with the kind permission of the International
Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, the Netherlands.
This article was first published in the Newsletter
(Issue 10) of the International Institute for
Asian Studies. The intellectual ownership of
this article resides with the author, Dr Ellen
Kattner. The Institute for Asian Studies' permission
to use this article here or elsewhere in any
form or means can not substitute for that of
By ELLEN KATTNER
the islands in Lakshadweep are the same, only Minicoy
is totally different', I very often read when I was
working on my MA thesis on the Matrilineal Muslim
Societies in Southwest India and Lakshadweep, and
my curiosity about that island was roused. Through the
scant literature available I learned that culturally
Minicoy forms a part of the Maldives. Since the people
themselves call their island Maliku, I will also use
this term. The language spoken in Maliku, a dialect
of Maldivian Dhivehi, is called 'Mahl' by outsiders,
a fact which the islanders find quite amusing. 'Mahl'
is based on a phonetic misunderstanding, as I was told
by Furakad Musa Befanu: 'During his stay on Maliku,
a British officer asked somebody for the name of the
language. The islander answered: 'Mahaldibu bas (lit.
language of the Maldives.)', and the officer noted down
heed of its geographical isolation I had the impression
that in Maliku one could find the Maldivian culture
in a traditional form, above all not influenced by tourism.
An idea - as I learned right from the beginning of my
stay there - only a tyro, as I was, could conceive of.
With the support of the Government of India and the
German Academic Exchange Service - to both of whom I
wish to express my gratitude - I was able to conduct
anthropological field research in Maliku from November,
1990 to November, 1991. Basing my work on the data collected
during this period, I am now writing a Ph.D. thesis
on the social structure of Maliku.
purpose of this article is to give a short introduction
about Maliku and to clarify some of the confusion concerning
the status groups, the village organisation and the
nomenclature which have been published so far. The publications
available are mostly travel accounts, reports, and articles
written by British officers and, after 1956, by Indian
officials. Clarence Maloney also writes about Maliku
in his monograph People of the Maldive Islands
(Bombay, 1980), but he has never been there and has
therefore inadvertently taken over many of the errors.
The basic work on Maliku so far has been the manual
A Short Account of the Laccadive Islands and Minicoy
written by the British officer R. H. Ellis (Madras,
1924). It has exercised an influence on both the islanders
and the authors who wrote about Maliku. At the beginning
of my stay almost all my questions were answered either
with quotations from that book or with the advice to
read it myself. This also appears to have been the fate
which befell most of the other authors.
is known about the history of Maliku. In the tarikh,
the chronicle of the Maldivian sultans, we are informed
that as early as AD 1500 Maliku was detached from their
rule, then falling under the Ali Rajas of Cannanore.
Neither a reason nor an exact date are given for this
change. Officially it remained under the Rajas' rule
until, with the Laccadive islands, it became a dominion
of the British Empire in 1905. In 1956, a referendum
was held in Maliku and the people decided to join the
Indian Union. Since then, Maliku has been a part of
the Union Territory, first called 'Laccadive, Aminidivi
and Minicoy', now 'U.T. of Lakshadweep'. It is a restricted
area, meaning that without a special permission even
Indian nationals cannot enter the island. The indigenous
people are quite happy about this restriction, since
they fear that their island would otherwise be overrun
by outsiders. However, they are concerned about the
fact that their relatives from the Maldives are not
allowed to visit them. Although politically Maliku has
been separate from the Maldives for a long time, until
1956 the people maintained intensive trade and marriage
contacts with these islands. Since their decision to
join the Indian Union, the frequent trade relations
between Maldivian islands and Maliku were defined as
smuggling by Indian authorities and to moor or to embark
on those ships was prohibited. This led to disturbances
on the island, which the people still vividly remember.
Many people were arrested and the seamen had difficulties
in obtaining their passports, which they needed for
working on foreign ships.
the southernmost island of the U.T. of Lakshadweep,
is situated at 8° 7' North latitude and 73° 19' East
longitude between the Eighth and Nine Degree Channel.
The land area is 4.8 km2, the population was 8313
according to the Census of India 1991. Maliku has
a very old seafaring tradition. Archaeological research
there would surely lead to interesting results. Old
men from Funhilol, for example, showed me the rai
hilai (lit. red stone) in the compound of the
Jumah Mosque. Muräduganduar Ali Befanu, a very learned
and fascinating island scholar, identified it as a
stone anchor looking very similar to one discovered
near Mandapam, dating to the 4th century BC.
ships, odi, used for the trading expeditions
were constructed on Maliku itself. Boats that are still
built on the island fascinate because of the precision,
elaboration and the quality of their construction. Today,
there is only one odi left, which is engaged
in the trade with the Kerala coast, but people still
remember that until the 1940s there was a whole fleet
of sailing vessels. Maliku seamen then had small colonies
in Burma, near Rangoon, and on the Andaman and Nicobar
Islands. Nowadays, the men prefer to work on cargo ships
owned by national and international shipping companies.
