Timekeeping on the islands is unlikely to ever be an essential skill. If you’re not 15 minutes late you’re early, and ‘on time’ is an elastic concept. But knowing what time to pray is the exception to the rule.
On Gaafu Alif Nilandhoo, the sleepy streets are quickened five times a day by the call of the mudhim – the only person on the island who really needs to know what time it is; and at the Masjidul Baduru, the island’s oldest mosque, he has some help.
Lying just off the path leading between gravestones out to the fannu is an unusual timepiece; a sundial which indicates both the Dhuhr and Asr prayers. The mudhim explained that he has not seen one of its sophistication elsewhere in the area, with others normally just indicating Dhuhr prayers.
With two points to accommodate the very slight changing of the sun’s position over the course of the year, lying here just above the Equator, the shade points to a vertical line just after the sun passes its zenith, and then to an arc carved into the stone a few hours later.
Observing the sun for Maghrib and Fajr prayers, at dusk and dawn respectively, requires no additional tools, and the observance of night-time Isha prayers requires no specific time-keeping.
It’s not known exactly when islanders would have first started using clockwork timepieces or battery-operated clocks, but a backup system for a job of this importance is always essential (if the mudhim doesn’t already have an app for that). Sundials were still used long after mechanical clocks were introduced, to check for accuracy, and out here in the middle of the Indian Ocean imported parts and batteries can never be as reliable as the tropical sun.
After travelling through the atolls in the 1970s, anthropologist Clarence Maloney observed that some islanders were still using a tall post in the ground to determine the time. He was told that a shadow cast seven foot-lengths either side would indicate 9am or 3pm (which suggests that those with big feet should be first into the office each morning!).
The age of the unusual instrument in Nilandhoo is not clear. The 2004 tsunami did significant damage to the mosque’s surrounding walls, but the interesting device remains intact and well-preserved by the community, despite now having removable parts.
Such care and respect surely puts a slight lack of punctuality firmly in the shade.