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67. Religion in The Maldives during 1000-1250CE

JAN. 23, 2023


Ryan takes Pete to the Indian Ocean to discover the magical Maldives and investigate a mystery. Follow generations of explorers and investigators as they ask “who or what were the people of the Maldives worshipping between 1000CE and 1250CE?”

This episode sees Pete and Ryan head off to an island paradise - ‘the Republic of Maldives’. Known locally as Dhivehi Raajje’) this is a small island nation located in the Indian Ocean, made of 1,200 islands clustered together in an archipelago.

Considered one of the most dispersed countries in the world, 99% of the country consists of water spread over an area roughly 90,000 square kilometres. But if you count just that 1% of land space, then the Maldives covers a total of 298 square kilometres.

Of the 1,200 islands only 198 are inhabited, including the capital Male. In total, the Maldives has a population of about 550,000 people.

Known for its beautiful beaches, clear blue waters, and marine life, the Maldives are perhaps best known as a popular destination for tourists with around 1.7 million people a year popping by. They visit in part for the coral beaches made from dried and sun-bleached algae, which are rare and constitute only 5% of the world’s beaches.

With an average ground level of 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) above sea level, the Maldives the are flattest and lowest-lying country in the world.

The language is Dhivehi, the religion is Islam, and the national animal is the White-breasted Waterhen – a grey bodied sea-bird with a white clean face.

The Maldives has the highest divorce rate in the world, with official records showing that the average woman has been divorced three times before she reaches 30 years old!

It also has a unique system of underwater post-boxes, where people can post their letters and postcards while diving. Because who doesn’t want to send a ‘wish you were here’ whilst their oxygen was running out.

Every year the average Maldivian eats 163 Kgs (359 pounds) of tuna, making the Maldives the largest consumer of tuna per capita.

History of the Maldives

60 million years ago large volcanoes in the Indian Ocean went extinct and as the ocean floor beneath them subsided, they started to sink. Gradually coral began to grow around them and a barrier reef formed. Over time material from dead coral ground down into dust and collected into sand banks.
These sandbanks became tiny islands, and entire ecosystems of plants and creatures started living on them.

At some point early man arrived, but the ancient period of the Maldives is not greatly understood thanks in part to no history being written down until the 16th century, a lack of archaeology being conducted until very recently and the fact that over time islands can disappear and new ones emerge, making things pretty tricky.

We do have oral reports and legends though. According to one, the first settlers were a people known as the Dheyvis, arriving around 2500 years ago. They are said to have originated from Northern India and were a group led not by a King, but by a religious leader called the Sawamia who worshipped the sun, the moon and the stars.

Shortly after the Dheyvis settle, a number of other small groups arrived from India and Sri Lanka, some of whom build structures on the islands and carved giant phallus statues. Well you have to do something to pass the time.

Before long a kingdom was established – and that kingdom was called Dheeva Maari and was ruled by King Adeettiya, a prince who had been exiled to the Maldives by his father, a King in India.

This established what is known as the Adeetta or Solar Dynasty

After this, the islands start to appear in the known historical record.

In the 2nd century, Greco-Roman historian Claudius Ptolemy and Greek Mathematician Pappus of Alexandria both wrote independently about the existence of the Maldives saying it was “1370 islands as dependencies of Ceylon” (the old name for modern-day Sri Lanka).

In the 4th century, Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, mentions a delegation from the Divi nation visiting Rome, bearing gifts for Emperor Julian.

In the 5th century, a 60-year-old Chinese monk called Faxian travelled from China to India by foot, and along the way visited several sites, including Ceylon and possibly the Maldives, saying that: "On every side (of Ceylon) are small islands, perhaps amounting to one hundred in number. All of which depend on the great island. Most of them producing precious stones and pearls."

In the 6th century, a Greek merchant called Cosmas the Monk also visited Ceylon and referred to the Maldives, saying: "Around the island (Ceylon) are a great number of small islands; all possess fresh water and are planted with coco-nut. They are situated very close to each other."

An historical Chinese document written in the year 658 records that the King of the Maldives sent gifts to the Tang Dynasty Emperor Kao-Tsung and in the ninth century, a Persian traveller called Suleyman visited the islands, which he called ‘Dybadjat’, and said that the islands were "all inhabited, governed by a queen, and do a brisk trade.” So remember to bring your wallet.

