Ibrahim Waheed “Ogaru” is a writer, artist, educator, musician, television personality and orator. Being multi-lingual, he was Member of the National Center for Linguistic and Historical Research for more than twenty years. He also served in powerful state positions, including Government Spokesman and Director General of the Information Ministry, Deputy Minister of Finance (2005-2008) and Commissioner of Elections (2009-2103). Waheed received the Sahitya Akademi (India) Munshi Premchand Fellowship Award in 2009 and the FOSWAL SAARC Literary Award in 2011. Some of his fiction has been published by the National Library of the Maldives and overseas.




Ibrahim Waheed “Ogaru”


Many a time, when I present myself as a Maldivian at gatherings of this nature, I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the welcome and the warmth of the solidarity that is expressed. However, sometimes, there is always an invariably an odd note, often in the form of a question in a corridor, usually asked by a cub reporter, as to what a small and young Islamic island nation, which is so far away these parts, and which is nothing more than an expensive destination for tourists from the West, has in common with the greater Eastern civilizations.

I have always dismissed that little question as inconsequential, and even born out of ignorance. However, the expression “out of the mouths of babes” kept coming back to me, and when the question of borders became the topic of discussion among litterateurs, I thought I would risk an explanation, a general elucidation, along with a few ideas I have as a writer, educator and statesman of some reputation in my country.

As a special note, I must say that the contents of my expostulations herein will comprise entirely my personal views, experiences  and the findings of my research (Some of the topics I mention here  en passant could themselves be subjects of more detailed papers, for example the use of the Nakshatra/Nakaiy).  It will be mostly from a Maldivian’s perspective. As mentioned before, necessary care shall be taken and due diligence exercised to get all facts, figures and dates correct and not to dwell unduly on any potentially sensitive issues on a political, ideological or otherwise contentious area.

 An Island Nation in the Middle of the Ocean

 Let us take ourselves to the beginning of the 12th Century. The islands of the Dhivehi people, the Dwellers of the Islands, lay like a garland of flowers in the Indian Ocean. This was their kingdom, the Dhivehi Raajje, later to be named the Maldives by the British. Even then, the islands had already been inhabited for at least one thousand and five hundred years.

The island of Nilandhoo, which gave its name to the ring of islands it lay in – the Nilandhe Atoll – was one of the centers of Buddhist learning in the region. The teachings of Lord Buddha prevailed over all walks of life not only on that particular atoll, but over the entire Kingdom. Priests called the Haamudhurun or the Shagumaanun lectured on the virtues of the Middle Path and recorded on copper plates important events and transactions. Laymen went about their daily lives. While the men folk went fishing or tended to their coconut groves, women looked after the children and tended to their gardens of tropical fruits and vegetables. And along with Lord Buddha, a hodge-podge of minor spirits, deities and demons kept them away from dark places in the night. They normally went to bed early and rose early, unless they had visitors, who could be from anywhere. When this happened, fish would be roasted, chickens slaughtered, yams boiled and coconut grated for the special welcome food of a night or two of poems and songs that went with the rhythm of island drums.

Hospitality was considered a virtue in the Dhivehi Raajje. It made no difference if visitors were from other islands of the  ‘ten thousand islands’ under the Dhivehi Raja, or if they came from the land of the Lion Kings of Heladiva, any of the kingdoms of the multitude of Maharajas from the Northern Continent, hailed from the Western Continent of the dark-skinned, or if they were of the Aceh people from the East. All were welcomed with equal grace.

At this time in history, the people that dwelled in the land of the Dhivehi Raajje were proud of themselves as custodians of good cheer. They believed themselves to be the center of the earth and the universe. They saw their way of life as the most sensible way to live, and their belief system the ultimate and supreme sensibility. Their spirits, demons and gods dwelled in their land and their scriptures were alive in their own language. Tolerance of the ways of the guest was considered a supreme virtue, along with love of peace. Anything which a visitor brought with him which was different was ascribed to the inevitable “difference” of other lands and looked upon with wonder and learnt from if it appealed, or simply tolerated otherwise.


Where the concept of a country, if it existed in the modern sense at all, which contained more sea than land, included an entire ocean which traversed a quarter of the globe, along with this hospitality came a magnanimity of spirit towards all. Some control over the vagaries of nature created a pride in the self. For example, the prevalence of monsoonal winds was calculated into a fine science, and used to great advantage to trade with Africa, the greater Indian subcontinent, the island of Sri Lanka, the Malayan peninsula, and archipelagic Indonesia. Peoples of these lands also came to the islands of the Dhivehin or used them as a place of sojourn when passing through.

