Ramazan as it is called in the Maldives, or Ramadan elsewhere in the Middle East,has arrived. It is a time for sobriety and is a spiritual journey for Muslims – but can be a logistical nightmare for travellers. Heed the advice of our guide to travel in the Maldives and Dubai during this period and beyond to the festivities of Eid.
For most of us, the joy of travel stems simply from the chance to sample an unknown culture. No trip would be complete without gorging on traditional cuisine, wandering through bustling markets, and sharing a drink in local watering holes. But what if you arrived to find everything shut down and the streets near-deserted?
With the start of this year’s Ramadan many travellers to Muslim areas fear such scenes over the coming month. Tales of boarded-up restaurants and irritable hosts abound, but what’s the real impact of Ramadan on travel?
Ramadan is an opportunity for Muslims to strengthen their relationship with Allah. Healthy adults abstain from smoking, sexual intercourse, drinking and eating during daylight hours, with some even choosing not to swallow saliva. In some cases, public observance of the fast is mandatory even for non-Muslims, but this varies by region.
Breaking the fast
The daily fast ends with iftar, the first meal taken after nightfall; meals and parties continue long into the night. The month reaches a climax with Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast – a three-day holiday marked by the exchanging of gifts, family visits and vast meals.
Travellers should always abide by Ramazan customs in public in Male’ and the islands. Most of the time, resorts operate in their own little bubble, oblivious to what’s happening in the Capital. There aren’t many differences between other conservative countries across the Middle East– just don’t eat, drink, smoke, kiss, hug, hold hands or play loud music in public.
In less strict regions and multi-faith countries it’s unlikely you’ll be expected to abstain, but be discreet; those who are fasting won’t relish having to watch you eat lunch.
The combination of low blood sugar and tiredness often brings government offices and private businesses to near standstill during the day, with public transport also becoming sparse and unreliable.
Ramadan doesn’t lend itself to inflexible plans. If you have a strict itinerary, it’s probably best to postpone your trip. It can, however, be an enlightening time to visit, giving unique insight into a country’s faith and culture. Yes, days will be quiet and food may be hard to track down, but the evening markets, iftar feasts and community spirit are sensational compensation.
Still up for the adventure? Read on…
Ramazan is observed with fervor throughout the Maldives, and public observance of the fast is mandatory. Non-muslims are expected to fast behind closed doors. Eateries are closed during daylight hours – top-end hotels occasionally offer screened eating areas, but plan ahead. Evenings are lively, with people coming together to eat, drink, pray and shop. People cook big meals and then gather to talk. eat, drink and party until dawn, when the cycle begins again .
On the islands, such as Hulhumale’ the streets are deserted and the bonus is that the beach is empty, although you won’t be able to consume refreshments on the beach. Islanders spend their day’s behind closed doors, resting, sleeping and watching movies, waiting for evening to come.
Eid – after the fast comes celebrations
The Maldives has been a strictly Islamic nation since the 10th century, following conversion to Islam, so following Ramadan – the month of fasting, comes the festivals of Eid is the perfect time for tourists to travel around the inhabited islands to find the real Maldives – the Maldives of culture and history, the Maldives of heart and soul.
The people of the Maldives celebrate various events and festivals with great joy and enthusiasm in the islands. Each individual festival and reflects the varied culture and heritage of each island.
As the month of Ramadan draws to a close, the Muslim community begins searching the sky for the next full moon. When this is spotted, the whole community makes a great shot along with the beating of drums to indulge in the three day festival of Eid-UL-Fitr. Early in the morning men and women gather at the mosque to perform prayer. At each house a feast in prepared and family, friends and neighbours are invited. Its announcement is usually done by a canon in Male and via television.
Eid-UL-Fitr is an important festival celebrated by all Muslims of the Maldives. Special prayers are offered to Allah after which official processions are carried out. The festivities consist of various games and musical performances on the island. People wear new clothes, get together for feasting, exchange gifts and also distribute sweets amongst their family and friends to celebrate the auspicious day.
People dress in their best clothes and many city-dwellers depart the city in search of life and culture in the outer islands whose people celebrate Eid the way it was celebrated by Maldivians ages ago.
Cultural dances, local Boduberu, Maali and Vedhuma Dhiun are just some of the activities that most of the islands will never miss.
Fithru Eid marks the end of Ramadan -the Islamic month of fasting. Usually, the Kuda Eid festival of Maldives falls on the first day in the month of Shawaal, according to the Islamic calendar. It is a three day long festivity, observed as a public holiday period.
Eid gifts, known as Eidi, are given to children and relatives. Females decorate and clean their homes, dress themselves beautifully and apply henna (Mehndi) on their hands. Men wear new white clothes. Females cook delicious food on Eid day especially ‘Saiwiyan’. Children get gifts and the evening is marked by firesworks. Muslims greet each other by wishing Eid Mubarak.
In rural islands, traditional dances are performed, in which people participate enthusiastically. In the Maldives many different events are held with but the way that the event or play is presented may vary across different atolls or islands. These plays mostly depict folklore stories passed down by ancestors mixed with cultural and ethnic ways of life showing traditional life superstitious beliefs.
For Fitr Eid (Kuda Eid) the Maldives has three public holidays and for Alhaa Eid (also known as bodu eid) there are five days of festive celebrations.
The Bodu Eid Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Muslims in the Maldives. Games and musical performances are held in the island by the local community. These last five days following the day of hajj and traditional dances are performed by local people in the rural islands.