Their 'Minicoy Seamen's Association' shifted from Calcutta
to Bombay, where they teach the young men and supply
employment. Their contracts last between six months
and two years and afterwards they return home for some
time. Maliku seamen are familiar with the whole world
and their reputation among seafarers is excellent. Whenever
a seaman met me the first time and found out that I
was from Germany, the usual question was: 'From Germany?
Then you must know Hamburg, Brake, Kiel, Kielkanal,
and Kohoratukamana, two princesses from the Maldives,
came to Maliku. When they arrived, the tivaru,
who had been living there before, left the island for
Sri Lanka. Kamborani had children and became the ancestress
of the boduń; Kohoratukamana, who died without
children, the ancestress of the niamiń. The offspring
of the servants who accompanied the princesses are the
medukembiń and the raveriń.' This is the
only oral tradition people narrate about their coming
to Maliku and the origin of the four status groups.
There is another tradition, the written songs called
tävaru. Tävaru are the Maliku version of
the Maldivian rävaru. They cover a large field
of topics and are composed in a special language, which,
lack of time prevented me from learning.
niamiń, medukembiń, and raveriń
are the terms used by the nilavanka, the messenger
of the rahuweriń (lit. ruler of the country),
to call the whole island to a havaru, a decision-making
meeting. Boduń connotes the highest of the four
status groups. They are the owners of the private land
and the ships. The niamiń are the ships' captains,
the medukembiń their crew. The raveriń
are responsible for the work on the island, especially
for the harvesting of the coconuts, jaggery, and the
production of coconut sugar. Raveriń are not
toddy-tappers, as some authors write. Toddy is not produced
on Maliku at all. The people are Muslims and any kind
of alcohol is strictly prohibited on the island.
respective status group of a person can be deduced from
his or her name: names are composed of the housename,
the personal name, and the title of the status group.
Besides this, their title depends on the relative age
of the speaker. A female boduń is addressed as
tadufanu (eE) or manika (yE), a male befanu
(eE) or manikfan (yE). A female niamiń
is referred to as datifanu (eE) or koifu
(yE), a male takrufan (eE) or koifu (yE),
a female medukembiń bibi (eE) or koifu,
a male takuru (eE) or koifu (yE). Raveriń
do not have titles, they are called by their personal
the literature extant on Maliku there is a lot of confusion
concerning the terms for the status groups and the concomitant
titles. Frequently, the titles are given as terms for
the status groups.
and Island Organization
southern part of the island, called tundi, it
is generally assumed, was given to all the Maliku people
by the sultan of the Maldives. It remained communal
property until it was divided among them in the 1970s.
The northern part of Maliku, called kodi, is
the private property of two boduń houses, a grant
from the sultan of the Maldives for special services,
according to the people. The inhabited area is on the
lagoon side, approximately in the middle of the island.
Until the disturbances after joining the Indian Union
changed conditions, there were nine central houses for
women, the varhange (lit. building where coir
is twisted), and nine for men, the avazhoge.
These central houses had names and, usually, one varhange
and one avazhoge together formed an ava,
a village, according to the concept of the islanders.
Contrary to the opinions of all the earlier authors,
especially Ellis and Maloney, who insist that the people
in Maliku use the term atiri for their village
and not ava, the islanders definitely use the
term ava and only this. By atiri they
are simply denoting the lagoon side of the island. The
names of the pairs were: Bada-men - Koluvarhange-women,
Aumag-men - Diguvarhange-women, Boduathiri-men - Oikolu-women,
Ramedu-men - Hanimagu-women, Sedivalu-men - Hikandivarhange-women,
Aloodi-men - Ondu-women, Funhilol-men - Ramavarhange-women,
Kudehi-men - Bimbiawa-women, Palessery-men - Boduvarhange-women.
Women of the four status groups are associated with
a varhange and men with an avazhoge. Medukembiń
and raveriń support the village-houses with their
labour, boduń and niamiń with advice,
money, and natural products. Boduń can support
more houses, the other status groups are limited to
only one. Raveriń and medukembiń have
separate houses. Men and women of each respective village
select their leaders. Men select the bodukaka
(lit. big brother) and his two assistants, women the
bodudata (lit. big sister) and her one assistant.
Their main duties are the organization of the collective
work and the village finances.
a consequence of the disturbances of 1960, the people
destroyed most of the varhange. Since that time
the women have shared the avazhoge with the men.
