After reading about the exploits of H.C.P. Bell and Thor Heyerdahl,who famously searched for the ruins of the Maldives’ past, your first hawitta can be a big thing.
What will it look like? Will it be as they described? Will you say the wrong thing and embarrass yourself? (Who wants to look stupid in front of the stupa?)
But, approaching the site in the north-east of Fuvahmulah, the biggest question was…kobaa? Where is it?
Admittedly, having read accounts of last century’s explorers, we weren’t expecting Angkor Wat or Chichen Itza, but at least we thought we could see the ancient temple which Bell used to finally prove the presence of Buddhist communities in the Maldives.
After a little circling, and a little squinting, we found it, identifiable (and remarkable) largely because it is a hill in a country that doesn’t do hills. It is maybe half the 25ft it was when Bell spent half a day here in 1922, but Mt Fuvahmulah is not to be sniffed at.
Similarly, no maps or guides were needed to find the other two old stupas nearby, with the land soaring a full three feet into the air a dead giveaway. Bell himself suspected their existence, but wary islanders usually knew better than to open their mouths and be press-ganged into digging when there was fishing to do.
All three sites are thought to have been raided again after Bell’s initial foraging, leading to the further deterioration of sites that had been given a wide berth by superstitious islanders for a thousand years (today’s kids, playing on the swings a few yards away, seem less skittish).
So, much as we suspected, the hawitta and its colleagues are all but departed, as is much the nation’s ancient heritage; or is it?
The same men who first identified these relics noted – and even witnessed first hand – the destruction of them and of similar artefacts; razed to the ground (or to a few – admittedly still significant – feet above it). Raided over centuries by indifferent islanders and iconoclastic new Muslims, they were in fact removed and recast to serve the material and spiritual needs of the community in an environment where resources have always been strained.
But the physical remains of these ancient communities can still be found across the island. In the foundations of Gemmisky – clearly built on top of an older structure; in the masonry of the Khedeyre Miskiiy veyo, which also lies within dragging-a-really-heavy-stone’s distance of the hawitta.
Elsewhere, they’ll be in old walls and houses, along with the star stuff, dinosaur atoms, and other things that have always existed under the tropical sun.
Just like many of the customs, folklore, language, and faith that has been broken up, rearranged and re-moulded to create Dhivehi culture, the hawitta may be almost forgotten, but will never be entirely lost.