to their physical proximity. Their desire to keep improving bilateral relations with all the Indian Ocean rim countries, without prejudice to any other country, is a sound one.

While overawed by their larger neighbor to the north, they are nevertheless obliged to India for the large amounts of money it has lavished on the Maldives. The only government hospital in Male, named after Indira Gandhi has been gifted by India as indeed the defense services medical centre, which are also staffed by either Indian or Indian-trained doctors, nurses and technicians. The current leadership is particularly obliged to India for Operation Cactus, which they consider to be a bold and timely action taken by the Indian Navy in 1988 to thwart a coup against the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The long-serving President Gayoom can incidentally be considered the architect and executor of the nation’s tourism-friendly policies.

The Pakistan Navy is fondly remembered for its active role during the tsunami of 2004 in which the two PN ships already present in the vicinity undertook immediate action to identify the scale of the disaster and provide instant relief to those in need. We need to capitalize on this goodwill by enhancing the scale and level of our cooperation. Our relationship with the Maldives should not be transactional in nature, but be based on a mutual desire to share knowledge and experiences .

What stayed with us long after we left the country is its serenity, the effusive warmth of its people and fond memories that we will always cherish.


Note: This article was published in the November 2014 issue of the ‘ Navy News’.

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