Male: An Island Unto Itself


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Island of Male, Maldives

(Published first in Outlook Traveller, Jul 2016)


“There is nothing in Male”, everyone barks, astonished that I would want to forgo –even for a day- the hedonistic delights on offer at the resort, to shuffle about in one of the world’s smallest and densely packed cities.

Indeed, it takes a supreme effort of will to drag oneself out of a Maldivian resort’s infinity pool, and the personal butler’s (thakuru) pamperings to venture anywhere. Even to the sea. Most cottages fan out into the turquoise lagoons and from the sundeck, with the beach way behind you, you feel you are already in the waters. So why bother?

Most tourists to the Maldives see and  care for nothing besides, whisked as they are from the airport in such an efficient hurry by the resort speedboats, as if to prevent them from wandering into the Maldivian capital, Male, just an island hop away. The perception that Maldives archipelago is just a collection of world-class resorts has therefore stayed.

Thankfully my guide Firdaus is enthusiastic and launches into the history of Male no sooner I am ejected off the resort speedboat into this tiny city. The contrast is indeed compelling and you begin to see why no one wants you to spoil the illusion of Maldives as an ultimate utopia.

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From the airport , tourists are quickly whisked away to the comfort of their resorts

Where at the island resorts one is accosted by soft white sands, clear blue waters, tropical trees, coconut with umbrella topped straws and scented damp towels, here in Male, there is just one concrete wall of buildings. Below me, among the fishermen’s detritus, float Coke and water bottles. Male’s architectural element is clearly expediency not aesthetics. The idea seems to be to pack as many buildings as close together as possible on the space-crunched island.

Paucity of space is also why there is a roar of bikes and mopeds on the roads. All solidly stone-paved, the streets are narrow and the two-wheeler is the transport of choice. “If I invite you for a coffee and you see a Maldivian woman and you say, I like her, can you arrange a date with her? The first thing she will ask is do you have a motorbike? The first condition is the bike or else bye bye”, says Firdaus.

But the 1.7-kilometer long and 1 kilometer wide island can as easily be traversed on foot. Every monument, museum and mosque is just an arm’s length away. We first visit the Old Friday Mosque. This once upon a time Buddhist temple was turned into a mosque after the Moroccan scholar Abu al Barakat travelled to Buddhist Maldives and converted the Sultan and with him the country to Islam in the 12th century A.D. The mosque was renovated three times, the last in 1656. It is an important relic of history for all Maldivians. The door and window frames are made from corals. Wooden beams supporting the roof are engraved with Koranic verses but they still hide untold stories of a 1400-year-old Buddhist past. Its a sort of place writer V.S. Naipaul might have wanted to ruminate about in “Among the Believers”, his book about what he termed the “converted people”.

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A once upon a time Buddhist temple . Now the Old Friday Mosque.

It is in Male, the mercantile and political centre of the Maldives where you get a glimpse of any Maldivian culture. You may see the Maldivians at the resort’s sand-floor receptions   deal coolly with the booking queries of bikini clad Europeans but outside the resorts, Maldivians are conservative   and intend to stay that way.

In fact, until the 1980’s the government kept the world of tourists and the world of locals assiduously apart, making the inhabited islands  tourist no- go areas. But tourism is Maldivian economy’s backbone, therefore some concessions were made, like modest guesthouses have now been allowed to spring up not only in Male but in many inhabited islands for the bag-packers and the off- the -beaten -path travellers. However the usual tourist debaucheries of winning, dinning, and bikini sunbathing are alright as long as they are cordoned off from the locals.

Every Maldivian is not only a Muslim but also a Sunni Muslim. It’s a paradise where no other religion can be practiced. There are over 35 mosques in the tiny island of Male itself. We visit many of them including the biggest of them all, the Friday Mosque, which pierces the Male sky with its gold-plated domes.

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Two-wheelers are a transport of choice in Male

There is a Museum, which is a steel and glass building, a gift from China, built in the year 2010. Among other things, it houses old canons, pictures of important political events and a replica of the pen used to sign the Maldives ‘declaration of Independence’ from the British Empire on 26th July 1965.

Male is crowded with a population of 100,000 people. It’s a tiny landmass that rises up barely one meter above the surrounding ocean. But this is a mere statistics for the Indian traveller accustomed to a sea of people in everyday urban India. In comparison Male looks empty. “ People here take care of their skin and don’t come out in the day. They come out only in the evening for shopping”, says Firdaus by way of explanation.

The fish market at the jetty is a place where merchants from all over Maldives congregate to sell vegetables and fish.   I meet Suresh an Indian fisherman from Chennai who says he is not happy with the day’s catch. “The weather is not good. We spent three days out in the ocean and only got this”, he says pointing to a pile of what looked like a good haul to me. There are many Indians like him in Male who earn over 300 dollars a month and visit home once a year.

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The fish market here is always busy

Male also has a beach, which is monopolized completely by children. They are minded by Maldivian women, some of whom wade into the waters after their wards fully clothed.

Not accustomed to tourist footfalls, Male offers little choice for souvenir hunters. But there is almost everything to suit almost everyone’s palate and, if you like Thai food, you are in luck. Male, for some reason, has many restaurants catering to Thai taste buds.

But our guide took us to what he called a local ‘hangout’ joint- the Aioli Restaurant, which seemed more popular with the locals for the shisha than its food. The restaurant did not serve authentic Maldivian food but it was a welcome break from the European-dominated cuisines of the resorts. For example, the smoked salmon served there in the breakfast buffet was imported all the way from Belgium, the hostess on duty told me. We went with the recommendation of a skittish waiter and ordered the Hot and Sour Prawn Soup. The soup was great but very spicy. But thats because you are an Indian, explained Firdaus. “They adjust the chillies according to the country you are from”, he said, slurping comfortably on his soup, shisha smoke from another table whirling about his head.

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Firdaus my guide who loves Bollywood cinema and many Indian actresses.

From the restaurant and just about at any other street corner in Male, huge posters of Mohamad Nasheed, the popular ex-President sentenced to 13 years in jail, and who recently got asylum in Britain, stare down at you. With him the message of  global warming rings ever louder for every Maldivian and the world at large. Should global warming continue at the current pace, there will indeed be nothing in Male in the next two decades. Barely two meters above sea level, Male and all the other 12,00 or so inhabited and uninhabited Maldivian islands will simply go underwater forever.

How to Get Here:

The only direct flights from India are from either Thiruvananthapuram or Kochi. Travellers from any other Indian city will have their flights (on Air India or SpiceJet) routed though one of these cities. SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka offers connections from India via Colombo for about the same price or better and about the same number of flying hours.

Visas :

Visitors don’t need visas to enter the Maldives. Citizens of all nationalities are given a 30-day free visa on arrival, provided their passports are valid for six months, they can show a return ticket and proof of funds or a resort booking.

One Response to “Male: An Island Unto Itself”

  1. Definitely a different perspective of Maldives…

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