One of the joys of being on Soneva Jani is working with Maldivian people. Before I came here I had never met anyone from the Maldives, though the chances of coming across them elsewhere in the world are slim as there is a small population of only 500,000 people, around the same as the population of Edinburgh. I’ve spent the last two and a half months learning about the language, the history, culture and personalities of my brilliant colleagues from this unique island nation.
Like cultures across the globe, the Maldives have a history of story-telling, their very own myths and legends that have been passed down through the generations. Islands would often have story tellers with spellbinding performances, but more often it was the older generation of families regaling the tales to the young ones.
It’s more difficult to gather a captive audience in the 21st century, with Maldivian families less likely to all live as one big household and technology supplying endless amounts of entertainment. Spanish writer Xavier Romero Frias observed this when he spent 13 years in the Maldives researching the folklore and traditions. He also noticed that standardisation of Islamic Education across the islands as well as modernisation contributed to the decline in the Maldivian traditions. In an effort to stop the stories getting lost forever, Xavier learned two dialects of Dhivehi (Maldivian language) and spent his years in the country befriending elders of the islands, learning the folk tales and writing them in to a collection in English which is now a published book called ‘Folk Tales of the Maldives’.
Here are the short descriptions of just a few of the 80 stories that Xavier collected.
The Conversion of the Maldives to Islam
It’s true that in 1153 AD the Maldives population became a Muslim nation when Yusuf Al Barbari, a Sunni Muslim from Morocco, came to spread the message of Islam. But the folk tale around the circumstances is very different from the history books. It is said that every month since time began a young girl had to be sacrificed to a sea demon that menaced the Maldivian people. When Yusuf Al Barbari arrived he suggested he go in the girls place and recite versus from the Quran. The demon disappeared and never came back, leading the Maldivian people to believe that it was Islam that saved them.
The First Coconuts
When the first people arrived in the Maldives, there were no palm trees and so no coconuts. The population struggled to survive without the tree as it would usually provide food, drink, shelter, wood for boat building and firewood among many other things. The people started to die without these things. A man who lived with the people was a great sorcerer and was determined to do something to help. He created a mixture that he took to the graveyard and places in the skulls of the people who had passed away. Out of the mouth of every skull grew a palm tree bearing coconuts, saving the population. When the husk is removed from a coconut you can see three holes which look like a face. Palm tress are so important to Maldivian people that one features on the national emblem.
Trip on the Boat
One day a group of girls went to the harbour and found a master fisherman. They asked him if they would take them to see the Andaman Islands as they wanted to see a foreign country. He agreed and the girls were thrilled. He went to start the engine and it wouldn’t start, everything else started to go wrong, the engine made strange noises and failed repeatedly, there were problems with the crew and even a fire on board. The girls kept pointing out the problems and teasing, ‘how will we get anywhere like this.’ The fisherman put up with the teasing but the journey never began.
This story dates from when motors had first started to be fitted to local boats which had been powered by sails and oars until then. The motors were initially trusted very little which became the basis for a folk song, then this tale.
The Man on the Whale
It is said that there is a man who lives on a whale who has lived there for many years. He sits on the back of the whale, holding on to the fin and the whale knows to never go completely underwater for long as it knows the man would die. Sometimes it will immerse itself if it knows there is danger nearby but not for long. The man eats raw fish and knows how to catch fish with his hands and the whale can help him find them. From the waist down the mans body is like the hull of a ship, covered in barnacles and seaweed. Many fisherman around the Maldives claim to have seen this man on the whale but that the whale and him swim away quickly if they’ve been spotted.
There are so many more brilliant folk tales from the Maldives which will be passed down for many generations to come, but its wonderful that at least some of them have been savoured in a book for people around the world to enjoy.