The Maldives - A Forgotten Buddhist Past -
06-02-2008, 06:48 PM
Imagine yourself voyaging in a sailing ship from the
Equator coming due north, some seven hundreds of
kilometres longitudinally west of Sri Lanka . For
hundreds of miles you pass islands both on the left
and on the right as you travel, all set in a sparkling
blue ocean. From the palm fringed shores of these
islands, both large and small, arise dazzling white
stupas each with a towering spire pointing high into
the sky. That is the picture of the Maldivian islands
in pre-Islamic times some eight hundred years ago.
At the Paranavitana Gallery of the Colombo Museum
there is a display of Buddhist artifacts brought from
the Maldivian Gan island by Sri Lanka ’s pioneering
archeologist H.C.P. Bell. Among the display is a
fragment of a Buddha head exquisitely carved out of
lithic material. This type of stone is only available
in Sri Lanka . It is a reasonable assumption that monks
and lay Buddhists would have gone over there from Sri
Lanka a very long time ago. They established close
links with the existing Maldivians who subsequently,
had a religion and a culture almost indistinguishable
from our own.
Our ancient links with the Maldives
The story of Buddhism in the Maldives is unravelled to
us by Professor Vinie Vitararana in his book, “Sri
Lankan-Maldivian Cultural Affinities” who assembled
the data from the work of many previous scholars in
The year 1153 C.E. proved to be a great turning point
for the religion of those islands. According to a
legend related in the chronicle Tarikh, Sheik Yusuf
Shams-ud-din arrived in the Islands and exorcised the
spirits said to have possessed the King Theemugy Maha
Kalaminja, a Buddhist.
He promptly converted to Islam
and ordered his courtiers to do likewise. In a short
time all the inhabitants of the islands had changed
their religion. In this way the Maldives lost its
ancient culture built up over more than a thousand
years and with it, Buddhism.
Consequently Arabic culture soon engulfed the
Maldivian way of life. Travellers returning from Arab
lands pressed for the full Islamisation of the country
to ensure the security of Islam and to expunge
Buddhism from public memory. The people began to add
on or even adopt completely new Arabic names. The old
script, evele akuru, which closely resembled sinhala
akuru, was replaced by the Arabic script.
Paucity of literary records
There are no literary records left except for a few
inscriptions engraved on statues and coral slabs to
give us a guide to the nature of pre-Islamic Maldives .
But the extensive archeological discoveries found in
almost all of the inhabited islands afford us
considerable insights into the nature of the Maldivian
past which is mainly Buddhist culture and which
closely paralleled the state of Buddhism that
prevailed in this country in those times. The
discovery of a figure of Tara shows us that elements
of Mahayana Buddhism had also found a niche in
Maldivian Buddhism just as it had in Sri Lanka during
the late Anuradhapura period.
Buddhism in the face of Semitic intolerance
Semitic monotheistic religions insist on the
destruction and sweeping away of the past wherever it
triumphs or has become a majority in the host
population. The message of the Old Testament of the
Bible is clear on this subject. Speaking of rival
religions it says, “destroy their altars, break their
images, and cut down their groves”. (Exodus: 34: 13).
This is confirmed in the Holy Qur’an which says, “Slay
the polytheists wherever you find them” (Qur’an 9:5).
These culture-obliterating Biblical Quranic clauses
has caused Buddhism to suffer greatly or be
exterminated entirely in Asia, where, before it had
flourished and made huge contributions to raising
levels of culture and happiness in Asian civilisation.
The absence of absolute rules, giving freedom in so
many areas, allowed great cultural statement in
In stark contrast, the new absolutism, newly installed
in the Maldives and as elsewhere, resulted, as the
Professor’s book relates, in the harmless but
free-thinking Buddhist monks and all those who
resisted the change, to be beheaded all to the gleeful
shouts of ‘Allah hu Akbar’
All these Asian countries with a Buddhist past would
have experienced a great and wilful destruction of
their own Buddhist art, architecture and monuments.
These would be either modified or replaced entirely as
a means of obliterating the memory of a tolerant
religion. An additional reason for the loss in the
Maldives is that many Buddhist monuments were made of
softer rocks or coral, which deteriorated in time.
Male Museum , a heritage from British scholarship
The Museum at Male houses sufficient artefacts to give
us a good idea of the state of Buddhism in the
Maldives at that time. Of these, the Buddha head with
wide-open eyes, a characteristic different from those
of Anuradhapura , shows that its style is distinctly
Maldivian. If it originally was a part of a standing
statue, it would have conformed to the dasa riyan (10
cubits) measurements of Buddhist iconography. A second
head in the museum is from a Buddha statue and is very
similar to those in Anuradhapura and Medirigiriya.
Another item in the museum is the limestone fragments
of a Sri-Pada (Holy Footprint) which is shown bordered
by beautifully designed lotus buds. The feet are shown
incised with auspicious signs including the svastika.
Another precious item in the museum is the carved
figure of Tara , mentioned above, with her hand in
“varada” (boon-granting) gesture. Other sculptures
include slabs, panels and carved friezes all of which
are familiar to us from similar items in Anuradhapura
and elsewhere. These works of art, mercifully
preserved for us in the Colombo Museum , indicate
emphatically that Sri Lanka and the Maldives shared a
common religion, a similar culture and a common
history prior to the Islamic period.
The demon figures exhibited at the Male Museum must be
described here, too. Buddhism, strictly speaking,
requires one to work towards one’s own salvation the
Noble Path. But in this world of pratagjanas
(worldlings), the daily struggle for health, immediate
wealth and material gain is also a pragmatic fact of
life. To cater for both these aspects of human
existence in the Maldives , demon worship existed side
by side with the lofty spiritual ideals of Buddhism as
is illustrated by the presence of these demon figures.
Stupas, ponds and reservoirs
The Buddhist stupa or dagoba occupies a central place
in any temple complex. It is the centre of religious
worship. Practically all the inhabited islands had
stupas of varying sizes. The National Centre for
Historical and Linguistic Research has mapped out
these sites. In the islands of Gan and Fua Mulaku,
archaeologist Bell documented the existence of stupas,
finials, capitals, pillars, carved stones, images,
beads and jars and a vatadage (circular relic house) -
all of which serve to indicate just how deep rooted
Buddhist culture was in the Maldives in those far off
times. Ponds and reservoirs are also necessary
adjuncts to Buddhist temples. Some were still in
existence as the discoveries of Bell reveal.
Place names such as Lankafuri (‘City of Lanka ’) and
Viha Mana Furi (Vihara Mana Pura) ‘Delightful City of
Buddhist Monasteries’ are easily recognisable to those
conversant with the Sinhala Language.
It is a theme of this writing to reveal the
similarities between the Maldivians and the Sinhala
cultures that existed a thousand years ago. Peaceful
monks who went there from Sri Lanka had planted the
Buddhist culture there. They were not military
adventurers or invaders directed to uproot existing
cultures and replace them with new ideas of religion.
Nor did they disorientate the inhabitants by requiring
worship of revered items unseen and in far distant
The Maldives being a series of flat coral islands,
were on the main sea routes to the East and, without
strong and determined defence were easy prey for
pirates, buccaneers and adventurers. They were very
vulnerable to attacks and invasions from seafarers or
overseas cultures. Finally this actually happened and
they submitted to their fate. Today not even a small
Buddha statue can be introduced to these islands
without attracting a criminal penalty.
Sri Lanka is indeed, very fortunate to still practice Buddhism
despite the various changes in its fortunes over the
centuries of 2500 years. The fate of Buddhist Maldives
is an object lesson for the Sinhalese.
B. A. Ariyatilaka