Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj
Walking through the thick screwpine forest, somewhere in between Isdhoo island’s two villages – if you can find someone who still remembers the way – you may stumble upon something extraordinary.
Or, as you fend off the prickly pandanus leaves, you may just fall straight into it.
Should you beat the drop, your eyes will gradually adjust to the golden gloom, pierced with shafts of midday sun. Your brain will take a little longer to process the scene and the sunbeams
Some kind of macabre flooded graveyard, complete with dozens of tiny unused plots? A series of communal latrines, perhaps, scattered as far as your scratched legs can clamber.
In fact, what you’re seeing is the island’s famous beys kulhi (which misleadingly translates as ‘medicine lake’).
Everyone on the island knows of this site, though only a few older members of the community have ever made use of it, and most of the younger ones are unable to find it without assistance. Yet, for untold years, ailing islanders would travel from far and wide to dig down into the island’s peat layer and wallow in its therapeutic mulch.
‘How does it work?’, you ask (and we asked). ‘Neynge,’ comes the standard reply. They don’t know, but everyone swears by it. Skin complaints seem to have been the most common reason to visit Isdhoo’s beys spa, but a number of different conditions would prompt a dip in the kulhi.
Practically, each patient would require a new trench to be dug, hence the significant number of holes in the ground. After which they would immerse themselves for the entire day, occasionally popping out of the fini chaka to warm themselves by a fire. (The image this conjures, of multiple disembodied heads planted round an open fire, is sort of terrifying). The spa’s magic mush was even bottled and taken back to the Kalaidhoo and Gandu Avah for home use.
As for the science part, the benefits of mud baths and peat pulp baths, known collectively as balneotherapy (…yeah, don’t ask us) do not seem to be clearly understood anywhere. The combination of compounds from decaying organic matter, the sulphur, and humic acids (…we’re really out of our depth here) have all been identified as potentially beneficial to health.
The use of the kulhi is consistent with the general practice of Dhivehi beys – an apparent blend of ayurvedic and unani medicines – which focuses mainly on the application of oils and pastes, as well as the balance between the hot, cold, and dry humors in the body.
Despite the arrival of modern healthcare, most islands have only basic health centres, and the traditional ways are still much in demand; although one of our accompanying friends was visiting the site for the very first time, he was sporting a herbal remedy on a hand injury sustained while playing volleyball.
The history of the surrounding area is little clearer than the red pits lurking in the jungle, with the name ‘Dhiyadhoo’ floating to the surface of collective memory, the rest remaining murky. Getting lost on our way back to the beach, we stumbled across large rocks, indicating some buildings has been in the now-deserted area.
All in all, Isdhoo’s beys kulhi appears completely unique. We’ve seen plenty of wetlands, with Fuvahmulah’s koda kilhi mud baths coming the closest, though the use of that area is purely recreational.
With the island’s health centre currently being expanded, it seems likely the site will continue to be consumed by the jungle, or possible by the erosion which some say has reduced the area’s healing properties in recent decades. But, there were rumours of a lady from Male’ being sent to the beys spa by her hakeem only very recently.
Maybe they should clear the path a little more…just in case demand picks up once again.