Buddhism was introduced to the Maldives around the 3rd century BC, and evidence of Buddhist stupas and monasteries can still be found on many of the country’s 59 islands. However, over time, the influence of Arab traders from the Middle East and Africa led to the conversion of the last Buddhist king to Islam in 1153. A Sunni Muslim visitor named Yusuf Al Barbari is credited with facilitating the conversion. He was known for his recitation of the Quran and his tomb can be found in the oldest mosque in Maldives, dating back to 1656.
According to a folk tale, Al Barbari also played a role in banishing a mythical sea demon called Rannamaari, which had been terrorizing the people of Maldives. This event further strengthened the belief in the divine intervention of Allah and contributed to the conversion to Islam. As a result, the old Buddhist temples and idols were destroyed.
In the 16th century, Mohamed Thakurufaanu and his brothers fought against Portuguese invaders who were attempting to convert the Maldives to Christianity. After an eight-year war, they succeeded in driving out the Portuguese and restoring independence to the Maldives. Mohamed Thakurufaanu is regarded as a national hero, and his palace, Utheema Ganduvaru, can be found in the Northern Alif Atoll.
The Maldives experienced colonial activity and interference from the Portuguese and Dutch before becoming a British protectorate in the 19th century. British influence lasted until 1956, and they maintained a military base on the southern island of Gan until 1976. Gan played a significant role in World War II as a secret naval base, and the wreckage of the British ship Loyalty, torpedoed by the Japanese, remains as an underwater dive site.
Due to British influence, the southern region of Maldives, particularly Addu, developed separately from the northern parts like Male. Addu has its own distinct culture and dialect. In the 1970s, there was a brief Addu uprising in an attempt to form a breakaway government with closer ties to Britain. Today, the regional identities and histories of different parts of the Maldives, including Addu, are a source of pride among the local population.
Despite initial reservations by the United Nations in the 1960s, the Maldives opened up to tourism in 1972. The country’s private islands, surrounded by coral reefs, became renowned for diving, snorkeling, and fishing. The tourism industry initially catered to Italian and German divers, snorkelers, and fishing enthusiasts. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Maldives began attracting honeymooners, and luxury resorts started to flourish. The Maldives is now famous for its exclusive and expensive resorts, with notable properties like Soneva Fushi, Huvafen Fushi, and One and Only Reethi Rah.
The Maldives transitioned from being ruled by a succession of Sultans to becoming a republic. Ibrahim Nasir, the President of the Second Republic in 1968, played a significant role in modernizing the country, achieving independence, and ending the British protectorate status. President Gayoom succeeded him in 1978 and ruled unopposed for many years. In 1988, a coup attempt was thwarted with the help of Indian paratroopers. In later years, the blending of the Maldives’ state with Islam was often used as a tool to deflect criticism. The late 1990s saw a rise in Wahhabism, challenging the traditional moderate Islamic practices. The country became more religiously conservative, but at the same time, there was also a demand for greater democratic reform.
In 2008, President Nasheed, who was democratically elected, brought about a new era focused on the Maldives’ fragile ecosystem and introduced healthcare for all citizens. However, his presidency was cut short in 2012 when he was accused of illegally arresting a judge and subsequently ousted from power. President Yameen, the half-brother of the previous ruler Gayoom, succeeded him in a highly contested election marred by voting irregularities. Yameen adopted an autocratic style of rule and forged closer ties with China while distancing the Maldives from the Commonwealth and Britain.
During Yameen’s tenure, the Maldives experienced a significant increase in resort construction and infrastructure development. Notable projects included the Sinamale Bridge, also known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which connected Male with the airport. The redevelopment of the airport and the expansion of Hulhumale, a local island, were also initiated. However, Yameen’s rule was marked by concerns over human rights and political repression.
In 2018, Ibrahim Solih was elected as the Maldives’ third democratically elected leader, bringing a slightly calmer political landscape. The country re-joined the Commonwealth, signifying a renewed commitment to democratic values. Although China remains an important partner, the Maldives has sought to balance its relationships with other nations.
The Maldives, with its stunning natural beauty and reputation as a luxury travel destination, faces the ongoing challenge of balancing environmental preservation and sustainable tourism development. Efforts have been made to protect the coral reefs and marine ecosystems that make the Maldives a paradise for divers and snorkelers.
As a fledgling democracy, the Maldives continues to navigate the path toward political stability, democratic governance, and the preservation of its unique cultural heritage. The journey from a succession of Sultans to a republic has been accompanied by ups and downs, with periods of autocratic rule and democratic reforms. The Maldivian people strive to preserve their identity, history, and traditions while embracing progress and development in the modern world.