The history of these practices, art as well as style (ways of dressing or representing) originates from a cauldron of ethnicity. As earliest historical records show that the Maldives as we see it today came from inhabitants of multiple ethnic groups that populated the Maldives including Africans, Arabs, Sinhalese and Indians. There are many folklore tales of some that belong to certain islands.
Legend has it that a prince and his wife, the daughter of the King of today’s Sri Lanka, stopped at Raa Atoll during a voyage and were invited to stay as rulers.
Later King Koimala and his wife settled in Malé with permission of the Giraavaru tribe, the aboriginal tribe of Kaafu atoll. Nowadays Giraavaru people are still easily recognisable through their clothes and hairstyle, but only a few hundred of them are left and were resettled in Malé in 1978. Their island, Giraavaru has been transformed into a tourist resort. Aryans from India and Sri Lanka are believed to have settled in the Maldives from 1500 BC onwards – according to latest archaeological findings. “Elu”, an archaic form of Sinhala (spoken in Sri Lanka) shows great similarities to Dhivehi. As a favourite stop-over on the busy trade routes, the Maldives have had many visitors and influences, trading with Arabia, China and India with coconut, dried fish and above all the precious cowry shell, a small white shell found on the beach, used as currency in countries near the Indian Ocean. These shells were found as far away as Norway or West Africa showing the extent of the trade relations of the Maldives.
Being inhabited by different ethnic groups, each with their own traditions or practices unique to them has meant that over the years these have combined and collided with others while giving way to new traditions. Some have been erased because they are considered taboo.
Originally Maldivians followed the Dravidian Mother-Goddess worship and its rituals. The country underwent a conversion to Buddhism about 2,000 years ago which brought about an unprecedented flourishing of the Maldivian culture, including the language which by then developed its own script. Almost all significant Maldivian archaeological remains and cultural accomplishments are from that period. But about 800 years ago the country was converted to the Muslim religion and little of the cultural achievements of the Maldivian classical age survived. Since the conversion, the ancient Mother-Goddess cult managed to live on in the local folklore, which is marked by the fear of ancient female spirits, epidemics, and monsters of the sea. As centuries went by, Islam, the official religion of Maldivians, became intertwined with the local traditions.
However in this disparate island kingdom, many hidden cultural gems can be found, if you venture away from the resorts and capital city. While much Maldivian culture has been erased over the years, each and every island has its own traditional art and crafts, dance, music and folklore and tales which because of their isolation have been preserved.
Traditions include live theatrical pantos such as the Dheli Maali folklore tale performed on the island of Fulidahoo. This tells the story of a demon from the underworld that comes to snatch children. It is part of the annual Eid celebrations, though is believed to have originated in the Maldives’ pre-Islamic days.
The “Mashi Maali parade” which means “Ghosts of Mud” is held on H.Dh Kulhudhuffushi during the Eid celebrations. Participants in this event cover their body with mud or marsh and hold a parade in the street. Again it is thought to have been introduced by Islamic settlers. The event is also celebrated in vaikaradhoo and generally attracts young crowd. In the history of the Maldives there are many folk stories which involve ghosts and black magic.
Meanwhile, “Dhamu Higun” is also a traditional dance and music performance held during eid celebrations in the H.Dh Kuldhuffushi island atoll. The dance tells the story of how the islander’s ancestor’s banished evil spirits from their land. All the dancers and drummers are disguised while their songs are sung to the beat of spooky music.
The ”bodumas” festival is celebrated on various islands throughout the Maldives along with a traditional event called ”Bodumali neshun” involves dance but has been slowly vanishing from Maldives.
“Koadi Negun” is another dance usually performed which starts on the eve of Eid and the “Koadi” is decorated with young coconut leaves. Men take part in decorating the Koadi. In the evening the “Koadi” is brought out and the dance is performed around it. The men from the island take the “Koadi” and tie it to a coconut tree. Women have to find a man to bring it down for them and then reward him with a bath and a feast.
Of all Maldivian traditions, “Bodu Beru”, dancing to the beat of a drum, is the most famous form of music and also said to be one of the oldest music in the culture of the Maldives.
It is thought to have originated in East Africa and is similar to some of the traditional songs and dances found there today. It is likely that the music was introduced to the islands by African sailors who ventured into the Indian Ocean region. Bodu Beru
known commonly as “Baburu Lava” (Negroid Song) is believed to have first made an appearance in the Maldives in the 11th Century AD.
Additionally the ”Dhandi Jehun” is a traditional dance of Maldives which can be found within the various islands, with variations from atoll to atoll. The participants are all men who dance in a single group of 30. The dance lasts about one hour takes place in the streets day or night. Dhandi Jehun, songs are “Thaara” songs or “Unbaa” music sung by a lead singer. A group sing, dance and walk to the beat of the music.
Another traditional Maldivian form of dance is ”bandiyaa jehun” which is an adaptation of Indian pot dance, performed by young women. Dancers mark time to the beat on the metal water po
ts they carry tapping them with the metal rings on their fingers. Although there is no definite costume, a uniform dress is worn by the performers consisting of a long skirt and a blouse. Today it is usually “Dhigu hedhun”, a local dress.
One of the traditional dresses worn by women of the Maldives is called “Kasabu Boavalhu Libaaas”. This features intricate weaving known as “Kasabu” and “Boavalhu” means neckline, hence the name. The Libaas is known as the basic dress design. Some islanders, particularly in Madaveli in Gaafu Dhaalu, have made these dresses a cottage industry.
Thanks to Historic Photos of the Maldives for providing valuable information and photographs and Khalid Mohammed.