‘Visit Maldives’ is a slogan that will be familiar to many travelling to the islands for tourism. Less familiar, however, will be the Dhivehi word for ‘visit’ – ziyaaraiy (kurun).
Yet most visitors who, ever so briefly, visit the capital, Male’, will find themselves visiting Medhu-ziyaaraiy during their…erm, visit. They may even be taken to see the nearby Bodu Thakurufaanu Ziyaaraiy, thus completing the classic one-two of Maldivian history. For a visit to these two sites will mean you have seen the tombs of the country’s conversion and independence heroes, respectively.
For those not ziyaraaiy’d out at this point, a trip across town to the Ali Rasgefaanu Ziyaaraiy – marking the point where the 16th century sultan fell to Portuguese invaders – will round off your visit of the island’s top saints.
Indeed, the Arabic loan-word ziyaaraiy more often means tomb or shrine, indicating that Maldivians have been regular visitors to these, and many similar sacred places, for centuries before tourists began their own ziyaaraiy kuranee.
On a hot afternoon, today’s visitors will probably be relieved that the rest of the capital’s ziyaaraiy have been largely forgotten and built over in recent decades. American anthropologist Clarence Maloney reported around 30 such sites in the capital alone as recently as the 1970s, while HCP Bell’s ‘Monograph’ lists 21 prominent shrines present 50 years before that. (There’d just be no time left to see the fish market and the museum).
Perhaps the most notable of the lost shrines is Lonu Ziyaaraiy, situated (unsurprisingly) at the end of today’s Lonuziyaaraiy Magu. Bell reported seeing grand lamp-lit parades to the site during ramazan, attended by Sultan Shamsuddin III himself, for prayers and offerings to Islamic saints. The exact location is currently likely to be under a few tonnes of Chinese concrete and steel.
These hallowed areas received regular homage from locals until the latter half of the twentieth century, when increasingly strict interpretations of Islam decried that requesting favours from, and leaving gifts for, the deceased steered perilously close to idolatry.
Such ceremonies at the Medhuziyaaraiy in Male’ were officially banned in 1957. They would have included planting white flags, saying prayers, offering of food and leaving lamps burning through the night.
But Male’ is by no means the only place you can ziyaaraiy kurun today. At one time, almost every island seems to have had its own shrine, belonging to a sultan, a scholar, a judge or sometimes just a ‘lucky’ washed-up corpse that fortuitously found a ‘fushi. Some, such as the small tomb at Gaafu Alif Rinbidhoo (pictured) seem to combine the two, with those in the neighbourhood vaguely linking the shrine to an ancient ‘tall’ and ‘pale’ king, who was cut up into many pieces and buried across multiple islands.
Other ziyaaraiy are home to better known historical figures, such as that of Mohamed Jamaluddin in Gaafu Dhaalu Vaadhoo – the 16th century scholar who brought the Shafi’i school of Islam to the Maldives from Yemen. Some current Vaadhoo islanders recall being taken to Jamaluddin’s tomb to request assistance with their schoolwork, with one unfortunate pupil retrieving the memory of being force-fed some of the shrine’s fresh sand.
An island particularly rich in history, Vaadhoo is home to a number of other ziyaaraiys, which were once used to seek assistance with fishing, weather, or with difficult pregnancies. In his 17th century observations, Francois Pyrard mentioned offerings to the ‘King of the Winds’, while his translator Albert Gray later suggested that ‘Kings’ may have been substituted for ‘Gods’ in order to reconcile old beliefs with new ones (a common theme in Dhivehi culture).
Vaadhoo residents recall government officials arriving in the 1980s to take away the years’ worth of valuable gifts that had accumulated in gratitude for good grades. This would have been around the same time that the Spanish academic Xavier Romero-Frias – living nearby in Fuvahmulah – observed that authorities were beginning to actively discourage islanders from visiting these places.
Most of the sites that are not preserved for the sake of tourism or nationalist history have fallen into a state of ruin, or have already disappeared beneath developing communities and religious doctrine. Even the Jamaluddin Ziyaaraiy is now largely unattended, maintained only by those with a keen reverence for its historical importance.
But for people who ‘visit Maldives’ today, these shrines and tombs give a rare glimpse of the older island customs that lie just beyond the surface of sun, sea, and sand.
Surely still worth a visit.