Friday, December 16, 2011

The traditional ekel broom of the Maldives

In the equatorial belt, 300 miles south west of the southern tip of India, lies the pearl necklace of the Indian Ocean, known as the Republic of Maldives. The 1190 coral islands of the Maldives belong to 26 natural atolls. With a population of about 300,000, early settlement in the Maldives is believed to have taken place in the 5th century BC. The people of Maldives highly value the traditions and culture of their nation which is well known for its natural beauty.

Traditionally, Maldivians are known to utilize what little is available from their environment to produce items that are used for their daily needs. Maldives being an island nation, the islands are isolated from each other by the vast Indian Ocean. There is limited inter island transportation, which led to the formation of individual cultures and unique ways of living among the islanders of the Maldives. 

Coconut palm, the national tree of the Maldives, has taken deep roots in the culture of the Maldives. Found in abundance in the Maldivian islands, coconut palm is synonymous with the people of Maldives. This versatile, hardy palm is so embedded in the traditions and culture of the Maldives that no part of the palm tree goes to waste. From the roots to the shoot of the palm tree and everything in between have been the key component in making the people of this island nation uniquely Maldivian. 

Traditional ekel broom
Ekel is one of the many parts of the coconut palm that is used by Maldivians to make a range of household items including trays, vases, baskets, lids, rakes and the traditional ekel broom (‘’iloshifathi’’). Traditionally, and even in modern days, Maldivians are reputed for their cleanliness and neatness. The traditional ekel broom has been the main tool used by Maldivians to clean their homes and roads of their islands. A household will not be complete without at least one ekel broom in each house. It is one of the most essential tools in the everyday lives of Maldivians which is easy to produce and easy to use.

The traditional eekel broom of the Maldives is produced from the thin, smooth, flexible, ekel (‘’iloshi’’) of coconut palm fronds. The leaves or fronds of the palm tree crown the top of the tree. Ekel is the leaf stalk (midrib) of the leaflets that are found attached to the spine (rachis) of palm fronds. To make the ekel broom, green fronds from the coconut palm is harvested or the mature fronds that have fallen off are used. These fronds are stripped to their spines by using a knife called ‘’kathivalhi’’ (a knife that resembles a machete but with a broader blade) which is made by Maldivian blacksmiths. This separates the hundreds of leaflets attached to the rachis of palm fronds. The leaflets from two fronds are collected, bundled and used to make the ekel broom. A sharp knife or ‘’fiyohi’’ is used to run along the leaf stalk, approximately, 5 cm above the base of leaflet to shave off the leafy part, separating the woody midribs (eekel). The eekel now looks like an arrow with fletching. This is done in order to save time and expedite the process. The remaining 5 cm is then shaved off leaving the ekel bare. The knife is run again, once or twice, along the length of the ekel to shave off any remaining leafy parts and to smoothen it out. The ekels are then gathered and tied together, 8 to 10 cm from the base of the bundle, by coir rope or string.

Making ekel broom
In the hands of experienced people, the entire length of the eekel can be removed from the leaflet. But in the hands of an inexperienced person, it is very easy to nick the ekel along its thinner end during the shaving process. This type of eekels is unsuitable for fine cleaning as it produces a raking effect. The longer ekels which are not nicked are better suited for fine cleaning and dusting as the tip of the ekel broom is very soft. The ekel broom which is used for sweeping and dusting can also be made into a rake by cutting off the thinner ends of the ekel broom and securing it to the end of a wooden pole.

Products made by eekel such as vases, baskets, trays are an attraction to the tourists visiting the Maldives. They are available in souvenir shops in the islands and in the capital city. Ekel broom is still very popular among islanders of the Maldives. Though it is not produced in the capital city (Male’), ekel brooms supplied by islanders are available in the market. This simple but useful tool will continue to be a part of the unique lifestyle of Maldivians for generations to come. It will be another piece of the culture and tradition of Maldives that gives Maldivians their one and only, unique identity.

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