the-south-asian.com DECEMBER 2002
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Islands - in 1884
The Maldive Islands
By C. W. Rosset
(This article originally appeared in The Graphic Oct. 16, 1886)
Male is situated at the South eastern corner of North Male atol, and is the seat of Government of the group. It is about a mile in length by three quarters in breadth, and, like most of the other islands, is in no place more than from six to seven feet above the sea level. The harbour has been formed from a part of the lagoon enclosed by a barrier Reef which nearly surrounds the island, and on which a kind of the sea wall about four feet high has been built with rough blocks of coral. The harbour thus formed affords very efficient protection to the Maldivian trading boats and fishing boats: but the entrance is too narrow for vessels of more than 200 tons to enter.
The town of Male struck me as being more regularly laid out and cleaner than is generally the case in Eastern countries. The streets are straight, broad, and shaded with trees, and are kept very clean. The houses are mostly built of plaited coconut leaves plastered over with a stiff mud, and roofed with coconut leaves thatch; they are usually divided into two apartments, communicating by a doorway closed by a curtain. The front apartment is the general and sleeping room in, and is furnished with benches round the wall and a few stools beside the bed, which is always the most conspicuous article of a furniture in a Maldive house. This bed in is suspended from the roof by chains or rope, the material of which depends upon the caste to which the proprietor belongs; high castes using brass chains, middle casts iron chains, and low casts coiled ropes. The legs are also provided in order that the bed may be lowered down in case of illness, when the swinging motion to which it is liable would be a social danger or annoyance to the patient. The furniture of the bed is a matter of great importance; high castes use a mattress and pillows of red silk; middle castes are content with cotton stuff; while low casts sleep on straw. The mattress on straw is covered with a mat, the pattern and quality of which are regulated by the caste of the owner. The Maldivians display great skill and taste in the manufacture of these mats, which have acquired reputation for harmonious design and permanency of colour. They are made only in Suvadiva Atol from a grass called by the Maldivians hau; only three colours are used - black, dark yellow, and white, which are obtained from plants and are wonderfully lasting. Although the Maldivians keep their houses scrupulously clean, they are very unhealthy on account of being surrounded by a wall from six to seven feet in height, which impede the free passage of fresh air, this being the all the more hurtful as the openings in the purpose of doors and windows are not very large. The bad effects of this arrangement are apparent in cases of illness, when the patient as often as not dies as much from want of fresh air as any other cause. The inner compartment of the houses is reserved for the women, who remain there when not engaged in household or other duties, or when male visitors are in the house. They are not, however, secluded with the same strictness as is observed in other Muslim countries; on several occasions when I was visiting at some of the lower caste houses the women of the household would join in the conversation, though always remaining invisible in their apartment.
The remains of the fort erected by the Portuguese during one of the temporary occupations of the islands probably in the 16th century would seem to indicate that that they looked upon the Maldive Islands as a position of considerable importance. In my view of Male harbour it will be seen that the main bastion is a structure of great strength; the walls of solid masonry are upwards of 20 feet in height and in a good state of preservation, though much overgrown with weeds and grass. Many of the old cannon are lying about within the fort; but are, of course, quite useless, being rusty, and choked with coral. A mast from a ship wrecked some 200 years back is raised in a corner of the bastion and serves as a flag-staff. Scattered about the town are upwards of 200 old cannon, all as unserviceable as those in the fort.
The Sultanís palace is situated to the north east of the main bastion, in the centre of a large walled enclosure; before the gateway are placed about half a dozen old cannon, the only ones capable of being used, with which salutes are fired on great occasions. The palace itself is a large building with an upper floor. Visitors are received in the verandah which I was able to photograph. Francois Pyrard de Laval, a French adventurer who visited these islands during his travels in the east early in the 17th century, and was detained here for five years from 1602 to 1607, gives a longer and minute account of the palace, according to which it contained many fine halls tastefully decorated; but during my stay I was unable to penetrate within, and cannot therefore either confirm or amend his description. Within the palace enclosure are several buildings used as stores, and an arena in which the dances and sports take place, on one side of which is a kind of raised covered platform for the accommodation of the ladies of the court and some of the hired functionaries.
There are several mosques in Male, two of them larger than the others; but they offered no peculiarity either of structure or ornament which would entitle them to special notice.
Male being the centre of the government and trade of the whole group, is naturally the most thickly populated, and as the Maldivians not only invariably bury people where they die, but are also very careful not to inter two in the same place, some idea can be formed of the number of graves to be seen there. This has been advanced as a reason for the unhealthiness of Male, and I think that the water drawn from the wells must inevitably be contaminated.
The ordinary dress of the men is very simple, consisting of drawers, a cloth bound round the loins, after the mode of the Cingalese, and a handkerchief twisted round the head. On special days, such as Fridays, when they attend the mosque, the high caste wear a shirt and jacket, over which is a kind of long dressing down, coming down and nearly to the feet. The turban is only worn by priests and the Sultan.
The women's costume is exceedingly becoming. Round the waist, and reaching down to the ankles, is worn a cloth (mostly of native manufacture), coarse in texture, of a dark chocolate colour, with a border of parallel black and white stripes. Over this they wear a kind of loose shirt, or gown, of silk, with short sleeves, reaching nearly to the knees, which is not made to fit to the neck and shoulders, but is gathered in round them; the openings for the neck and arms are ornamented with embroidery in gold, silver, and silk thread. The hair, which is black, and generally long and thick, is tied up behind, and a handkerchief of the same colour as the shirt is bound round it. All ranks wear similar costume, the distinctions of caste being marked by the difference in the quality of the silk stuff of which the shirt is made, and of the embroidery.
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