A Thousand Shades of Blue

By Jheri St. James

Blue color is everlastingly appointed by the Diety to be a source of delight.
-John Ruskin, British Writer and Critic

The first thing an online researcher notices about the Maldives is that nearly all the photos are blue. Maybe that’s because the Maldives is often called 'the last paradise on earth', made up as it is of pristine tropical islands, swaying palm trees, pure white sand beaches and lagoons colored a thousand shades of blue. Another highlight of the Maldives is the aquamarine underwater world, with an amazing number of fish in fantastic shapes and colors--dolphins, whales and manta rays, to name just a few.

The Maldives tops the Diver’s Hall of Fame list. The Soneva Fushi island was recently voted “World’s Best Resort” by readers of Conde Nast magazine. This paradise comes at a premium for the tourist. That’s because nearly everything is imported. Food, wood for the buildings, even soil for vegetation, is shipped from Sri Lanka or India. The Maldives has nothing except crystal-clear azure waters and dazzling coral atolls. This is the real “Water World”—99.6 percent of the area of 1192 small coral islands grouped into 26 clustered atolls in this aquatic republic, is liquid. Two hundred islands are inhabited and 80 hold tourist resorts in this archipelago with strategic location along major sea lines in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in terms of population. It is also the smallest predominantly Muslim nation in the world. The Maldives holds the record for being the flattest country in the world, with a maximum natural ground level of only 7.5 feet, though in areas where construction has occurred, like the Hulhumale Project, this has been increased. Over the last century, sea levels have risen about 20 centimeters. The ocean is likely to continue rising and this threatens the very existence of Maldives. Since the tsunami in 2004, cartographers are planning to redraw the maps of the islands due to alterations by that disaster.

Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors and traders from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. According to a legend from Maldivian folklore a prince named Komala from India or Sri Lanka entered the Maldives from the north and became the first king. Other ancient kings promoted Buddhism, and the first writings and artistic achievements--such as highly developed sculpture and architecture--are from that period. At the end of the 12th century AD, a conversion to Islam occurred. The Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until 1965, when independence was achieved. Until relatively recent times, Mappila pirates from the Malabar Coast—present-day Kerala in India—harassed the islands. A constituent assembly, the “special majlis” had pledged to complete the drafting of a new constitution by the end of 2007 and first-ever presidential elections under a multi-candidate, multi-party system are slated for November 2008.

(A Maldivian Dhoni without lateen sails)

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy,
If the simplest things of nature have a message that you understand,
Rejoice, for your soul is alive.

Eleanora Duse, Italian Actress

*   *   *

The Maldivian economy has been entirely dependent on fishing and other marine products for many centuries. Fishing remains the main occupation of the people and the government gives special priority to the development of the fisheries sector. The mechanization of the traditional fishing boat called dhoni in 1974 was a major milestone in the development of the fisheries industry and the country’s economy in general. A fish canning plant was installed in the island of Felivaru in 1977, as a joint venture with a Japanese firm. In 1979, a fisheries advisory board was set up with the mandate of advising the government on policy guidelines for the overall development of the fisheries sector. Manpower development programs were begun in the early 1980’s and fisheries education was incorporated into the school curriculum. Fish aggregating devices and navigational aids were located at various strategic points. The opening up of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Maldives for fisheries has further enhanced the growth of the fishers sector. Today, fisheries contribute over 15 percent of the GDP and engage about 30 percent of the country’ work force. It is also the second-largest foreign exchange earner, after tourism.

Other cottage industries include mat weaving, lacquer work, handicraft, coir rope making, and stone carving. Fenfushi, on the southern side of the Ari Atoll, is well known for the skills of its stone carvers, even though only few are still involved in this art. Carving coral stone is one of the oldest crafts practiced by Maldivians. During the pre-Islamic era, the Maldivians used coral stones to build temples and to make baths and wells, and also sculpt statues such as those of the Buddha. The craft of stone carving flourished after the Maldives embraced Islam. Mosques and tombstones were beautifully carved with intricate symmetrical and floral designs, which show strong influences of Islamic art. Beautiful examples of such stone carving are found on the salls of old mosques.

The old cathedrals are good, but the great blue
dome that hangs over everything is better.

Thomas Carlyle,
Scottish Historian and Essayist

*   *   *

Paul William Neville, a member of the U.S. Embassy’s office in Sri Lanka, facilitated the collection of soil from both the Maldives and Sri Lanka—a double winner in our book! His associate, Terry J. White, picked up the actual soil from, “a spot a few meters away from a monument erected in memory of the 2004 tsunami, on the southeast corner of the capital and principal island of Male, right over the waves.”