In the late 10th century, an Indian King called Raja Dada invades the two northern-most atolls of the Maldives and controls the area for the next 100 years.

Raja Dada was expelled from the northern atolls in 1117, the kingdom re-unified and a new leader ascended the throne as the “ruler of fourteen atolls and two thousand islands".

And when his nephew takes over in 1127 we witness the start of a huge change for the Maldivian people. This change is driven by Abu al-Barakat, or Yusuf Shams al-Din (depending on your source).

Whichever the correct name, he was said to be a Muslim scholar who arrived in the Maldives full of religious fervour, and set about building a mosque, successfully converting King Adeetiya and his royal court to the Islamic faith.

Within 30 years of his alleged arrival, by 1153, the people of the islands considered themselves Muslim. Mosques were built on many of the islands, and all signs of any previous religious beliefs were systematically wiped out.

So things went, for a couple of centuries until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1558. They tried to colonise the country but were kicked out fifteen years later in 1573.

A hundred years later in the 17th century, the Dutch have a go, taking a slightly different approach, offering protection services for a fee.

Having no choice but accept this offer, the Maldivians pay their taxes but otherwise carry on as normal until in 1796, the British beat the Dutch for possession of Sri Lanka, and as a result adopt the protectorate agreement with the Maldives.

Unlike the Dutch though, the British help to develop the country's infrastructure, although the country remains an Islamic sultanate.

In 1953 they became a republic, but that lasted only a few months.

In 1965 the British protectorate ends and the Maldives gain their independence, triggering the installation of a president, but then also a series of coups which create turmoil for decades after.

In the late 20th century the Maldives embraced the financial benefits of tourism and become a hot-spot destination for people all over the world, with big name hotel brands creating luxury resorts for honeymooning couples and those who love to dive.

Unfortunately, on the 26th December 2004, a 14-foot-high tsunami hits the islands at 700 kms per hour and causes nation-wide devastation. 83 people die and $470 million worth of damage was caused.

The island recovered over the next decade and a half and tourism picked back up, just in time for the islands to be hit by double whammy of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, which impacted the number of Russian tourists who can visit the island - Russia being one of their major tourist groups.

And that brings us to today where we find a country which is growing stonger economically year on year, and with poverty reduced to just those few people living out on the remotest of atolls.

It’s not all good news though. As one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, the Maldives are facing a tremendous challenge and rising sea-levels threaten to submerge 80% of the country by 2050.

So when someone asks you to prove climate change is real – suggest they have a chat with the people of the Maldives.

Religion in the Maldives

Islam found its way to the islands in 1153, and since then it has been the primary religion in the Maldives.

Muslims living in the Maldives today identify as Sunni Muslims and the practice of any faith other than Islam is prohibited, except for foreign tourists, who are allowed to practice their own religious beliefs - as long as it is in private.

And so, the history of the Maldives is split in two:
o the pre-Islamic Age, which covers everything up to the 12th century
o and the Islamic Age, which starts around 1153 and continues to present day

But this also presents one of the greatest mysteries. Whilst we know that the Islamic faith begins on the island around 1153, that leaves 150 years of the time period unaccounted for.

So what was the religion of the Maldives prior to the introduction of Islam?

We’ve heard tales of settlers bringing Hinduism to the islands, but was that still the religion of the Maldives during the years 1000-1150?

To find out, we begin our journey with the story of a man who wrote about the Maldives just three years before the Maldives converted to Islam.


Our first traveller is Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi, simply known as Al-Adrisi. He was a geographer and cartographer born in North Africa in the year 1100.
Believed to be a descendant of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, he spent much of his life travelling, across North Africa, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, Hungary, and even York in England at a time when the Vikings were in control.

During his travels, he created over 70 detailed maps, including a global map which he titled, Tabula Rogeriana, after his patron King Roger II of Sicily to whom he made a special version of the map inscribed on a massive two-metre-wide disc of solid silver.

To accompany his map, Al-Adrisi wrote a book called, "The Book of Roger" that describes the places on his map - and one of those places was a series of islands called Dibadjat - known today as ‘the Maldives’.

According to Al-Adrisi, the islands were ruled by a king, but it was the queen who was his arbitrator among the people.

Al-Adrisi says that she was so loved by her subjects that during public appearances, they would hang silk cloths along her route.