During those times, what often passed for money in these regions was the cowry shell, Cyprea moneta, which was found in abundance on the coral reefs of the Maldives. These shells were skillfully harvested and exported to countries as far apart as China and Persia.


At this point in time, when visitors came over, communication was all that mattered. From the perspective of the Dhivehin, the languages of their guests did not have specific names, but were simply accepted as variants of human communication, loaned to and borrowed from as need dictated.  A rich oral tradition of tales and legends, songs and poetry, sometimes becoming articles of faith, and thus recorded by the scribes of religion, existed. These, too, were a repository and lending library of human wit, wisdom and experience.

It was much later, when the reality of a foreigner came to their shores, that the concepts of different faiths, national boundaries, passports, visas and over-stay penalties were to be imposed on them!

 The Conversion to Islam                  

 Then, in 1153 AD, a passing scholar of Islam had a significant interaction with the King of the Dhivehin. As the legend goes, the good scholar subdued an evil monster of the sea that had been terrorizing the capital city of Male. This resulted in the good king converting to Islam, changing his name to Sultan Mohamed bin Abdulla and issuing the historical royal decree that officially made the country a land exclusively of Islam. An entire culture started undergoing an immediate sea change.

Despite the fact that in 1153 AD, and in the few years which followed, the Maldives rapidly converted to Islam (There is an official opinion that the Maldives converted to Islam overnight. However, given the realities of geography and the existing modes of transport and communications, it would be more realistic to assume that the conversion took some time.).  This, however, did not have much impact on the relations the people of the Maldives had with the rest of the region. By today’s standards, the Maldives still had an ultra-porous, if existing, border and people who had interest in trade and other human interactions moved in and out of the islands at will, the only limitations being set by the ocean and the prevailing winds.

 The Role of the Prevailing Monsoons

 At this juncture, it would be opportune to take a look at how people moved within the Maldives or in and out of it, along with what role the sea and the prevailing monsoons played in the commercial activities that they engaged in.

The Maldives has two main seasons, described in terms of two monsoons — the North-East Monsoon, called the Iruvai Moosun which commenced on the 8th of April and ended on the 10th of December, and the South-West Monsoon, called the Hulhangu Moosun, which commenced on the 10th of December and ended on the 8th of April. These moosun are further sub-divided into nakaiy of thirteen to fifteen days each (the nearest concept to this would be the Nakshatra system used in India, with which the Maldivian system shares some commonalities, including most of the names of the same). This system is still in use and local seafaring folk still swear by the accuracy of the characteristics given to the nakaiy. One outstanding example is the Hei Nakaiy which occurs from the 18th through the end of October when the sea is expected to be so dangerously rough as to hinder normal sailing: In most years, even today, most of the dangerous rough sea alerts occur during this period!

Traditionally, the Hulhangu Moosun was when the traditional wooden fishing boats were hauled onto land, de-mossed, re-caulked, oiled, repaired and kept sheltered until the winds changed. Much attention was given during this season by those thus inclined to the planting of yams, harvesting of coconuts and other agricultural activities when weather permitted.

The Iruvai Moosun was always the fishing season. In days of yore, the main type of fish traditionally caught would invariably have been the abundant species of tuna that schooled in the Indian Ocean. The first day of Iruvai, the first day of the Mula Nakaiy (now officially marked on the 10th December as Fishermen’s Day) would see a few festivities other than the launching of the fishing dhoni. Of course, many a ceremony also took place on the first day of Mula. However, those would be irrelevant for the purposes of this paper and are therefore omitted here.

With the two Moosun dictating what happened in and around the Maldives, and the movements of those that settled and lived in the Maldives, as well as those that traversed the Indian Ocean to cross from Arabia to Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond, along with traders from those regions and the Raj’s of the greater Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, one set one’s calendar by them.

Maldivian sailors of yore followed their travel calendars meticulously. Those who had processed fish, cowries, coconuts and other assorted produce to sell would set sail for the India subcontinent, especially to the greater Bengal and what was called the Asey Kara (the islands of and around Aceh, Indonesia) as soon as the South West Monsoon started blowing (even a casual observer of the map would see that the South West Monsoon drew a straight line between the Bay of Bengal and the Maldives) as soon as the winds began and before the monsoon established itself seriously and well before cyclones could hatch in the region. When they reached their destinations, they would sell their produce and buy spices, utensils and other wares needed back home. Then, they would wait till the winds shifted and the winds of the Iruvai Moosun could get them back home. It would be quite logical to assume that sailors from Greater Bengal and Indonesia/Malaysia would also stay in the Maldives briefly during the Iruvai Moosun. These sojourns of waiting for winds to change that nurtured much cultural exchange within the region!

