Maldives comprises 1,191 islands in the Indian Ocean. The earliest settlers
were probably from southern India. Indo-European speakers followed them
from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. In the 12th century
AD, sailors from East Africa and Arab countries came to the islands. Today,
the Maldivian ethnic identity is a blend of these cultures, reinforced
by religion and language.
Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the
mid-12th century. Islam is the official religion of the entire population.
Strict adherence to Islamic precepts and close community relationships
have helped keep crime low and under control.
The official and common language is Dhivehi, an Indo-European language
related to Sinhala, a language of Sri Lanka. The writing system is from
right to left. English is used widely in commerce and increasingly as the
medium of instruction in government schools.
Some social stratification exists on the islands. It is not rigid, since
rank is based on varied factors, including occupation, wealth, perceived
Islamic virtue, and family ties. Members of the social elite are concentrated
The early history of the Maldives is obscure. According to Maldivian
legend, a Sinhalese prince named KoiMale was stranded with his bride--daughter
of the king of Sri Lanka--in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as
the first sultan.
Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development
influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian
Ocean littorals. Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast--present-day Kerala
state in India--harassed the islands. In the 16th century, the Portuguese
subjugated and ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven
away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam.
Although governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its
history from 1153 to 1968, the Maldives was a British protectorate from
1887 until July 25, 1965. In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt
at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was re-imposed.
Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to
operate for another 3 years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and
replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.