He also mentions that the Maldivians cultivated coconuts to trade and collected Cowry shells as a means of exchange with foreigners. These shells were light, distinctive, and impossible to forge, and the Maldives was one of the few places in the world where cowrys can be found in large numbers.

So important were these shells to the Maldivians, that Al-Adrisi says that most of the King’s treasure was comprised of them.

In fact, Cowry shells sourced from the Maldives continued to be used as an international currency for trade right up until the 1800s.

But, we want to know about religion. So we have to move forward a couple hundred of years to the arrival of one of the greatest travellers of all time…


Born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304, Ibn Batutta became famous for his record-breaking travels around the world, which by the end of his life had covered an astonishing 75,000 miles.

His adventure began at the age of 21 when he set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. After completing the pilgrimage, he continued on to visit other cities of Islamic faith, such as Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad.

That wasn’t enough for him. In the 1340s, Sultan Muḥammad, the ruler of India, hired Batutta as his envoy on a mission to deliver some gifts to the Chinese Emperor.

Unfortunately, the mission got off to a poor start when Batutta was shipwrecked off the coast of southwestern India, and all of the Sultan's gifts were lost.
Fearing the king's wrath, Batutta made a run for it – he travelled south until he found himself in the Maldives - a place he described as being lush with vegetation and lagoons filled with clear waters. So a pretty nice place to lie low.

Welcomed by the Sultan, Batutta was impressed by the hospitality and generosity of the local people, ultimately staying for two years, where he learned a great deal about the people, their customs, trade, and daily life.

He noted that the local economy was based primarily on fishing and the production of coir, a type of fibre made from coconut husks which the islanders traded with countries from India to China.

Batutta was impressed that the Maldivians were strict followers of the Islamic faith, noting that they took daily prayers and fasted during Ramadan and he wrote about the importance of the mosque in their society, describing it as the centre of religious and community life.

He even offered his services as a religious judge to help advise and enforce religious practice across the islands, claiming to have witnessed several rituals and celebrations, such as Eid.

He also witnessed the Maldivian women, noting they were "handsome and well-shaped" and that they were active and engaged members of their communities, providing music and dance for local celebrations as well as tattooing hands and feet of newlyweds.

In fact, Batutta was so taken with the beauty and elegance of the Maldivian women that he got married to several of them - including the daughter of the ruling family!

Batutta doesn’t make any specific reference to other religious beliefs on the islands prior to Islam, but he does mention that there were special tombs which were considered by the Maldivians to be places of spiritual power and reverence.

A clue, perhaps.

But one we cannot follow, as Batutta’s time on the island came to an end – fearing that the Indian king was still looking for revenge he packed hi bags and resumed his mission to China.


In the late 16th century, Francois Pyrard of Lavel, a Frenchman with a passion for maps and navigation, began his life at sea as a sailor on several trading ships.

By 1601, his skills with a compass and sextant were so impressive that he was headhunted for the important job of Navigator on a trading mission to South Asia. So, boarding the good ship ‘Corbin’ he set out on a voyage accompanied by another ship, the ‘Croissant’.

Arriving in the Maldives on the first day of July, 1602, the boats found themselves in shallow waters surrounded by small islands and reefs.
Pyrard's crew advised the Croissant that they should avoid the area, but their compaints fell on deaf ears and they pressed on, sailing into a ring-shaped reef known as Naamuli Faru, which is Maldivian for, 'shipwreck reef'.

He really should have listened.

The Corbin and the Croissant sailed on until nightfall when the ship struck heavily twice, and then a third time, causing the ship to keel over on to its side.

After two days, Pyrard and his crew managed to cobble a small ship together from the wreckage and half swam it, half sailed it to the nearest shore – the Maldives.

They were met by native Maldivians who were deeply suspicious of these strange men emerging from the sea on a very od boat. So they took Pyrard and his men captive. Holsing them for several days before finally taking them to the Sultan.

Pyrard and his crew tried to explain their situation and requested some assistance, but the Sultan was wary of their motives and told them they were not welcome. It is not clear on how they were supposed to leave, this being the case.

As Pyrard and his men awaited the Sultan’s final decision on what was to befall them, they established a small trading post on the island, through which they became familiar with the residents.

So Pyrard used this opportunity to not only chronicle his adventures thus far, but also to observe the people and their culture.