This is a photo of that monument, in which108 metal bars represent the number of people who died from Maldives and the remaining 21 metal spheres represents the number of atolls of Maldives (Photo: Abdullah Nishan, Copyright ©2008). In that catastrophe, close to one third of the population of the islands were severely affected, resulting in 82 confirmed deaths, over 1,300 people injured and around 12,000 people (7 percent of the population) homeless. According to the government, only nine of the 200 inhabited islands escaped flooding, and nine islands that were previously above sea level were completely submerged and lost. In addition, the Tsunami virtually destroyed a further 14 islands, three of which were later permanently abandoned. The country's tourism sector suffered the largest direct losses, with estimated damages of around 100 million U.S. dollars -- nearly a quarter of the 87 tourist resorts were damaged and had to be shut for repairs. Fishermen and farmers were also affected, as fishing fleets were damaged and farming land contaminated with salt.

*   *   *

No discussion of The Maldives would be complete without inclusion of the amazing Hulhumale Island Project, a U.S. Embassy-sponsored public diplomacy program about constitutional drafting toward Hulhumale Island. The following is from a brochure we received with the soil:

“With 35% of the country’s population (359,008 in July 2006) inhabiting a 192 hectare island, the capital Male’ has become one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world. Incapable of meeting the housing demands of its rapidly growing population, the Maldivian government had sought numerous solutions to the problem since the 1970’s. Each attempt, including land reclamation of Male’; development of walk-up apartments; and the creation of the satellite island of Villingili, had failed to effectively address the issue. “During the mid-90’s, the government had a solution that would be cost-effective in the long run: creating an artificial island from an existing lagoon and transforming it into a futuristic urban city which would accommodate the excessive population of the central region, as well as address commercial and industrial needs of the country. Based on a proposal made by the Male’ Housing and Development Board in 1995, suitable reclamation sites in close proximity to Male’ were explored, giving careful consideration into the potentials and restraints of each. Eventually, the Hulhule’-Farukolhufushi region was chosen as it was a sizeable sandy lagoon close to Male’ with expansion potential to Male’ International Airport.

“On 16th October 1997, the reclamation of Hulhumale’ was inaugurated by His Excellency President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom. By 2002, reclamation works and coastal infrastructure were completed. With the development of the first residential neighborhood as well as related physical and social infrastructure, the first settlement of Hulhumale’ was officially inaugurated on 12th May 2004. Hulhumale’ Development Corporation Ltd. (HDC) undertakes the development, management and administration of Hulhumale’—the most ambitious and complex land reclamation and urban development project embarked upon by the government of the Republic of Maldives. “Established on 23rd March 2005, HDC is a 100% government-owned company assuming all the developmental functions carried out by its predecessor, Hulhumale’ Development Unit. HDC has now diversified into new ventures which include tourism related activities as well as further industrial and commercial uses. Aspiring to carry out this vast and impressive project in a financially feasible and commercially viable manner, HDC has adopted a target oriented approach to ensure that Hulhumale’ is a unique island city living up to its full potential.

Included are: 1.) Fareedhiya School, 2. The Hulhumale Hospital.3. The HDC Building., 4. Mosque., 5. Ferry Service., 6. Electricity., 7. Telecommunication., 8. Local Port., 9. Water and Sewarage., 10. Banking., 11. Municipal services and waste management., 12. Police.

(Hulhumalé project model - Photo: Haveeru)

As a work of earth sculpture, Hulhumane’ is a testimonial to the creativity of man on the surface of the Great Mother Earth. Rising six feet above the rest of Maldives, it is expected to survive any future rising of the waters.

* * *

Blue is a word used not only for naming a color. Sometimes it denotes injury, such as in the phrase "black and blue", since it is the color of a bruise. Blue is also used as a word to denote a sad or melancholy state of mind, as in depression, or a state of deep contemplation. Conversely, the phrase "blue skies", referring to sunny weather, implies cheerfulness. In art, blue can be associated with the term “blue period” to describe Pablo Picasso's work from 1901 to 1904. Here is a chart portraying 24 of the doubtless infinite shades of blue found in the Maldives.

When we stand on the ground, only our feet bottoms are on land; the rest of us is in the sky, so often blue. We at Common Ground 191 thank Terry J. White and Paul Neville for the contribution of soil from the Maldives. Surely this is the most moving soil, in any meaning of the word, in our collection, from the living, shrinking and expanding Maldives, land of a thousand shades of blue. How many shades of blue can you count in this journal entry?

We end with the word for peace in Maldives. Terry J. White wrote the following:

“As for Maldives, while their school system has been English-medium for the last 25 years or so and most of the 300,000 Maldivians speak at least some English - many quite well - their native tongue is Dhivehi, related in part to Sinhala, but with many other influences, including Arabic. I had intended to get a sample of the script, which is unique - though a discerning eye can spot some relationship with Arabic, or possibly Nastelik (the script used for Urdu, almost the same as that for Persian/Farsi) - but I was unable to do so, sorry. Anyway, despite the fact that Maldives is 100% Muslim, and therefore one hears the standard greeting saalam allekum, the Dhivehi word for peace is sulha. Hope this helps. Terry”

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle.
But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.
Every day we are engaged in a miracle, which we don’t even recognize:
a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child
—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Monk, Activist and Writer





All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved