Ancient History and Settlement
Comparative studies of Maldivian oral, linguistic and cultural traditions and customs indicate that the first settlers were Dravidian people from Kerala in the Sangam period (300 BC–AD 300), most probably fishermen from the southwest coasts of what is now the south of the Indian Subcontinent and the western shores of Sri Lanka. One such community is the Giraavaru people descended from ancient Tamils. They are mentioned in ancient legends and local folklore about the establishment of the capital and kingly rule in Malé. They are considered to be the islands' earliest settler community. A strong underlying layer of Dravidian population and culture survives in Maldivian society, with a clear Dravidian-Malayalam substratum in the language, which also appears in place names, kinship terms, poetry, dance, and religious beliefs. Malabari seafaring culture led to Malayali settling of the Laccadives, and the Maldives were evidently viewed as an extension of that archipelago. Some argue (from the presence of Jat, Gujjar Titles and Gotra names) that Sindhis also accounted for an early layer of migration. Seafaring from Debal began during the Indus valley civilisation. The Jatakas and Puranas show abundant evidence of this maritime trade; the use of similar traditional boat building techniques in Northwestern South Asia and the Maldives, and the presence of silver punch mark coins from both regions, gives additional weight to this. There are minor signs of Southeast Asian settlers, probably some adrift from the main group of Austronesian reed boat migrants that settled Madagascar. There are some signs of Arab inhabitants, mostly in the southernmost atolls, who probably settled in the height of the Islamic era.
The earliest written history of the Maldives is marked by the arrival of Sinhalese people, who were descended from the exiled Magadha Prince Vijaya from the ancient city known as Sinhapura. He and his party of several hundred landed in Sri Lanka, and some in the Maldives circa 543 to 483 BC. According to the Mahavansa, one of the ships that sailed with Prince Vijaya, who went to Sri Lanka around 500 BC, went adrift and arrived at an island called Mahiladvipika, which is the Maldives. It is also said that at that time, the people from Mahiladvipika used to travel to Sri Lanka. Their settlement in Sri Lanka and the Maldives marks a significant change in demographics and the development of the Indo-Aryan language Dhivehi, which is most similar in grammar, phonology, and structure to Sinhala, and especially to the more ancient Elu language, which has less Pali.
Alternatively, it is believed that Vijaya and his clan came from western India – a claim supported by linguistic and cultural features, and specific descriptions in the epics themselves, e.g. that Vijaya visited Bharukaccha (Bharuch in Gujarat) in his ship on the voyage down south.
Philostorgius, a late antique Greek historian, wrote of a hostage among the Romans, from the island called Diva, which is presumed to be the Maldives, who was baptised Theophilus. Theophilus was sent in the 350s to convert the Himyarites to Christianity, and went to his homeland from Arabia; he returned to Arabia, visited Axum, and settled in Antioch.
Buddhism came to the Maldives at the time of Emperor Ashoka's expansion, and became the dominant religion of the people of the Maldives until the 12th century AD. The ancient Maldivian Kings promoted Buddhism, and the first Maldive writings and artistic achievements, in the form of highly developed sculpture and architecture, are from that period. Before embracing Buddhism as their way of life, Maldivians had practised an ancient form of Hinduism, ritualistic traditions known as Śrauta, in the form of venerating the Surya (the ancient ruling cast were of Aadheetta or Suryavanshi origins).
The first archaeological study of the remains of early cultures in the Maldives began with the work of H.C.P. Bell, a British commissioner of the Ceylon Civil Service. Bell was shipwrecked on the islands in 1879, and returned several times to investigate ancient Buddhist ruins. He studied the ancient mounds, called havitta or ustubu (these names are derived from chaitiya and stupa) (Dhivehi: ހަވިއްތަ) by the Maldivians, which are found on many of the atolls. Although Bell asserted that the ancient Maldivians had followed Theravada Buddhism, many local Buddhist archaeological remains now in the Malé Museum in fact also display elements of Mahayana and Vajrayana iconography.
In the early 11th century, the Minicoy and Thiladhunmathi, and possibly other northern Atolls, were conquered by the medieval Chola Tamil emperor Raja Raja Chola I, thus becoming a part of the Chola Empire.
According to a legend from Maldivian folklore, in the early 12th century AD, a medieval prince named Koimala, a nobleman of the Lion Race from Sri Lanka, sailed to Rasgetheemu island (literally "Town of the Royal House", or figuratively "King's Town") in the North Maalhosmadulu Atoll, and from there to Malé, and established a kingdom. By then, the Aadeetta (Sun) Dynasty (the Suryavanshi ruling cast) had for some time ceased to rule in Malé, possibly because of invasions by the Cholas of Southern India in the tenth century. Koimala Kalou (Lord Koimala), who reigned as King Maanaabarana, was a king of the Homa (Lunar) Dynasty (the Chandravanshi ruling cast), which some historians call the House of Theemuge. The Homa (Lunar) dynasty sovereigns intermarried with the Aaditta (Sun) Dynasty. This is why the formal titles of Maldive kings until 1968 contained references to "kula sudha ira", which means "descended from the Moon and the Sun". No official record exists of the Aadeetta dynasty's reign. Since Koimala's reign, the Maldive throne was also known as the Singaasana (Lion Throne). Before then, and in some situations since, it was also known as the Saridhaaleys (Ivory Throne). Some historians credit Koimala with freeing the Maldives from Tamil Chola rule.
Several foreign travellers, mainly Arabs, had written about a kingdom of the Maldives ruled over by a queen. This kingdom pre-dated Koimala's reign. al-Idrisi, referring to earlier writers, mentions the name of one of the queens, Damahaar, who was a member of the Aadeetta (Sun) dynasty.
The conversion to Islam is mentioned in the ancient edicts written in copper plates from the end of the 12th century AD. There is also a locally well-known legend about a foreign saint (an Iranian from the city of Tabriz) who subdued a demon known as Rannamaari. Dhovemi Kalaminja, who succeeded Koimala, converted to Islam in the year AD 1153.
Over the centuries, the islands have been visited, and their development influenced, by sailors and traders from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The main export of medieval Maldivians was cowrie shell, which they cultivated by floating branches of coconut palms in the sea, to which the shells attached themselves.
The Maldives were the first landfall for traders from Basrah, sailing to Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia. In the Maldives, ships could take on fresh water, fruit and the delicious, basket-smoked red flesh of the black bonito, a delicacy exported to Sindh, China and Yemen. The people of the archipelago were described as gentle, civilised and hospitable. They produced brass utensils as well as fine cotton textiles, exported in the form of sarongs and turban lengths. These local industries must have depended on imported raw materials.
The other essential product of the Maldives was coir, the fibre of the dried coconut husk. Cured in pits, beaten, spun and then twisted into cordage and ropes, coir's salient quality is its resistance to saltwater. It stitched together and rigged the dhows that plied the Indian Ocean. Maldivian coir was exported to Sindh, China, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf.
"It is stronger than hemp", wrote Ibn Battuta, "and is used to sew together the planks of Sindhi and Yemeni dhows, for this sea abounds in reefs, and if the planks were fastened with iron nails, they would break into pieces when the vessel hit a rock. The coir gives the boat greater elasticity, so that it doesn't break up."
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