He noted the Islamic practices, but unlike Batutta, Pyrard also recorded superstitions, demon worship, and a spirituality of a type similar to Hinduism.

He mentions that the islanders' principal festival wasn’t Eid, but a traditional event called 'poycacon' which took place on the full moon of April, and was a celebration to remember the first introduction of rice to the islands.

Going further, Pyrard notes two languages in use in the Maldives, an old and complex Maldivian language used in daily life, and a simplified version of Arabic, which was used mostly in daily prayers.

He even wrote down much of the old Maldivian language, trying his best to decipher it, but he was thwarted when tensions between the Sultan and Pyrard's crew increased to the point where they were arrested on charges of espionage and plotting against the state and thrown in prison.

Pyrard wrote about his time in the harsh conditions of Maldivian prison, with harships including a dark and cramped cell, scorpions, snakes, and other dangerous creatures, and the added horror of being subjected to various forms of torture too.
Deciding all this really wasn’t something he was enjoying, Pyrard pleaded with a local man to help him escape, and was then able to flee the country, sailing to Sri Lanka where eventually he returned home to write an account of his adventure.

It should be noted, though, that his account has been observed by scholars and historians "may have been exaggerated or embellished for dramatic effect."


And now to 1829, where the East India Company are having a bit of a problem getting goods out of the Mediterranean and down to India.

The Suez Canal had not yet opened, so at this moment in time, they were having to move cargo overland on a route through Egypt to the Red Sea, where new steam-powered ships were then tasked with navigating hazardous waters to India.

So, the East India Company commissioned a young lieutenant called Robert Moresby to set out on a four-year mission to chart the Red Sea, looking to identify any reefs which could cause their ships to be wrecked.

The lad did a good job. He returned I 1833 with detailed charts, and Moresby was lauded for his success, made a captain, and immediately sent to do the same thing in the Indian Ocean.

Thus in 1834, Moresby, assisted by Lieutenants Christopher and Young, set off to undertake the difficult cartography of the region, including the Maldives.

After four years of hard work, they had successfully mapped the first accurate maritime view of the entire atoll group.

But it wasn’t enough. Moresby wanted to continue on and chart the waters surrounding the Seychelles.

Fine for him, but his lieutenants Christopher and Young had had enough and were granted permission to remain on the islands to study the native population.

And so it was, during their residence there, the men grew closely acquainted with the Maldivians and learned a lot about their culture and language. In particular they picked up where Pyrard left off and wrote down the ancient Maldivian alphabet and a lexicon of a thousand words, which was published as an article in 1841 under the title, 'Vocabulary of the Maldivian Language.'

In this article, Christopher writes that the construction of the language is akin to that of East Indian languages, stating that there is ‘no possibility of a doubt as to their derivation from south-eastern people’ – specifically, inhabitants of Ceylon.

Later in life, Christopher wrote a memoir which expanded on these origins, saying that he had been informed by local people that while the Maldivian religion had been Islamic since the 1200s, there were in fact two temples on remote islands that were more ancient and based on another religion.

The locals described this ancient religion as having had the custom of burying their dead with the body laid on the right-hand side, with the left hand of the corpse placed on the left thigh and their right hand under the right ear. This was particularly interesting as it was a posture that was reminiscent of statues of a resting Buddha.

This small but important piece of information got Christopher and Young looking for other signs of Buddhism across the islands and they soon noticed that many of the Mosques across the country had a bodhi tree on the grounds - a tree which is held in veneration by Buddhists as a central symbol of the religion as it represents the original Bodhi tree under which it is said the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Could the religion that was displaced by Islam in the Maldives have been Buddhism?

HCP BELL (1881)

Our next adventurer is Harry Charles Purvis Bell - or HCP Bell as he was more commonly known.

Bell was an officer in the Ceylon Civil Service who in 1880 was tasked with investigating the shipwreck of the SS Seagull, a 1,012 tonne British merchant ship which had been wrecked on the reefs of the Maldives resulting in the total loss of all 35 people aboard.

Arriving in the Maldives, Bell set about writing a report on the shipwreck, but also used his time in the island to follow up on Pyrard and Christopher and Young’s observations of the people and their culture.

In a provisional report written in 1881, he wrote that “whilst evidence so far available is both quite insufficient, and of a nature too vague to warrant definite conclusion, it is far from improbable … that Buddhist missionaries, in the 3rd century BC, departed to intermingle among all unbelievers, carrying their doctrine across the sea”

It’s beginning to look a lot like Buddhism.