A tenth avazhoge, without a corresponding varhange
was also founded: Kendypatty. Before these events, being
excluded from an ava was the worst punishment
for a house, apart from being exiled from the island.
Nowadays, people can dissociate themselves without suffering
1960, all the villages selected an additional authority,
the rahubodukaka (lit. the country's big brother),
who was in charge of the rahuge (lit. house of
the country). He and the rahuweriń (lit. ruler
of the country), a boduń selected by the boduń
and niamiń, were responsible for all the affairs
concerning the whole island and the access to the southern
part for collecting firewood and coconuts. Nowadays,
an increasing number of people tend to view land as
private property, but the majority still follows the
traditional village system of collective work.
of the houses in Maliku are surrounded by either stone
walls or coconut frond fences. Through a gate a visitor
enters a yard in front of the house. The common traditional
house in Maliku consists of two rooms and a separate
building for the kitchen. Each room opens on to a veranda.
One room is reserved for the family members, neighbours
and friends. Strangers, male affines, or respected visitors
are not allowed to enter that room. Only this room has
in Maliku are the property of the female line. Men,
throughout their lives, have the right of a 'kot' in
their mother's house. Members of the house are the siblings
and the children of the sisters. All the members carry
the same house name throughout their lives. Persons
with the same house name are prohibited from marrying
one another. At the outset, marriage is a visiting marriage.
Ideally, husbands come after dinner and leave their
wives' house before breakfast. During the daytime, they
come for tea in the afternoon. They take the rest of
their meals in their mother's house. As a couple grows
older a husband spends more and more time in his wife's
house until finally the daily rhythm is reversed: he
takes his meals in his wife's house and visits his mother's
for tea in the afternoon. But, at least once a day he
has to visit his house, even if his mother is no longer
alive. Discontinuing visits to a house is a definite
sign of being ruli (lit. angry), that means breaking
a person's lifetime an exchange of work, natural products,
and visits goes on between affinally related houses.
On the morning after the marriage the wife has to visit
her husband's mother's house, which has become her usgothi
(lit. high house). The mother-in-law is obliged to present
her with a gold ornament and will tell her the names
of more usgothi. The young wife has to visit
all of them and they, too, will give her gold jewellery.
From that visit onwards she has to go to these houses
every day, sweep the floor and fill the respective vessels
with drinking water until she has children old enough
to do the work for her or until the women of the house
grant her permission to stop. She has to go there whenever
they call her for additional work, for instance at a
marriage, a birth celebration, or a circumcision. The
husband's mother-in-law will tell him the names of houses,
which will be his fahaverigothi. The term implies
that, whenever a death occurs in such a house, he has
to visit it and to join the funeral procession. From
time to time he has to visit these houses, he must inform
them when he is going abroad, and, when he returns he
has to bring presents like cloth, fresh fruit, or toilet
there is a new tendency, men have begun to go to court
and, with the help of the Islamic law, to enforce the
division of the matrilineal property, especially the
to the very strict village organization, there is an
age-group system among the medukembiń and
raveriń (again niamiń can take part if they
want) called vili. The members of a vili
meet in a private house, the vilivanage, and
take their name from that house. So the female vili
I joined had the name Nuge boduvili. A vili needs
at least eight members. In small villages this can lead
to quite big age differences between its members. The
members select a leader, who is also called bodudata
or bodukaka. Each female vili is associated
with at least one male vili. The male vili
presents gifts, bananas and betel, to the female vili
and dances for them. In response the female vili
organizes a vili party for the male, i.e.
the women invite the men for a dinner in the female
vili's vilivanage. But these are the special
occasions. In everyday life, vili meet in the
evenings, sing, joke, and gossip. Before the disturbances
in the 1960s, the male vili held dancing and
singing competitions in the streets in the evenings,
but that stopped, as did the tävaru composing
contests. Work in the village has priority, but whenever
there is none, the vili meet.
already indicated above, there have been considerable
changes in the island. In the 1940s, Wahabism was introduced
to Maliku through Hussein Didi, an exile from the Maldives.
Didi gained some influence and as a consequence Bada,
a village of which the bulk of the population are raveriń,
stopped taking part in the all-island activities. Didi
had to leave Maliku, but Bada people remained Wahabi.
joining the Indian Union, government officials came
to Maliku and, for the first time, started to live there
permanently. As the islanders preferred to remain seafarers,
the administration was taken over by people from Kerala
and the other islands of the Union Territory. The government
supplied them with houses which were built on the communal
property land in the southern part, the land belonging
to the villages. As a consequence, the people successfully
demanded the division of that community land among the
islanders. With the influx of the outsiders, party politics
started to assume importance. Slowly, the outside influences
have led to a splitting up of the island community into
those who want to abandon the traditional system and
those who want to go on as before.
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