There is more to the equatorial paradise of the Maldives than meets the eye, but let’s start with what does. The glint of red from the bangles worn by so many Indian women, honeymooning with their hubbies, only dwarfed in numbers by white divers and tanned sunbathers. lost in their midst, the locals. Speedboats whizzing across turquoise waters to a thousand white-sand islands, boasting myriad overwater villas. each private and sequestered, apparently. However, the obvious Insta- worthiness—while photographing tropical beauty, filters only subtract (#nofilterneeded)—may eventually turn you blasé. “Other than its appearance and my seemingly insatiable thirst for piña colada,” you may contemplate, “What’s more to the Maldives?” And that’s when you must turn your gaze to the ‘more than what meets the eye’. Like history and religion. Most people treat the capital city, Malé, as a port of entry or an insignificant blip on the radar. At two square kilometres, it is one, but if you step away from the jetty and look inwards, there is much to explore.
A prominent pillar of faith is the 867-year-old Darumavanta Rasgefanu Miskiy (Miskiy is ‘mosque’ in Dhivehi). It stands inconspicuous and looks rather plain. That’s because the oldest mosque of the Muslim country wasn’t built to be showy, but a symbol of transition from Buddhism to Islam. If a visual spectacle is what you’re looking for, make a beeline for the Malé hukuru Miskiy (Malé Friday Mosque). A part of it is constructed using dried coral, but the 17th-century structure is truly made impressive by its intricate Quranic carvings, traditional Maldivian woodcarving and lacquerwork, and the towering blue-and-white minaret.
This mosque may have been built over a Buddhist temple. And that’s a trend with the island nation: a lot of its Buddhist history has, post the change of state religion, been lost to time, trample, and ruin. About 230 kilometres south of Malé, the island of Isdhoo has grass-covered stupas, which are almost indistinguishable from their surrounding meadows. The Kuruhinna Tharaagandu, at Kaashidhoo Island near the capital, appears to be the ruins of a Buddhist monastery dating back 1,400 years. Thus, it is the Buddhist chapter of the Maldivian archipelago that is most shrouded in mystery, and new discoveries.
And then there’s the overlooked. Some 32 kilometres south of Malé is an island of roughly 2,000 inhabitants—a sizeable population outside the capital—that very few tourists know about. Guraidhoo is considered the little sister of the more popular Maafushi (5 kilometres away), which has a similar population but many more guesthouses, tourists, and souvenir shops. The former is quaint with its old-world charm, but not desolate. It’s just right for your offbeat Maldivian adventure, but more so, it is the best place for you to get a taste of village life. And there’s where I went.
Or, rather, where Kame and Koko led me. The duo from Secret Paradise Tours curated the Guraidhoo leg of my visit to the Maldives. They were quite handy— fishermen, diving instructors, tour guides—and, as soon as the speedboat docked at the island, they were happy to show me around.
The jetty appeared to blend into the sleepiest town I’d ever seen. Most dive shops and souvenir stores were presumably mid-siesta that afternoon, though later I made the discovery of addu bendi at one of these establishments. This coconut delicacy wrapped in banana leaf is a sweet tooth’s delight. A bit ahead and closer to evening, when the sunrays became a deeper yellow, each of the net chairs (called jaoli chairs) lined along the village walls, had a snoring taker. Further on, a tree bore a ripe screwpine fruit.
Soon enough, I’d crossed some colourful houses—walls painted purple, green, and blue—and a tiny mosque, to arrive at an adjoining island separated by a bridge, called ‘bikini island’ (it was only here that tourists could sunbathe in bikinis). here, while being careful not to trample on the occasional scampering hermit crab, I caught a heavenly glimpse of the moon right above my head, and the sun not too far off. Aah, equatorial joys. That night, a local family invited me for an authentic Maldivian dinner. unsurprisingly, it was mostly seafood and tropical vegetables, but quite the lavish spread lay before my eyes: staples such as roshi (roti), bai (rice), kattala (sweet potato), mas huni (a salad) and ala (yam); cooked fish including garudiya (a tuna soup), emperor fish, mas riha (fish curry), and rihaakuru (tuna paste with coconut milk); and, of course, mirus (chilli). Everything was appetising and well flavoured, but light on the stomach.
