A financial grant of around Rs. 2.75 crore (4 million Maldivian rufiyaa) by India is helping to restore one of the many archaeological sites in the Maldives that are remnants of the country’s Buddhist past. Last week, the two countries signed seven memorandums of understanding, which also included the preservation of heritage sites, under which the financial grant is disbursed.

Some 800 years after the Maldives’ first conversion to Islam in the 12th century, few traces of its pre-Islamic history remain on the surface. “There are many unearthed pre-Islamic heritage sites in the country, but few have been properly preserved or scientifically excavated,” Hawwa Nazla, chief executive of the Maldives National Center for Cultural Heritage, told indianexpress.com.

The financial grant is being used to establish a museum on the island of Landhoo, located about 190 kilometers north of the capital Male, which would document the island’s heritage sites.

A photograph of a block of coral from the archaeological site of Maabadhige, with inscriptions on all four sides of the block in a version of the Southern Brahmi script from the Pallava period, dating from the 6th century AD. According to German linguist and professor of comparative linguistics at the Institute for Empirical Linguistics at Goethe University Frankfurt, Jost Gippert, the inscription is a mantra of Vajrayana Buddhism. (Photo credit: Yassin Hameed via Twitter)

For the Maldives, the island of Landhoo is an important link in understanding and researching the country’s pre-Islamic past. In 2001, a block of coral was found at the archaeological site of Maabadhige, with inscriptions on four sides of the block, depicting a version of the southern Brahmi script from the Pallava period, dating from the 6th century AD. Historians consider this inscription to be the oldest surviving script found in the country. “The inscription is a mantra from Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that existed in the Maldives in ancient times. The letters show some resemblance to the later Eveyla Akuru, leading to the theory that this early script may have played a role in forming the first known Dhivehi alphabet,” said Nazla. The Eveyla Akuru was an ancient Maldivian alphabet system.

This block of coral is now on display in the country’s National Museum and historians believe that the likelihood of more artifacts existing at this site would provide deeper insight into the country’s Buddhist history.

Located in the southeast of the island, the archaeological site of Maabadhige resembles a large mound of earth, 28 feet high, with a circumference of 292 feet, and has several names; the most common being ‘Haikka’, ‘Maabadhige Hai’kei Haitha’ and ‘Maabudhu Ge’.

There are at least two known theories about the origins of this site, one of which is rooted in legends and oral history. This folklore speaks of “giants” – the Redhin – who lived there, gathered fruits on various islands and traveled to Maabadhige to cook their meals. Local islanders call this site “Maabadhige” in Dhivehi, which translates to “main cuisine”, linking the site to folklore, Nazla told indianexpress.com.

A photograph of the N. Landhoo Maabudhuge site survey by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), 1987. (Photo credit: National Center for Cultural Heritage)

The site is also called Maabudhuge, which translates to “main temple” in Dhivehi and archaeologists identify it as the site of a Buddhist dagaba or domed shrine. Finds around this site have led archaeologists to believe it was the site of a monastery due to the presence of the remains of seven stupas around the mound, which over the years have turned into rock formations.

The first recorded excavations were carried out in 1848 at Landhoo Island in Noonu Atoll by Maldivians, where several artifacts had been discovered, Dr Mirani Lister had written in his Maldivian Archeology Research Paper (2019 ). Maldivian historian Naseema Mohamed had also written about the discovery of gold and copper discs at this site during excavations in 1848, in her research into the country’s pre-Islamic history. “These were either melted down or destroyed because people didn’t realize the importance of these finds at the time,” Nazla said of the artifacts that were discovered.

Around 1900, Stanley Gardiner, a British marine biologist who had traveled extensively around the Maldives and documented its fauna and geography, visited Landhoo to conduct scientific research on Maabadhige. Gardiner’s writings now constitute the first written documentation of the site.

A photograph of the N. Landhoo Maabudhuge site survey by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), 1987. (Photo credit: National Center for Cultural Heritage)

In some writings on the history of Maabadhige, Gardiner is credited with having “discovered” the site. But experts believe it is a colonial narrative, erasing decades of Maldivian history. “The idea of ​​discovering the place never happened because there have been people living there since ancient times,” Nazla said. “The site is close to where people used to live.”

“Although the Maldives has a rich history spanning over 2,000 years, little is known about the early settlers and their origins. Heritage sites, both from the pre-Islamic era and after, are important sources that must be studied and researched to know our origins and also to expand the knowledge we have about the development and expansion of civilization in the South Asian region,” said Yumna Maumoon, the country’s Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage.

