The tiny saucer shaped capital of the Maldives is rarely more than a stopover for the visitors- and for many tourists who fly into neighboring Hulule’ Airport and are immediately transferred to a tourist island, not even that. Male’ may have the distraction of being one of the larger islands in the archipelago, but it is still hardly a vibrant metropolis. The great majority of visitors prefer to escape immediately to their chosen island retreat, perhaps returning to the capital for a short shopping excursion or to visit mosques and museums. It was not always thus, of course. Before the construction of the airport, the only way to visit the Maldives was by sea, and the chief port of entry was Male’. By all accounts the sea voyage was often hazardous, and today very few visitors arrive in the islands by boat.
Until about 20 years ago Male was little more than an administrative hamlet of coral-stone houses and sandy streets which appeared to be in a state of continual siesta. Today,by contrast, it is a bustling place of paved streets, piped de-salinated water and ten-storey apartment blocks. Yet still small, dark skinned fishermen wearing sarong-like lungyi shuffle down side streets carrying freshly caught tuna, while women leave a hint of coconut oil in the air as they waft past in long nylon or cotton dresses which cover their bodies in the oldest Islamic fashion.
The smell of fish permeates everywhere. The waterfront is barely visited apart from a flurry of activity after the fishing catch is landed in the early hours of the morning. Indian film music wafts out of single-storey shop fronts selling imported Singaporean polyesters and rubber sandals.
A tangible lethargy hangs in the air along with the embankment’s salty wafts. By the waterfront local fishermen with betel-stained gums relax in teashops, with names like ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Beach Cafe’, chewing betel wrapped in a leaf with coral lime and a stick of clove. Others smoke bidis made of a single leaf of tobacco of formidable strength wrapped in old newspaper.
As the sun declines evening joggers, often members of the National Security Force not currently on duty, make a circuit of the island. Usually they stand, armed with automatic rifles,in front of the President’s palace and the parliament building or Majlis. The muezzin’s call to prayer rings out across the flat roofs from loud speakers, organising the last of the day’s prayers for the Sunni faithful in the 40 or so mosques around the capital. Afterwards the liveliest part of town is the evening fish market, selling everything from fresh fish to preserved fish paste(Rihaakuru). It starts at six in the morning and finishes about nine in the evening, soon after darkness falls, At dusk, it fills up with the day’s catch, with everything from swordfish to sardines carefully laid out for customers to inspect. Other foods grown in the Maldives include sweet potato, cassava, taro, the occasional cucumber, spinach, sorghum, red onions, ridge gourds, cabbages and chillies, mainly from the south. If you are lucky you may find watermelons from far-off Thoddoo in Ari Atoll, or guavas, jujubes, custard and wood apples, or even sapodillas.
The capital is divided into five districts or avaru- Maafannu, Machangolhi, Galolhu, Henveiru and Villingily. The centre of activity is the harbour front strip, Boduthakurufaanu Magu, formerly known as Marine Drive. The other principal streets are the Chandhanee magu and Majeedhi magu.
The Islamic Centre
The most prominent landmark of the island is the the large, gold-domed, three-storey Islamic centre, was declared open by the President Gayoom in 1984. It comprises an Islamic library, a conference hall and a classroom for conducting a number of religious activities. Most important centerpiece Grand Mosque, named after Sultan Muhammad Thakurufaan, which can hold more than 5,000 people. Its main prayer hall displays beautiful woodcarvings and fine Arabic calligraphy created by Maldivian craftsmen, four huge chandeliers and purpose-woven carpets add a luxurious touch
Sultan Park Museum
The museum in the Sultan’s Park used to be part of the old Royal Palace.It was seen by the French exile Francois Pyrard de Laval in the early 17th century but was badly damaged by a Malabari invasion in 1752. The rest was destroyed in the 1960s, as the government at the time did not appreciate its historical value. Opened on National Day, 1 Rabeeul Awwal 1372 AH (19 November 1952) by the then Prime Minister, Amir Mohamed Amin Didi, the museum is now a somewhat ramshackle building which houses various interesting artefacts, watched over by a covey of curators.
Two of the important items exhibited are a coral stone Buddha head and a wooden panel formerly in the Hukuru Miskiiy (Friday Mosque). The Buddha head, together with other related objects, indicates that Buddhism flourished in the Maldives before conversion to Islam, while the panel, which about four meters long, bears an Arabic inscription that gives the date of conversion to Islam.
The cannon outside is a legacy of the Portuguese occupation that ended in 1573; others can be seen in different places along Male’s waterfront. Relics from various archaeological expeditions are also on display. Most were found in the southernmost islands and all predate the Maldives’ 12th-century conversion to Islam. The Buddha head from Kurendhoo in Faadhippolhu Atoll was found in 1962. Pride of place goes to the three-metre- (ten-feet-) high head from Thoddoo. Mundu island has provided some carved lions and a monkey’s head.
The rest of the museum is chock-a-block with odds and ends. A random selection gives the flavour of the collection, bizarre yet curiously fascinating: the decrepit first painting press sent to the Maldives palanquins used by the last sultan in 1932; a photograph of the moon by Neil Armstrong; and an old sandglass egg timer. Elsewhere the antiquarian will be pleased by examples of the old script dhives akuru engraved on a wooden plank and dating from the 13th century, and a collection of old coins showing the progression from bent, pin-shaped larin to familiar circular currency.
At the modern end there is a range of fading ceremonial attire, embroidered coats that belonged to the sultan’s womenfolk, old sepia photographs, silver ornaments, letters from colonial visitors, 18th-century turbans, lacquer trays used for the sultan’s special holiday food, tin drum-holders used to sound imperial gongs, knives and sundry seals, prayer carpets, broken model boats, and rickety umbrellas made of cotton and used to shade the sun’s rays from the sultan’s eyes. A sarong sued by the nation’s saviour, Muhammad Thakurufaan, is perhaps the most treasured item. The museum is open from 9.00am to 3.00pm, except on Fridays and public holidays.