When food doesn’t sit on your tummy, you sleep like a baby. So I was fresh as a daisy the next morning, which definitely helped when we made our way on a dhoni (traditional Maldivian boat) to snorkel at a seabed. Here Kame showed off his diving skills, as he dived and photographed me from about 20 metres below the sea. The cherry on top was when he blew a bubble ring my way, and framed the camera such that the ring appeared to be surrounding me!
That evening, we took another dhoni for string fishing. Coil with string around it and raw fish (as bait) were used for this Maldivian-style fishing, and some of the catch proved to be quite formidable in their final struggles. Needless to say, the sweetlip emperor, mini barracuda and job fish we caught were enjoyed as barbecued delicacies that evening, thus marking a splendid end to the village experience.
From hereon, the ‘luxury’ part of the Maldives was difficult to avoid. except, it wasn’t a bad thing at all when Plumeria Maldives—the next island resort we stayed in—suffixed the term with ‘affordable’. Manager Fairooz walked us across the jetty of Thinadhoo Island, into a central path fringed with souvenir shops, which, at first glance, made the walkway appear to be a prettily-landscaped version of Guraidhoo. Soon enough, a Thai spa entered the fray, which swiftly introduced the luxury element. Some nice boutique hotel-esque buildings and a dainty seaside café completed the visual.
As Fairooz walked us through the property—magnificent in its own right—he soon had us branch off to the wilderness part of the island. As we walked past boughs, roots, and thick tropical vegetation, we arrived at a clearing where a game of island cricket was being played. Then, more wilderness. And, just beyond that, a beach to remember.
White sand, sure, but how about a seemingly endless expanse of shallow aquamarine water, where you simply float entranced? especially in the evening, when the sun is setting behind a heavy monsoon cloud. However, all of this was going to be eclipsed by the last and single greatest island experience we had the next morning. one that served as a reminder of how beautiful things also happen to be fragile, and all of them will cease to exist thanks to global warming. Here we were, a bit after sunrise, making our way in a boat to a place Fairooz had only described as, “You see it to believe it.” A slight distance from Thinadhoo, a white slit appeared at a distance. As we got closer, it appeared to metamorphose into land the size of a hockey field, but with no vegetation at all. A sandbank. Whether the time a few of the people accompanying me raced down the sand, or when I found (and pocketed) a part of a crab’s shell, or maybe the moment we all sat down to enjoy breakfast by the sea, this experience was simply unreal. But raindrops appeared from nowhere, and it was time to go. And as we did, a thought came to my head: the pelting rain will eventually fill the sea. The sandbank, true to its enigmatic character, will disappear. Much like what will happen to the Maldives—all 26 atolls—if the polar ice caps continue to melt. And, unlike the sandbank, it may never resurface.
I took a non-stop GoAir flight from Delhi (4hrs 10mins) to Malé. If you book return for once the tourist season starts, it’ll cost you about `22,000. other direct flights include indigo from Mumbai and Air india from Bengaluru. once you’ve arrived, ferry to the islands or take a speedboat (about $25 per person one-way, but faster and more comfortable). For Indian citizens, the Maldives grants a 30-day visa-on-arrival (currently suspended due to Covid-19).
Rs 1= MVR 0.21 (Maldivian Rufiyaa)
Where to Stay
At my first destination, Guraidhoo Island, I stayed at the Guraidhoo Palm Inn (from approx. $127 a night, though rates may vary seasonally). It’s a B&B with all the amenities, decent rooms and warm hospitality. The place is great for long-term stays. The Ocean Retreat & Spa (from approx. $70 a night) has 17 rooms and organises fishing and dolphin-watching trips. At thinadhoo, try Plumeria Maldives (from $80 a night). the villa offers 16 luxurious beach-facing rooms (some with private balconies), couples massages and a fitness centre.
What to See & Do
>The national Museum in Malé is worth the visit, with the National Police Memorial in its compound being particularly interesting.
>Participate in the many exciting adventures that Secret Paradise Tours (+960-335-5590) offers. From sandbank visits to island hopping and eco-walks, enjoy a host of activities. of course, don’t forget to dive or snorkel.