By Daniel Bosley
The Maldives is a harsh environment for history. With few material resources available and precious little room for rigorous debate, it has been almost impossible for evidence of the country’s earliest settlers to survive.
When the king in Male’ converted to Islam in 1153, word went out to the atolls: the old religion was finished and all its idols and temples were to be destroyed to make way for the new faith. Almost nine hundred years on, and it seems only a few old mounds (stupas or hawittas) are left to represent a lost Maldivian millennium.
But, appearances can be deceptive. For, while little evidence of the pre-Islamic period is visible, it seems likely that significant finds remain buried somewhere out in the islands - spared by a combination of superstition and indifference.
The statues pictured here - apparently of Buddha-like figure and a demonic creature - were found just a few years ago by local youths at a hawitta site in Huvadhu atoll. They are currently kept in the council office of the island in question, with the authorities in the capital said to be uninterested in taking them.
The southernmost atolls are particularly well-known for these ancient hills of history, with impressive structures remaining in Fuvahmulah, and Gaafu Dhaalu Gan, Fiyoari, and Vaadhoo, as well as smaller sites in Gaafu Alif Nilandhoo and Kondey. But almost all are untouched by professional archaeology, which can’t even scratch the surface without authorisation and interest (both rare).
British archaeologist H.C.P. Bell first verified evidence of Maldivian Buddhism in the 1920s, and the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl arrived 60 years later to form his own theories of even older sun-worshippers and pantheists. While the latter’s ideas have often prompted skepticism, the one thing he did show was that any kind of excavation in the atolls is more than likely to unearth something special.
In a series of visits, the famed explorer found demons, bulls, elephants, lions, sun and phallus symbols, and stone birds. He later floated the idea that many of these artefacts were in fact pre-pre-Islamic and subsequently concluded that such finds could give crucial evidence into 3000 years of Indian Ocean, and indeed world, history.
“Maldives history is a lesson in religion. Hardly any other nation with such a restricted area and so distant from outside influence has felt the imprint of so many different faiths,” he argued later in his book, The Maldives Mystery, whose title does seem to acknowledge the need for further exploration.
But both Bell and Heyerdahl were warned that anything they didn’t take with them would likely be destroyed by iconoclasts after they’d gone. This proved to be the case, and the renewed interest in these previously-feared sites seemed to prompt a new generation of looting, further accelerating the journey from relic to rubble.
Indeed, after being lured to the Maldives by a picture of a Buddha statue, Heyerdahl was informed on arrival that the statue had already been destroyed. Many older Maldivians recall astounding finds during their lifetimes, most of which seem to have gone missing soon after leaving their island homes. Although the late Heyerdahl was permitted to take some artefacts for his 'Kon Tiki’ museum in Oslo, there are currently no Maldivian items on display there.
More people today understand the importance of preserving these ancient treasures, but a hardline minority still regard them as threats, while others continue to dig clumsily (and illegally) out of curiosity. Much of the Buddhist exhibit in the national museum was brazenly destroyed by a mob following the February 2012 political unrest - a crime against the past, present and future whose full significance seems to have been underplayed. The pre-Islamic section is yet to reappear.
The current custodians of the items pictured here keep them safely under lock and key. As for those clues still waiting to be discovered, perhaps they should lay low just a little longer until the answers they give match with the questions people are willing to ask.
Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.