Maldives Minicoy Mahl Dhivehi
Thor Heyerdahl and the Maldives
a blessing or a curse?
 

By: Xavier Romero-Frías
(author of the book The Maldive Islanders; a Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom’, available at: ethnoind@hotmail.com)

Since Heyerdahl published his 'Maldive Mystery', many books, articles and guides about the Maldives mention sun-worship, pyramids, waves of immigrants, attacks by lion-people and other such fallacies in their historical outline of the Maldive archipelago. These distortions of truth are common in all of Heyerdahl’s books, which are less about serious research than about displaying himself and his wild theories as loudly a film star would.

It is understandable that the writers of tourist guidebooks, for example, would like to quote from as many sources as they can. Tour guides try to give as much information as possible, while keeping the book compact, and if the historical information in those guides comes mainly out of Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘The Maldive Mystery,’ it is not a coincidence or a preference of the author.

Considering that those guides are printed in great numbers, being distributed throughout the world and taken as reference by a wide public, we are dealing with a serious anomaly concerning how Maldivian history, archaeology and ethnology are being reflected and propagated by the world media.



Ruined miniatures of satihirutalu which formed the apex of the Maldive Buddhist usthumbu. The usthumbu has three parts: the quadrangular base representing earth; the bell-shaped middle part, representing water; and the satihirutalu representing air which crowns the usthumbu.

The Dambidu Loamafaanu (copper plate document circa 12th century) mentions the knocking down of satihirutalu off usthumbu as a deliberate act of disfigurement of Buddhist sites by the then relatively new Islamic authorities.

In the more familiar Buddhist terminology of countries other than the Maldives, usthumbu is stupa and satihirutalu is chatravali

The above illustration shows the Ruwanveliseya stupa in Sri Lanka- a non-Maldive stupa.

In addition to representing air, the satihirutalu also represents buddhi or enlightenment. In modern Divehi, buddhi means wisdom. Enlightenment leads to nivvaalun in Divehi, nibbana in Pali and nirvana in Sanskrit. In Buddhist parlance, nivvaalun means the extinction of the life-affirming will manifested as greed, hate, delusion, and convulsively clinging to existence. In Buddhist doctrine, nivvaalun is final bliss; absolute emancipation; ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth and death, old age and disease. Nivvaalun constitutes the highest and ultimate goal of all Buddhist aspirations. In modern Divehi, nivvaalun means the extinguishing of a flame.

Regrettably, not all the books that give serious information about the Maldives are readily available. H.C.P. Bell’s ‘The Maldive Islands’, A. Agassiz’s ‘The Coral Reefs of the Maldives,’ C. Maloney’s ‘People of the Maldive Islands’ and ‘The Voyage of F. Pyrard de Laval to the East Indies, The Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil’ translated and edited by A. Gray, are books which give excellent and well-researched information on the Maldives, but they are rare and difficult to obtain and they are nowhere near to being as ubiquitous as T. Heyerdahl’s ‘The Maldive Mystery’ in bookstores and libraries throughout the world. This anomaly becomes especially acute when it comes to translations into other tongues. There are many languages in the world where the only book whose theme is Maldives is Thor Heyerdahl’s book.

The sad fact is that serious good books about Maldives don’t sell, and thus are not known, while Thor Heyerdahl’s books, which are nothing more than a caricature of history and archaeology, are stuff that sells and, therefore, have filled the void left by the lack of serious books on Maldives.

Was it a blessing for Maldives that Thor Heyerdahl came to write the last book of his series on this coral atoll nation? It certainly has made the country a bit more well-known than it was before. But in the light of the distortions of reality inflicted on the Maldive history that have been and are being popularized by tourist guidebooks and are staying there in print, it would have been better that Heyerdahl would not have come at all.

One cannot deny that Thor Heyerdahl is a celebrity. He rubs his fame to every place he has written a book about. Therefore, the Easter Island and the Marquesas would certainly be not so well-known if he would not have been there. Like the Maldives, these are small places and their only chance to make it to fame in the world is being patronized by Thor Heyerdahl. But it's better to be sceptical about him and his methods, especially when one considers the fact that Heyerdahl has misused the real anthropological and historical facts of those islands in order to enlarge his own image. This misuse is tantamount to abuse, for Heyerdahl was not an honest archaeologist and one sure outcome of his meddling is that he has made the job more difficult for future researchers that will visit the places where he has left his deep traces.

Here is what Paul Theroux, an American travel writer says about Thor Heyerdahl (and I wholeheartedly agree):

"Thor Heyerdahl is shrill but mistaken in many of his assumptions. Far from solving the Easter Island mystery, he has succeeded in making the solution more difficult for qualified scientists and made something of a fool of himself in the process. He is an amateur, a popularizer, an impresario, with a zoology degree from the University of Oslo. And his efforts in the Pacific greatly resemble the muddling attentions of, say, the hack writer of detective stories when faced with an actual crime scene --someone who ignores the minutiae of evidence, hair analysis, or electrophoresis (for typing bloodstains)-- and in blundering around a crime scene, muttering "The butler did it!", makes a complete hash of it for forensic scientists. The mention of Heyerdahl's name in academic circles frequently produces embarrassment or anger..."

In the Maldives Heyerdahl thought he saw sun-temples and pyramids in the mounds or low hills that exist in certain islands. In all of his later publications he refers to former books he wrote, in order to promote their sales. But in fact all archaeological sites he visited were ancient Buddhist Stupas. Since islanders took away stones from those Stupas for building their homes, when the round structure on top collapsed on the quadrangular base, it left shapes that could be said to be roughly conical or pyramidal.

The truth is that, as HCP Bell proved with his careful and learned research work, all archaeological remains on the Maldives unearthed to date are distinctly Buddhist. And that the Hindu elements in those sites are not part of a former substratum, but part of Buddhist iconography itself, for Buddhism may be regarded as a branch of Hinduism and both influenced each other mutually (in their architecture, iconography, etc.) along their history because their geographical and cultural origins are mostly overlapping. Concerning archaeology in the Maldives, I wish more people would read and refer to HCP Bell's 'The Maldive Islands', which despite being old is still the best work on the subject, instead of Heyerdahl's book. Bell's book has been reprinted by Asian Educational Services, asianeds@nda.vsnl.net.in

Another of Heyerdahl’s blunders concerns his insistence that large groups of people bringing with them the sun-worship had travelled the seas of the world in innumerable rafts or crude boats, settling here and there and building up new societies that built pyramids and decorated them with sun-symbols. He badly wanted to believe that Asehkara, the way Maldivians call the kingdom of Aceh in northern Sumatra, was the land of the Aztecs, at the other end of the world.

But the truth is that people didn't arrive to the Maldives in masses, and not even in sizeable communities. The most likely is that along the centuries, one person here, another person there, kept adding up. The Maldivian legends talk about some rulers or kingly people who arrived to the islands, probably about 2,000 years ago. But those may have only been a handful of people who took power, or were given the right to rule, and later intermarried. Mass migration of people from different ethnic groups would have created an enduring trauma that would necessary have been reflected in the oral tradition.

After 24 years of gathering and studying the oral tradition of the Maldive Atolls I can only say that Thor Heyerdahl’s wild speculations are completely misplaced.