In 1899, eight years after Bell’s report was published, an Irishman arrives in the capital of Male.

This man is John Stanley Gardiner, a zoologist who spends his life exploring and researching coral reefs. He’s studied corals in Rotuma and Fiji and the pacific island of Funafuti.

He begins his analysis in the northernmost atolls, staying for five weeks on the island of Holule to study and collect reef animals, spending much of his day in waist high water mostly observing sea-slugs. Because someone has to.
It was while staying on the remote islands in the northern atoll, that Gardiner discovered something other than sea slugs, and when he returned home in 1900, he published his findings in a 1000 page article – which among dietery habits of sponges, included tantalising information about the presence of ancient ruins across several of the Maldives islands.

Gardiner’s discovery reaches HCP Bell, and he becomes a man obsessed. He believes that a return trip to the Maldives to conduct an archaeological survey is essential.

But he has to wait twenty years for his return. The next time Bell is back in the Maldives, it’s 1922 and he wastes no time in making two archaeological expeditions to the Southern Atols where he explores four islands.

To his delight, he discovers the remains of various Buddhist buildings. A dome-shaped shrine (called a dagaba), containing relics of the Buddha; a Buddhist monastery (called a Vihare) and importantly, even one example of a Vatadage - a type of Buddhist structure found only in Sri Lanka.

The remains were sparse and in great disrepair, which Bell assumed was likely due to destruction by Muslim converts.

HCP Bell was convinced he had found the answer to what religion thrived in the Maldives prior to the Islamic age, saying:

“Despite all disabilities, such remains as have been discovered - albeit comparatively few, greatly wrecked, and sadly ravaged almost beyond recognition in places - suffice, by surprisingly good fortune, absolutely to establish past shadow of doubt the irrefutable former existence of pronounced Buddhism at the Maldives.”

Unfortunately for Bell time had run out for his expedition. He had to return home with a raft of notes which he used in retirement to write a book on the subject called ‘The Maldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archaeology and Epigraphy.’

He completed it just before his death, but sadly never got to see it published, as it wasn’t sent to the press untl 3 years after his death.

However, Bell’s discovery is regarded as the father of archaeology on the island – and inspired a host of further explorations including a Maldivian team who in July 1958, excavated a site in Thoddoo island, where they found the figure of the Buddha and a relic casket – also the roman coin which dated to 90 BCE, and in later years, several Buddhist artifacts which were found including images, caskets and miniature some shaped shrines were found in Male’ and the Ari Atoll.

So now it’s looking very likely that Buddhism was the earlier religion in the Maldives. If only someone could prove it…

It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that a real concerted effort was made to explore this period of the island’s history.

A Norwegian called Thor Heyerdhal, who had proved in 1947 that you could build a balsawood raft and sail across open waters to Polynesia by, er, doing exactly that, in 1982, received an envelope in the post which contained an image of a stone statue from the Maldives.

Intrigued to understand who the people were that made the statue, he made an expedition to the Maldives his priority.

Over two archaeological expeditions in 1983 and 1984 he found large stone mounds in the centre of almost every island he visited.

Each of the mounds contained small temples made of carved blocks of coral stone and thanks to radio-carbon datings were found to have been built as early as 550 CE.

He found stone statues representing Buddha, and small stone wading pools near each of the temples with ceremonial stairs leading down into them.

By the end of his investigation, Heyerdhal was convinced that sun worshippers from the ancient Indus Valley had arrived in the Maldives via India and Sri Lanka by at least the first century BCE.

For all that evidence, though, this theory was not generally accepted.

And so, a decade later, in 1996, Heyerdhal’s friend, Erik Mikkleson returned to the Maldives to conduct further research in cooperation with the National centre for linguistics and historical research in Male.

His excavations revealed further evidence of an early Buddhist culture in the Maldives, sufficient for him to conclude that by the year 300 Buddhism had been well established.

In addition, bones excavated from four graves on the site of a Buddhist monastery were carbon-dated to various dates between the late 9th to the 12th century – exactly during our time period.

Meaning that after a 700 year old mystery, we finally have proof that Buddhism was the religion in the Maldives prior to the introduction of Islam.

Mystery solved!

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