Friday, July 27, 2007

Maldives celebrates its Independence Day

Maldives obtained independence on July 26, 1965. Today, the island is a well-known tourist paradise. It is also a campaigner against global warming, which will see a sea rise around the islands.

BEAUTIFUL ATOLLS: No larger on the map than a few ink splashes by a busy cartographer, the Maldive Islands stretch from the south-western tip of India all the way to the Equator.

One of the most attenuated countries in the world, the 1,196 Maldive Islands, in 26 distinct coral atolls, are spread over a total area of 90,000 square kilometres (about 36,000 square miles) of the Indian Ocean, yet less than 0.5 percent of this is dry land. Some 200 of the islands are inhabited.

Until the arrival of tourism, fishing was the main occupation in this nation of seafarers, and the relaxed pace of life in the Maldives seems to have carried over into the twenty-first century.

The graceful sailing dhonis of old may have given way to motorised versions, but fishing with pole and line is still a common sight throughout the Maldives. The Maldives has the most beautiful tropical scenery, graceful coconut palms leaning over crystal-clear lagoons, coral reefs promising great snorkelling and scuba diving, and lots of sunshine. In fact, all the ingredients that make up the classic desert island.

With the increasing need for a break from the fast pace of life in the modern world, the Maldives is now the ultimate getaway for those who like sun, sand, sea and doing nothing the last Paradise.

A key feature of the Maldive Islands is that the islands are small and low-lying with many being no more than two metres above sea level. Common features are tall coconut palms, white sandy beaches and crystal clear lagoons. The protective coral reef surrounding every Maldive island is also home to hundreds of species of tropical fish, countless shapes and sizes of coral sea shell and all forms of marine life.

The Maldive Islands are formed from the growth of coral over long-submerged mountain ranges. These are true coral islands, with no other forms of rocks or minerals visible or within easy reach (drilling results indicate the presence of silica sand, granite and other minerals at depths of over 1000 m). As a result, all beaches in the Maldives are covered with white coral sand with no trace of yellow or black as seen anywhere else in the world.

There are no hills, mountains or rivers in the Maldives. The islands are small, and the totally coral based soil is poor in essential nutrients. Therefore, there is no room for thick jungle. Trees of food value include breadfruit, banana, mango, screwpine, cassava, sweet potato, and millet, but very little is grown in commercial quantities. The coconut palm is the most common food tree, and all parts of the plant are used extensively.

Very few terrestrial fauna are represented because of the difficult conditions. In the Maldives, the major diversity is found in the sea.

The climate, which is determined by two monsoons, is warm and humid. The rainy South-West monsoon begins during April and continues until October, while the generally fine North-East Monsoon prevails from December to March.

The Maldive Islands are located away from any significant seismic activity, and also are situated away from typhoon or cyclone areas. The massive tsunami of December 26 2004 which took place thousands of kilometres away near Indonesia affected the entire Maldives. However, the protective nature of the reefs surrounded by very deep ocean meant that the impact was very much less than in any other area of the Indian Ocean.

The origins of the people of the Maldives are lost in history. Archaeological finds indicate that the islands were inhabited as early as 1500 BC, and there are tales of a legendary people called the Redin who may have been among the earliest of explorers.

Attempts to investigate the origins of human settlement in the Maldives have been difficult, as little or no data exists and there is a lack of facilities or personnel to carry out research among the group of widely distributed islands.

It is believed that permanent settlements were established in the Maldives around 500 BC by Aryan immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.

The early Maldivians were probably Buddhists or Hindus migrating from the Indian subcontinent. However, the archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl has stated that some of the figures unearthed from ancient mounds bore a striking resemblance to figures he had investigated on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, almost 12 time zones away.

He has added to the theories of the origins of the Maldivians and a book has been published on his findings. These theories are a matter of controversy and it can be said that the solution to The Maldive Mystery is still many years away.

Since the Maldives is located along the ancient marine trade routes from the West to the East, it was inevitable that early explorers and traders found themselves stopping either willingly (for supplies) or unwillingly (as a result of shipwrecks on the many reefs), and their influence can be seen to this day.

Their records serve as a useful guide to the history of these islands. Among these travellers were the Chinese historian Ma Huan and the famous Arab traveller Ibn Batuta. It is known that Maldivians themselves ventured far beyond their shores, for Pliny records that Maldivian emissaries bore gifts for the Roman Emperor.

As trade along the sea routes blossomed, the Maldives became an important stop for Arab traders on the way to the Far East, and along with these traders came the influence of Islam. The legend of the conversion to Islam remains a popular tale and a matter of controversy.

It is believed that a Moroccan traveller, Abu Barakaat Yusuf al-Barbary, was responsible for this conversion, but another version credits Sheikh Yusuf Shamsuddin of Tabriz, a renowned scholar, for this deed. Yet another theory suggests that the conversion was carried out by a traveller from the Sri Lankan coastal town of Beruwela.

From very early times, the Maldive Islands were famous for two products, the money cowrie cyprea moneta and Maldive Fish. The cowrie was prized as a form of currency in many areas of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and the Maldives was the Mint of the region. Large quantities of the cowrie were exported all over the world, and traders would call over to collect shiploads in exchange for rice, spices and luxury items.

Maldive Fish is produced by boiling, smoking, curing and drying tuna to yield a nutritious, ebony-coloured and textured fillet with astonishing keeping qualities.

It was an ideal source of protein for carrying on long sea voyages, and its rarity made it a prized delicacy in most of the Indian subcontinent, where it is a major ingredient in many dishes.

The economy used to be based on three principal activities: fishing, tourism and shipping. Poor soil and lack of cultivable land limit agriculture. Traditional industries consist of local boat (dhoni) building, handicrafts such as mat-weaving, jewellery-making and lacquer work. Export-oriented industries include tuna fish canning and manufacture of garments.

However, a severe shortage of labour in the tourism sector has resulted in the decline of most of these industries, and a revival seems unlikely.

Tourism remains the major source of foreign currency and the dominant support for the economy.

The importance of the Maldives to early explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries can be seen in the grossly exaggerated size of the islands in relation to nearby Sri Lanka and India on maps of the time.

The tranquillity of the islands was often disturbed by pirates and the superpowers of the day. A Portuguese invasion resulted in their capture of the Maldives for a period of fifteen years after which they were overthrown by a mixture of early guerilla tactics and the difficulty of logistical support for the occupying forces.

Events around this time are recounted by the French sailor Francois Pyrard de Laval, who was shipwrecked in the Maldives in 1602 and lived there for five years.

With the growth of British influence with the expansion of their Empire, the Maldives became a British protectorate, in an unusual arrangement where the British ensured the defence of the islands yet were not involved in any way with the running of the country.

The close relationships with the British ensured a period of peace and freedom from foreign interference. During the Second World War, The British had forward bases in the north and south of the archipelago and, in 1957, the RAF established a base in Gan in the South. This airbase closed in 1976.

The Maldives became a fully independent nation on July 26, 1965, and a Republic on November 11, 1968


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