Friday, December 16, 2011

Seafaring activities in the Indian Ocean and the discovery of Maldives

The island nation of Maldives consisting of 1190 islands scattered in the Northern Indian Ocean, lies 800 Km South West of the tip of India. Maldives, a truly unspoiled natural wonder remained isolated and undiscovered to the world before the start of seafaring activities in the Indian Ocean. With its rich culture and remarkable history, Maldives is now a famous tourist destination attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists to its sun kissed, white, sandy beaches and turquoise waters with magnificent under water beauty.

Maldives was anciently known to travelers and traders travelling to the East, passing through Maldivian channels, as a transit destination in their long journeys across the Indian Ocean. Historically, Maldives was important due to its location as it lays directly in the trade route of many medieval traders who stopped by the islands for fresh water, wood, coir and food supplies. The discovery of the Maldivian islands is believed to be associated with the seafaring activities in the Indian Ocean.

Ancient trade routes
Though the earliest history of Maldives remains a mystery, it is believed that Maldives has been populated for over 2500 years. In olden days Maldivian waters were well known for shipwrecks. There could have been instances of travelers who got shipwrecked on the treacherous reefs of Maldives settling down in the islands. As the early Maldivian economy was linked to the ancient sea trade, people who sought out wealth came across Maldives in search of cowries, ambergris, turtle shell, dried fish and coir, which were the chief exports in the early days.

Dried fish

Due to the geographically isolated nature of the Maldives, Maldivians began to develop a unique identity of their own. As the islands of Maldives got populated, trade and economic activities developed along with a language and a unique alphabet. The civilized people of Maldives, accustomed to sea travelling, developed their own style of boat building techniques and the trade of black smiths. This led to extensive use of natural material that was available from the environment. The valuable coconut palm, found abundantly in the Maldives was used as a raw material in building boats and traditional houses. 

Traditional boat
Maldivians, with their unique skills in boat building, used the trunk of coconut palms as timber and coir rope to tie everything on the boat. Both the timber and coir which comes from the coconut palm are sturdy and saline resistant which makes their boats outstandingly robust. These boats carried shipments of coir, cowries, dried fish and other goods to countries like India and Sri Lanka, where they were sold at high prices. Lying in the trade route had its many advantages, as Maldivians also sold these items to seafarers and traders who visited Maldives for these supplies. Though the ancient trade of Maldives has fallen into oblivion, cowrie shells, coir ropes, turtle shell and other articles of the ancient trade still play a vital role in the tourism industry of the Maldives.

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