Even today, there is a fast-dying counting system in the Maldives which mirrors exactly the Indo-Bengali counting system (one simply needs to listen to a Maldivian counting up to a hundred to hear this, with little surprises in the words for 19, 29, 39, etc., or that special word for a one-and-a-half!), and many proverbs which still refer to Bengal chests and Bengal tobacco!

Apart from the Arab and the Persian who were observed to be slightly different in some habits, and who had an entirely different belief system which the Maldives was quite ready to believe in and assimilate into its own culture, everyone else that lived in the region was still basically free to sail to, visit, live with, move home to, form liaisons with and trade with each other at whim as long as the prevailing winds allowed it. The Arabs and the Persians were also welcomed for the most part with open arms, so much so that the Sanskrit which drove the languages of North India, Bengal and most of Sri Lanka, as well as the Dravidian languages which ruled over most of South India were also ready to take on certain religious and philosophical concepts the Arabs and the Persians brought over.

Borders of a serious and enforced nature were still far away.

 The West Arrives

It is said that what was called the highest of ideals in our part of the world — that of being hospitable to the point where the visitor was equated with a visiting god — became one of the main reasons for the eventual enslavement of an entire civilization. There might not have been slave ships full of human cargo that sailed from our shores to foreign lands. However, the ‘divide and rule’ policies which entrapped us, the subjugation of our very thought processes which squeezed our very mentalities into a restrictive Third World frame, and the eventual Raj of the West that came over us, at least initially, mostly unawares, often playing on the inherent weakness of parochial kingdoms — the intrigue for control of the throne – finally overcame us.

From a Maldivian perspective, it started in the middle of the 16th Century when the Portuguese wanted to set up a trading post in the Maldives. Various excursions into the Maldives, and into the conscience of palace intrigue in the Maldives, finally saw the Portuguese take over the Maldives in 1558 when Sultan Ali was martyred and a man called Andhiri Andhirin in Dhivehi, a half-breed according to some accounts, ruled the country.

During the Portuguese rule, run in reality from Goa as per modern findings, the Maldives as an identity came very close to death. Although the following list has not been published in any formal documents in consolidated form to date, various records and documents would corroborate this. During the Portuguese ‘rule’ in the Maldives, the following took place: Islam was aggressively discouraged with the Shia Islam that was practiced up to then nearly wiped out as a faith with the population being threatened with forcible conversion to Roman Catholicism; literacy was reduced to near-zero with no one being able to write the erstwhile Dhives Akuru script anymore; trade with the Arabs, the Persians, Greater Bengal and Indonesia/Malaysia came to a near stand-still.

Then, a patriotic young Maldivian from the island of Utheemu in the northernmost atoll of the Maldives, Mohamed Thakurufaanu, along with two of his brothers and a handful of friends and supporters mounted a marine guerrilla war against the Portuguese occupiers and in 1573 won the final decisive battle against the Portuguese. He eventually became Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu. He and his son Sultan ibrahim Kalaafaanu regained for the Maldives what they had lost, avec la difference: Islam came back, this time in Sunni garb since the scholar who became available first was a Sunni Muslim; Dhives Akuru, a Brahmi-derived left-to-right script was replaced with the semi-artificially derived Thaana which is written from right to left; trade resumed with the region, but by now an ‘us and them’ nationalism had been bred, of necessity, into the psyche of the average Maldivian.

The Maldives as it had been was never again to be!

Once more, during the 17th Century the Maldives was held for a brief period by foreign powers, this time by the Dutch. Maldivian hero Dhon Bandaarain liberated the Maldives from them and once again, the spirit born out of the liberation from the Portuguese triumphed.

