Maldives Atolls culture
The majority of Maldivians, those who neither live on Malé nor are involved with the tourist trade, will have no contact with the foreigners who visit their country. In fact the government actively discourages it. They live instead in small fishing communities and go quietly about their daily business trading fish for other items and visiting the mosque for prayers and social gatherings.
As a muslim country, respect should be shown for the Maldivians' religious beliefs. Beachwear and a revealing style of dress are not acceptable anywhere outside the resorts, and nudism or topless bathing are a definite no-no. Casual clothes, including shorts and tee-shirts, are fine, but anyone hoping to visit an inhabited island should observe local customs and stick to the conservative dress code
The local muslim population does not drink, so alcohol is only available in the resorts. Even Malé is a bar-free zone and it is forbidden to bring bottles of alcohol into the country. Expats have an allowance that they can purchase in Malé, but generally, if you want to drink alcohol, stick to the resorts where a wide range of beers, wines and spirits is available. Bringing drugs into the Maldives is also a seriously punishable offence.
Tipping is not officially encouraged in the Maldives, but at the end of your stay it is quite usual to tip the waiters, bar staff and cleaners who have given you personal service - even if your bill includes a 10% service charge.
Although originally Buddhist, the official religion of the Maldives is Sunni Muslim, and its influence can be seen everywhere - although not so obviously on the resort islands. No other religions or sects are permitted.
The Maldivian interpretation of Islam is fairly liberal, and women do not observe purdah by covering their faces - although some wear headscarves. Children learn to read and recite the Koran, and prayers are said five times a day, preceded by the traditional call from the mosque.
As a precursor to the festival of Kuda Eid, Muslims fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset for the entire month of Ramadan (Ramazan in the Maldives). Because its timing is based on a lunar calendar, the dates for Ramadan vary from year to year, and during that time anyone venturing outside the resorts should avoid drinking, smoking or eating in public, or in front of people who are fasting.
Not too much is known about the early, pre-Islamic history of the Maldives. It's thought they were a stopping-off point for traders, and Ali Al Barakat, a North African Arab, is said to have arrived there in 1153. Legend has it that he defeated a sea demon by reading from the Koran, saving several sacrificial virgins in the process - after which the Maldivian king instructed his people to convert to Islam.
Six sultanic dynasties followed before the Portuguese invaded in 1558 - leading to the birth of a national hero. The Portuguese were reputedly cruel rulers intent on imposing Christianity, but they were ultimately slain by a group of locals led by Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who went on to found the next sultanic dynasty. This victory is still celebrated annually.
During the 18th century the Maldives were allied with Holland and France, before signing a formal agreement with Britain in 1887, although the islands remained autonomous. And things pretty much stayed this way until July 1965, when the Maldives gained independence. The sultanate was abolished in 1968, and in 1978, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became president. Despite three attempted coups, Gayoom is still president today, although there are increasing calls for multi-party democracy.
Economically the Maldives has benefited greatly from tourism (the first hotels were built in 1972), its other main industry being fishing. 2004's tsunami hit the islands hard, particularly the east coast, and 20 islands were completely destroyed, while 11,500 people were displaced. Although the majority of resorts are now open again, the environment, particularly the effects of global warming, will remain a challenge.
At the last census, in 2000, the population of the Maldives was 270,101, although the United Nations estimates that by 2003 it was 318,000. Only 202 of the Maldives' 1190 islands are inhabited (87 are resort islands), and by far the biggest concentration of people is on Malé, which is also the capital. Here, around 74,000 jostle for space on an island only about 2km long and 1km wide.
The Maldivian people come from a range of ethnic backgrounds, with the original settlers thought to have been Dravidians and Sinhalese from south India and Sri Lanka. There has since been intermarriage with people from Africa and the Middle East, although a small number of Giravaaru people, who claim to be the original indigenous people of the Maldives, still exist.
The Giravaaru came from an island on the eastern side of the lagoon of North Malé Atoll. Recognisable by their physical, linguistic and cultural differences, they were tolerated as a separate people by the sultans. But the 1932 written constitution failed to recognise the Giravaarus' customary rights, and in 1968 they were forced to abandon their island under Islamic law. They were eventually shifted to Malé island, since when their numbers have been drastically reduced through intermarriage.
Dhivehi is spoken in the Maldives, an Indo-European tongue related to Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka. However, English is also widely spoken, being used frequently in commerce, government and schools, as well as in the resorts.