Comparative studies of Maldivian oral, linguistic and cultural traditions and customs confirm that the first settlers were Dravidian people from Kerala in the Sangam period (300 BC-AD 300), most probably fishermen from the southwest coasts of what is now the south of the Indian Subcontinent and the western shores of Sri Lanka. One such community is the Giraavaru people descended from ancient Tamils. They are mentioned in ancient legends and local folklore about the establishment of the capital and kingly rule in Malé. They are considered to be the earliest community of settlers on the islands. A strong underlying layer of Tamil population and culture is present in Maldivian society, with a clear Tamil-Malayalam substratum in the language, which also appears in place names, kin terms, poetry, dance, and religious beliefs. Keralan seafaring led to Tamil settling of the Laccadives, and the Maldives were evidently viewed as an extension of the archipelago. Some argue that Gujaratis also were an early layer of migration. Seafaring from Gujarat began during the Indus valley civilization. The Jatakas and Puranas show abundant evidence of this maritime trade. Other early settlers might have been from Southeast Asia. The arrival of Sinhalese, who were descended from the exiled Kalinga (India) Prince Vijaya (Vijaya was a Banga or Bengal Prince whose maternal ancestor was Kalinga) and his party of several hundred, in the Maldives, occurred between 543 to 483 BC. They were made to leave their native regions of Orissa and the Sinhapura kingdom in northwest India. According to the Mahavansa, one of the ships that sailed with Prince Vijaya who went to Sri Lanka around 500 BC, went adrift and arrived at an island called Mahiladvipika, which is the Maldives. It is also said that at that time the people from Mahiladvipika used to travel to Sri Lanka. Their settlement in Sri Lanka and some of the Maldives marks a significant change in demographics and the development of the Indo-Aryan language Dhivehi. There are some signs of Arab inhabitants mostly in southernmost atolls.
The Buddhist Kingdom of Maldives
Buddhism came to the Maldives at the time of Emperor Ashoka’s expansion and became the dominant religion of the people of the Maldives until the 12th century AD. The ancient Maldivian Kings promoted Buddhism and the first Maldive writings and artistic achievements in the form of highly developed sculpture and architecture are from that period. Isdhoo Lōmāfānu is the oldest copper-plate book to have been discovered in the Maldives to date. The book was written in AD 1194 in Evēla form of the Divehi akuru with the exception of the first plate, during the reign of Siri Fennaadheettha Mahaa Radun (Dhinei Kalaminja). Tusites Maakri, the god of war in Maldivian mythology was said to overtake any leader that may have done wrongful deeds while wearing the crown. First archaeological study of the remains of early cultures on the Maldives began with the work of H.C.P. Bell, a British commissioner of the Ceylon Civil Service. Bell was shipwrecked on the islands in 1879, and returned several times to investigate ancient Buddhist ruins. He studied the ancient mounds, called havitta or ustubu (these names are derived from chaitiya or stupa) by the Maldivians, which are found on many of the atolls. Although Bell asserted that the ancient Maldivians followed Theravada Buddhism, many local Buddhist archaeological remains now in the Malé Museum display in fact Mahayana and Vajrayana iconography. In the early 11th century the Minicoy and Thiladhunmathi, also possibly other northern Atolls, was conquered by the medieval Chola Tamil emperor Raja Raja Chola I, becoming a part of the Chola empire. According to a legend from the Maldivian folklore, in the early 12th century AD a medieval prince named Koimala nobleman of the ‘Lion Race’ from Ceylon, sailed to Rasgetheemu Island (literally King’s Town) in North Maalhosmadulu Atoll and from there to Malé and established a kingdom there. By then, the Aadeetta (Sun) Dynasty had for sometime ceased to rule in Malé, possibly due to invasions by the Cholas of Southern India in the 10th century. The indigenous people in Malé Atoll, the Giraavaru invited Koimala to Malé and permitted him to be proclaimed king. Koimala Kalou (Lord Koimala) reigned as King Maanaabarana, was a king of the Homa (Lunar) Dynasty, which some historians call House of Theemuge. Since Koimala’s reign, the Maldive throne was also known as the ‘Singaasana’ (Lion Throne). Before then, and in some situations since, it was also known as the ‘Saridhaaleys’ (Ivory Throne). Some historians accredit Koimala of freeing the Maldives from Tamil Chola rule.
Introduction of Islam
The interest of Middle Eastern peoples in the Maldives resulted from its strategic location and its abundant supply of cowrie shells, a form of currency that was widely used throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast since ancient times. Middle Eastern seafarers had just begun to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the 10th century AD and found the Maldives to be an important link in those routes. The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the 12th century AD may partly explain why the last Buddhist king of Maldives converted to Islam in the year 1153 (or 1193, for certain copper plate grants give a later date). The king thereupon adopted the Muslim title and name (in Arabic) of Sultan (besides the old Divehi title of Maha Radun or Ras Kilege or Rasgefānu) Muhammad al Adil, initiating a series of six Islamic dynasties consisting of 84 sultans and sultanas that lasted until 1932, when the sultanate became elective.