At the end if these encounters, the very Iruvai Moosun which brought welcome visitors and those who had left home during the Hulhgangu Moosun home changed. Apart from the launching of the fishing vessels, the first day of Mula now saw preparations to keep away unwelcome visitors. With much pomp and ceremony, the breakwaters and fort-like external walls which newly protected the capital Male would be inspected and repaired. The cannon which had been  placed at strategic locations on these walls were also inspected, and made battle ready: invasions almost always took place during this Moosun when the winds favored those who came over with ill intention! A culture of wariness ruled the times. Interactions that had happened freely with all the islands of the Maldives and the rest of the world that passed through were now controlled by decree from the Sultan’s palace. With scrutinized trade, along came limitations in the freedom of the linguo-cultural interaction that had previously taken place so freely between the Maldives and the lands around it. The.Maldives had truly become a self-identified, wary country!

And Then Came the British

In 1887, the Sultan of the Maldives was diplomatically “persuaded” to accept an agreement of protection which was enforceable between Great Britain and the Maldives. The Maldives officially became a British Protectorate. Even though the British never set up official camp in the Maldives, or officially interfered in the internal affairs of the country, the Maldives effectively became a vassal of Great Britain and the Sultan reported to the Governor of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) on all important matters of state. The Maldives won independence from Britain on the 26th July 1965. Until then, the British effectively controlled the Maldives. Some of the salient factors of this control were: the British monitored and controlled with whom the Maldives communicated with, traded with, or otherwise interacted with; the British controlled who could enter the Maldives; the British controlled to which lands Maldivians travelled, issuing British travel documents to Maldivians who travelled overseas; the British set up a military base (the secret Port T submarine and naval base at Gan Island, Addu Atoll, during the Second World War) in the Maldives; English became the medium of formal education in the Maldives, ostensibly by Maldivians’ desire for modern education.

Effectively, from 1887 until 1965, Maldivians were partial prisoners in their own land. They could only trade with, travel to the lands of, and more importantly welcome, only those peoples the British had a hold over, favored, or approved!

The world of today, with its passports, visas, travel restrictions, etc., had arrived! Once again, a culture had changed! This time with rigorously enforced borders.

 Current Realities

 When the Maldives won independence from the British in 1965, much had changed in the country. The country had experimented with written law, drafted its own failed first constitution, and tried a hand at being a republic – also a failure on first try. Formal classroom-based education, which started in the 1920’s, on the other hand was a success. After independence, more was to change. Most of the formal education system went English medium starting 1967. The last Sultan of the Maldives, Sultan Mohamed Fareed I, graciously left the throne of the Maldives when on the 11th of November 1968 the Second Republic was proclaimed by popular vote. The same year, the Maldives joined the United Nations. In 1972 the first tourist resort island was opened, with a mostly European clientele. A small community of fishermen suddenly joined the international community and started modernizing at a pace it had never experienced before. Young Maldivians traveled to all corners of the globe in search of modern education. Literacy rose to 99%. A sense of affluence never before experienced pervaded the culture.

Just like the artificially derived and near-phonetic Thaana script contributed to a sudden rise in literacy after the Portuguese left the Maldives, the institution of a Republic, modern democracy, modern education and the relative affluence that tourism brought in transformed the Maldives into a nation that now looked to the West for an education. The loss of connection that the colonizers of the recent past had ensured due to their “Divide and Rule” policy and the limitation of regional interactions had divorced the young Maldivian from the Sanskrit driven traditions and culture of a day long relegated to the pages of a history book a casual reader does not read any more!

Today, the Maldives is still immersed in the culture of the lands around it. Bangladesh manifests itself in the Maldives mainly in the form of an economically contributing labor force; hardly any Maldivians speak Bengali, with the Bangladeshis picking up Dhivehi fast as they come in. Sri Lanka contributes mostly in the form of professionals, especially in the area of education; some Maldivians, who had had the benefit of an education in Sri Lanka, a dying breed, would speak Sinhala but not Tamil. India engages itself with the Maldives in many areas; Maldivians who watch the products of Bollywood and the numerous Indian cable television providers would be able to manage Hindi but hardly any other Indian languages including the geographically closer Malayalam. Pakistan has a High Commission, with the average Maldivian not understanding the difference between Hindi and Urdu, while Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan have hardly any presence at all. When it comes to languages, perhaps more Maldivians would speak Arabic, Italian, German, Japanese or even Chinese when compared to Dzongka, Nepali, Afghani or even Persian!

With the list above, one begins to ponder of the efficacy of subscribing to global trends and coming up with a formal regional body of cooperation, SAARC, was indeed a worthwhile effort, political claims notwithstanding, when it comes to meaningful exchange between us, litterateurs and culture wallahs of the region. Obviously, our SAARC Apex Body FOSWAL does a commendable job as our gathering bears witness to.

 So from Here, Where?

