Until CE1153 the Maldives was ruled by women

What makes the Maldives special? Location, location, location. When 99% of a country is water but the other 1% happens to lie right in the middle of the important trade routes anonymity is not in your future.

Legends about the beginning of the Maldives may abound… but very little is as clear as the waters there. Even the name is a mystery. Theories include translations of Southeast Asian phrases meaning ‘Garland of Islands’ ‘Necklace Islands’ or ‘Palace Islands’. The truth has been lost to history but this archipelago is certainly not new to humans. While the first Aryan settlers arrived around 500 BCE, archaeological finds prove that the islands had been inhabited as early as 1500 BCE.

Maldives itinerary

Politics of Paradise

Of course, beach living does not lend itself to archaeological finds and much of the ancient history and settlement of the island had to be discerned purely from the study of Maldivian oral, linguistic and cultural traditions and customs.

It is believed that the earliest inhabitants were peaceful people who worshipped the Sun and the Water along the shores of these islands that lie along the Chagos-Laccadives Ridge… and that it all changed when an Indian prince with a very long name (Sri Soorudasaruna Adeettiya) was exiled for bad behaviour and decided that the island kingdom would do rather nicely as a base where he could establish his own dynasty. With this Malé or the King Island became the centre of government for all 1190 coral islands within 26 prime atolls.

There was a 1,400-year-long period of Buddhism that is thought to have spread to the Maldives around the 3rd Century BC. this laid the basis for the language, writing, architecture, laws, customs, and manners of the Maldives we visit today. What little has been found as far as archaeological remains go in the islands all hail from Buddhist stupas and monasteries with Mandala shaped temples and around 59 islands holding archaeological digs.

The last Buddhist king of Maldives converted to Islam in 1153 and became His Highness Sultan of Land and Sea, Lord of the twelve-thousand islands and Sultan of the Maldives. A title that remained official until 1965. While women mainly ruled during the pre-Islamic period,  only four queens have ruled after CE 1153, the last one in the early 16th Century. There has been a number of dynasties ruled by 93 Sultans and Sultanas. The Sultans always ruled at the mercy of their people.

When the Portuguese colonized the Maldives in 1558 they attempted to convert the islands to Christianity but the attempt failed miserably and violently. It enjoyed a brief period as a Dutch and then finally a British protectorate in 1887 (whilst the Sultan remained head of State and Britain in no way interfered in internal affairs).In 1932 the Maldivian Sultanate became elective. It became a republic briefly during 1953/54 and then, in April 1968 the Sultanate was abolished by public referendum and the Maldives became a republic again.

Tourists only started visiting this giant aquarium with 187 species of coral more than 1000 species of fish, 21 different dolphins and whales, 5 different kinds of sea turtles, 145 crab and 48 shrimp species in late 1972. Guests of the Maldives can see as many as 200 dolphins in a school as well as killer whales, false killer whales, dwarf sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins, striped and spotted dolphins, pilot whales and the whale shark. Today 200 islands are inhabited and 80 islands have tourist resorts.

Paradise may Surprise you

Man throwing alcohol away


Alcohol is only allowed on the islands with tourist resorts in this, the world’s smallest Muslim country.


It is incredibly intolerant with the constitution (written in 1997) forbidding citizens the right to believe in any other religion. Both Shari’a and Ja’fari law are represented on the islands with Shari’a overseeing family and criminal law. By law, all cabinet members must be Sunni Muslim. This also means that Friday and Saturday are the weekend days in the Maldives.

The highest point in the Maldives is in Villingili Island. At 7 feet 7 inches, this makes the record books for the lowest high in a nation in the world. The Maldives is active in promoting the focus on the impact of climate change on low-lying countries. A number of islands have already had to be cleared due to the rising water and how that interferes with freshwater resources. In an inspired media moment the President, Mohamed Nasheed transferred his October 2009 cabinet meeting to the bottom of the ocean. All 14 members of the government donned scuba gear and attended the meeting at desks on the sea bottom. They also work to raise awareness about sustainability and reducing carbon footprint throughout the country.

They have also banned large-scale net fishing for tuna which saves large sea creatures such as spinner dolphins and turtles.


Literacy in this nation is 98%. 

98% literacy in the Maldives


If you want to get around in the Maldives you will be doing so in a boat. The choices are legion. From the small dhoni crafted from Coconut palm timber to luxury yachts and speedboat taxis.

Man surfing


The Maldives has been surfed since Australian Tony Hussein Hinde and Mark Scanlon became shipwrecked in the North Malé Atoll in December 1973.

Adulterers are flogged in public (curiously mostly women are found to engage in affairs in the Maldives) tourists may bring religious texts that are not Muslim into the country but they must be for personal use. Alcohol, drugs, and pornography may not be imported.

Freedom of speech is extremely limited.

Coconut halfBlack and white magic are considered very real in the Maldives. In September 2013 a coconut was detained by the police on suspicion of loitering and rigging the election. Coconuts are frequently used in black magic spells and rituals. (This particular coconut was eventually found innocent.)

Images via Shifaaz shamoonIshan @seefromtheskyMohamed ThasneemDan FreemanMohamed LammahIbrahim Rifath