Known elsewhere as hookah or sheesha, when smoked in the islands of the Maldives this pastime is named after the gentle noise that bubbles quietly before falling away into the surrounding sands. Gudugudaa.
The familiar figure of the island lady smoking the pipe – relaxed, confident and often wearing a traditional libas (dress) – has become an enduring emblem of Dhivehi culture. It is even found on older Maldivian passports, though has been removed from more recent issues.
The habit is maintained largely by the older generations, although trendy cafe’s offering sheesha are becoming more common in the capital, Male’, and designer varieties are on offer throughout the resorts (for what amounts to a Maldivians’ daily wage).
But these mild-filtered fumes are tame compared with the island brand. Still blending their own mixture of leaves, dried fruit, palm sugar and even tea, generations that have seen untold changes within their lifetimes surely take comfort in these reliable flavours of tradition.
Thought to originate in India, but commonly associated with the Middle-East, the first hookahs are said to have been made using a coconut shells, and used to smoke hashish and opium. The abundance of coconuts in the Maldives would suggest the island’s first gudugudaa were made the same way, and tradition suggests they were once have been used for the same intoxicating purpose.
The attached stigma may have led to today’s decline in practice, particularly as the Maldives has moved towards more conservative social attitudes in recent decades. Wider religious debate surrounding the practice normally focuses on the issue of harm as well as the social nature of the practice.
In the Maldives, gudugudaa is usually associated with women, who most often smoke in the privacy of their homes while men draw on cigarettes elsewhere in public meeting places. The classic argument that sheesha does less harm than cigarettes has now been disproved.
Nevertheless, while the youth prefer to light up the Indian Ocean evenings with glaring feeds rolling down their screens, the Maldives’ matriarchs watch the same old smoke rolling ever-upwards into the gudugudaa night; healthier for the mind, if not for the body.