 Despite the fact that the world may be dragging the Maldives away from the region when it comes to a rapidly transforming culture, there is a basic reality that cannot be escaped: the one redeeming factor that lives on in the country – the Dhivehi language. The Dhivehi language, still carrying with it the ‘genetic code’ of the Sanskrit that begot her, is very much alive and kicking in more ways than one in the Maldives. Despite the fact that almost all the schools in the country call themselves English medium schools, Dhivehi is taught as a compulsory subject. Formal qualifications for employment and higher education require a pass in the subject. In addition, all the newspapers, including the online versions, use Dhivehi as their primary language. Local and national stations and the television stations use almost exclusively the Dhivehi language. The Dhivehi language is still the language of the home. It remains the mainstay of the fiercely protected national identity. And along with a language comes its boon of turns of expression, sayings, proverbs, axioms, etc. – an entire cultural treasure trove!

And that is one of the reasons why the Maldives needs to retain its links with the countries of the region. To share this treasure and to enrich itself in the process.

Perhaps one cannot spend months away from home, totally immersed in the language and culture of another country, or welcome a guest from another land in one’s home for a considerable period, as the old sailors used to. Exigencies of modern life would prevent that from happening. However, meaningful exchange can still take place, for example, at gatherings of this nature and as a result of the friendships, alliances and working relationships that can arise as a result of the same.  This would immediately raise the issue of modalities, which, to my mind would include the following: when and where to commence interactions; what modes of communications could be used; what the medium of such communications should be.

My very humble submission here would be the following: start interactions at gatherings of this nature, to be expanded as soon as possible to all media of interaction including the internet, via email, social media channels, audio and video links, etc. , with the medium of initial interaction being English, not the language of a former colonizer but the lingua franca of the region which now effectively belongs to us to be used, formed and shaped to suit our immediate and future needs! One must, with all good intention and purpose in mind, be willing to be flexible, and, where necessary, work outside or abandon needless officialdom and bureaucracy if one wants total engagement and eventual success!

Allow me, at this juncture, to share a bitter personal experience I had recently in the area mentioned above. Recently, SAARC announced the first-ever interaction that was going to take place between writers of the region. It was to take place in mid-December 2013 at a forestry reserve in Thimpu, Bhutan. Despite my probably misguided personal opinion that better places and climates could have been sought for a venture of this nature, I applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maldives, when I found out about this writers festival, the theme of which was the South Asian novel! The Maldives had not announced this festival in any of the local media; some of my literary contacts in Sri Lanka had alerted me to the festival. As a writer of reputation in the Dhivehi language, as probably the only Maldivian English language writer of international repute, as an educator of long-standing reputation and as a retired statesman, I applied to the ministry concerned simply to nominate my name to the Festival. Despite the fact that the SAARC Cultural Center was willing to accept my name well past the stated deadline, I had to stay at home! Participation was for official nominees. The Festival took place, I believe, with four of the eight SAARC nations participating. Perhaps I should optimistically call the glass half full and call it a success!

And, perhaps, there was a cub reporter wandering the corridors of the Forestry Center in a very cold Thimpu saying to himself that the Maldives, to his mind nothing more than Tom Cruise’s favorite tropical getaway, would certainly have no novels to be showcased in front of its neighbors.

Also, in passing, I must also mention something else that concerns me immensely. When I was Deputy Minister of Finance of the Maldives from 2005 through 2008 and Commissioner of Elections from 2009 through October 2013, I had what is called a SAARC Travel Endorsement on my passport which entitled me to travel freely, exempt of visa requirements, to any SAARC nation, at will. I have also recently discovered that even though the same endorsement is even available to journalists and sports personalities, it is NOT available to writers and poets! I refrain from making any further observations on that and listen to what the participants at this conference would say about that.

Perhaps we as concerned littérateurs need to take matters into our own hands, empower ourselves, work ourselves free of all forms or border control, and unite to reinvigorate what we had lost due to the upheavals or recent years. Perhaps we should create our platforms of interaction and make these platforms as independent as possible from commercial and political influences that are detrimental to, or are a hindrance to, positive literary exchange, interactions and growth among writers and poets of the region. Perhaps some of us, if not all of us, must move from where borders affect us. Perhaps we should free ourselves of the necessity of physically moving persons and material across borders into a world where borders cannot yet affect us. Perhaps we should consider setting up conference space, at least part of the time in non-material cyberspace.

Very soon, I shall invite all of you to a conference of that nature!