On the Maldives' northernmost islands, one can see old historical sites that tell about the country's past.
The beautiful uninhabited island of Matheerah in Haa Alifu Atoll, residing next to previously populated Hathifushi, has one such heritage dubbed ‘Matheerahfulhu’.
Interesting tales surround the island, including how it transformed from a sandbank to an island and how taking vows at its heritage site has supposedly made fishing abundant for the islanders.
For avid fisherman Mohamed Saajin, these stories propelled him to find out more about the island. "We first heard of Matheerahfulhu after we passed by its vicinity and went on to Utheemu. But still, we wanted to explore further."
"We made multiple calls to folks about the islands. When we learned that Hoarafushi residents could have knowledge, we approached them. When we called them, they advised us to get in touch with a resident of the former settlement of Hathifushi."
Prior to that, Saajin and his team had gone to Matheerah and taken photos and videos of the heritage site located on the island.
The history of the island was relayed to Saajin by Ibrahim Zaki, the former councilman of Hathifushi, who held his post for 33 years. When the islanders were relocated to other islands during former President Maumoon Abdul Gayyooms era, Zaki moved to the capital and now resides in Hulhumalé.
"At first, it was hard to reach Zakeebe even after I got his number. He’s now 86 years old."
Saajin finally got to meet Zaki after contacting one of his children. His interest in the island piqued his interest enough to make him travel down from Haa Alifu to see Zaki for a day in the capital city.
Zaki’s recollection of the island was in line with the elders of Hathifushi. Zaki's memories of the island were consistent with those of the Hathifushi elders...
The narrative begins when a large box washed up on a sandbar close to Hoarafushi. A fisherman from Hathifushi noticed the box for the first time. He attempted to remove the lid of the box out of curiosity. When he tried to open the box, he felt a part of his body becoming paralysed, so he left the box to be opened another day.
News of the box travelled to the nearby islands, and people went to see it for themselves.
The box was partially buried in the sand when they arrived, with an Arabic phrase scrawled on it that stood out. "Sayyidhuh Shareef Aliyyul Makkee," it said. They understood it to be a coffin.
It was said that from that point onward, the sandbank transformed into an island. The government back then built a site around the coffin to preserve it using material hailed from the grand palace of the capital. Zaki said that from hearsay, it appears that the site dates back to the 1200s in the Hijri calendar (Islamic calendar).
There is also a tale behind the towering flag post on the island. The flag post was thought to have washed up on the island. People attempted to place it near the coffin, but they were unsuccessful. Surprisingly, the post appeared to be hoisted up there when they returned the following day to try again.
“The Hadim of Hathifushi used to visit the island every Monday and Friday evening, rain or shine. He prayed and lit incense all around the island.”
“He travelled to the island every year on the 11th of Rabeeul Awwal and recited the entire Quran there.”
The islanders from the atoll started to visit the heritage site to give vows and receive blessings—these were ancient Dhivehi practises and rituals of sorts that are seldom practised now. On days that fishing was scarce, the islanders used to cast their fishing vessels towards the island in the hope that fishing would get abundant.
"When the fishermen cast their boats at Matheerah, it was thought that fishing got better. Sadly, no one is really interested in the island or the historic location there now," Saajin remarked.
Saajin has visited 12 islands in Haa Alifu so far on his "North to the South" expedition. He is currently on Haa Alif Filladhoo and plans to travel throughout Ramadan, gathering tales from the nearby islands.
Originally written by: Afraz Ali | Translated by: Ruby Amir