Most islands in the Indian Ocean are well known for their beauty with visitors spoiled for choice, but for many the Maldives has been a name and little else. However, the tourism industry has over the years, grown from a honeymoon mecca to a favourite destination for lovers of water sports, especially diving.
Maldives is an archipelago containing as many as 1 200 tiny islands. Being one of the world's most dispersed nations, it is spread over an area of 90 000 sq kms. In such a land, airlines are essential, connecting the remote islands and reducing the inter-island travel time considerably.
The devastation left by the tsunami which hit the islands on 26 December 2004 significantly damaged thirty-nine islands with nearly a third of the Maldives' 300 000 people left severely affected. Fourteen islands were completely destroyed and had to be evacuated. Recovery took eight years and today, 15 years after the event the tourism market is flourishing.
Maldives, officially the Republic of Maldives, is a small archipelagic state in South Asia, situated in the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean, lies south-west of Sri Lanka and India, about 700 kilometres from the Asian continent's mainland. The islands are known for their natural environment and have become a favourite for water sports such as swimming, fishing, snorkelling, and water-skiing. But many travellers heading to the Maldives will be there for only one thing – diving and there is no better place to wiggle into a wet suit and don scuba gear than Banana Reef.
This fruit-shaped dash of multicoloured corals and seaweed clad sandbanks lies underwater between the isles of the North Malé Atoll. There are countless outfitters who are all too keen to lead excursions to find striped snappers and bulbous sponges, the reef sharks and the barracudas that all occupy these waters.
From Buddhism to Islam
Until the early 12th century the predominant religion in Maldives was Buddhism. The Muslim title of Sultan was adopted by the last Buddhist king Dhovemi who converted to Islam in 1153 when the growing influence of Arabian traders led to the conversion from Buddhism to Islam. The oldest mosque on the islands was built in 1656.
Thoddoo Buddhist Temple
This place again lays evidence of Buddhism as a culture that once flourished in the Maldives. The site was discovered in the 1950s, and retains ruins of Buddhist artefacts. Presently the area holds temple wrecks, Roman coins and some silver relics from ancient times. A Buddhist statue buried in the nearby area is a clear hint that Buddhism was practised long back in the country. The area has become a significant tourist spot and highlights essential details about the religious history of the country.
At the northern-most tip of the Atoll, Isdhoo Buddhist Stupas is the ideal location for tracing the history of the Buddhist in the Maldives. It is filled with ruins of Buddhist Stupas as a lot of them were destroyed and replaced with mosques after the country’s conversion to Islam. This place became a major tourist spot after Buddhist images and artefacts were unearthed from the island.
Islamic influence can be seen in a number of historic sights. One of the oldest surviving mosques of Malé in Kaafu Atoll is the Malé Friday Mosque, also known as the Malé Hukuru Miskiy. With every corner ornate from inside out, the mosque dates back to the year 1658. Its unique architecture and intricate carvings on the walls became the reason for why it was listed in UNESCO tentative World Heritage Cultural List 2008.
On the island of Nilandho stands the second oldest mosque of the Maldives, which is rumoured to have been constructed by the founders of the country. The mosque was built from the ruins of the Hindu Temples in the 12th Century and has Arabic scriptures chiselled on the walls.
Situated near the great Hukuru Miskiiy in Maldives, Medhu Ziyaaraiy is the tomb of the famous Morocco scholar Abdul Barakat Yoosuf Al Barbary who is credited for the advent of Islam in the Maldives during 1153 AD. The tomb is a symbol of peace which prevails among the Maldivian population. According to folklore, Abdul Barakat Yoosuf Al Barbary helped the people of the Maldives get rid of the sea demon. It was to escape from his wrath that every month, a virgin girl was left alone for him in the temple, only to be found dead the following day.
With the advent of Islam, a cemetary became necessary. The Kongannu Cemetery is the oldest in the Maldives and was constructed 900 years ago to bury the remains of the first Muslims of Addu Atoll. It is filled with secrets of ancient royal families and is also home to the most massive tombstone present in the country and dates back to the 18th Century.
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