In 1987, under SAARC’s technical assistance programme, a three-member team from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) visited the Maldives, together with Mr. I. Loutfi, Director of the National Center for Linguistic Research and history of Malé, to carry out investigations. and survey of pre-Islamic remains in the country.

In the ASI archives consulted by indianexpress.com, one of the findings of the team’s report relating to this site identifies the presence of ceramics as a unique feature. “The presence of ceramics in the coral archipelago is important because there are no clay deposits. It can be assumed that clay and pottery were imported to these islands from India or Sri Lanka,” the report said.

A photograph of the N. Landhoo Maabudhuge site taken in February 2022. (Photo credit: Mohamed Nazim / National Center for Cultural Heritage)

Landhoo is an inhabited island, with a population of around 700 people. Although there is little information available on the site’s history, islanders understand the site has historical significance, a Maldivian historian told indianexpress.com, requesting anonymity.

There has been little awareness of cultural heritage and the need for its preservation in the country, Nazla said, but that is changing, albeit slowly. “Not enough research has been done. We don’t have any technical or professional staff in this area,” Nazla said.

“The main challenge we face is that we lack technical expertise in areas related to culture and heritage conservation. The expansion of human resources in areas such as archaeology, conservation science, heritage conservation and museology is a priority for which we need international assistance,” Maumoon told indianexpress.com . “With over 500 tangible heritage sites listed in the Maldives and even a more diverse range of intangible heritage, funding is also a primary need. We look forward to assistance and collaboration from friendly nations and international organizations in these areas,” she said.

The lack of research on the country’s pre-Islamic history is also partly due to the fact that the subject continues to be controversial in the Maldives. “We know that we converted in 1153 and it took 100 to 150 years for the Maldives to convert (to Islam). Everyone agrees on that. But people don’t want to talk about the pre-Islamic era,” the historian told indianexpress.com.

“For our generation, it’s normal for us to talk about other religions and explore other religions. We are faithful to our religion, but we also want to study other religions. But until the mid-1990s, it was socially unacceptable for people to study other religions. This is one of the reasons why the older generation developed a stronger denial of other religions,” the historian explained.

It is documented that the country converted to Islam in 1153 CE and there is consensus that indigenous religious practices existed before that in the Maldives. “It was because of this denial and ignorance towards history that several artifacts were destroyed,” the historian said.

In 2012, the country’s National Museum was vandalized, where nearly 30 Buddhist statues, some dating back to the 6th century, were destroyed. Some of these coral and lime statues were so badly damaged that restoration was impossible. Around this time, a New York Times report quoted officials as saying that a group of men had vandalized the museum because they believed the statues were idols, and therefore illegal under Islamic and national laws. The destruction meant that almost all of the museum’s pre-Islamic collection was lost.

“Lack of awareness and lack of proper controls are the cause,” Nazla said of the National Museum vandalism. Until 2019, the country had no legal framework to impose penalties for the destruction of cultural heritage. This changed with the ratification of a new Heritage Act which made the documentation, preservation and protection of cultural heritage in the Maldives mandatory, as well as the creation of a heritage protection agency empowered to determine sanctions in case damage and vandalism.

Several pre-Islamic artifacts continue to be found every year in the Maldives, especially in the construction of houses and other buildings. “The cultural heritage of the Maldives, pre and post-Islamic, is in urgent need of preservation,” Nazla said.

“People now see the need to protect these places for the simple reason that they are tourist attractions. Tourism is spreading to the islands where people live. So they see heritage as a component of local tourism, because it generates income for the inhabitants,” said the historian.

The benefits generated by tourism are one of the main incentives for local island residents to preserve cultural heritage, but this is a relatively recent development. “Until two or three years ago, people questioned the need to protect these places. But now (the government) is getting requests from island councils to restore and protect these places,” the historian explained.

The restoration of the Maabadhige site on Landhoo is still in its infancy and it is unclear how long a project of this magnitude would take to complete. While India provides the financial support, the museum is designed and developed by the Government of the Maldives, with the aim of providing space and opportunities for students and researchers to study the site, as well as tourists, who at their turn would benefit the island’s local economy, Nazla said.

The work that is being undertaken at the Maabadhige site is one of many projects in which India has provided assistance to the Maldives for heritage preservation over the years. “Historically, India has been an important partner in the conservation of Maldivian heritage,” Maumoon said.