Memorable queens of the Maldives

By Tissa Devendra

“If hens crow, it is not dawn.”[Maldivian proverb]

The popular image of the Maldives today is a necklace of Edenic islands with luxurious hotels on dazzling coral beaches and an emerald green sea and, far off, some backward islands of fisher folk. Those few of us whose childhood was during British rule may remember the annual Maldivian tribute to the British Government.

A little procession of Maldivians, escorted by lascareen guards, headed to the Governor’s residence Queen’s House from the harbour where their ‘dhoni’ lay anchored. They carried pingoes loaded with island produce as a symbolic tribute to their Lord Protector the British monarch. Little did we know of the rich history of trade, battle and courtly intrigue that the Maldives were heir to.

Archaeologist Bell on the Maldives

My eyes were opened to all this when I began reading the amazingly comprehensive studies of Maldivian history and language by Retired Archaeological Commissioner H.C.P. Bell in the Journals of the Royal Asiatic Society of 1930-1933. I am sure that readers will be as fascinated as I was by the stories of two Maldivian queens who lent colour, intrigue and romance to their island story.

Islam has been the faith of all Maldivians for many hundred years. However, their comparative isolation of this kingdom of 1001 islands from other Muslim countries has given their practices a uniquely different flavour. One of the most significant of these is the greater freedom exercised by Maldivian women. I wonder whether this could be attributed to the substratum of Buddhist attitudes from their pre-Islamic faith.

Maldives: Behind the idyllic setting is a past full of intrigue, romance and treachery. Image Courtesy

The most striking example is illustrated from the experience of the intrepid Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta when he came to the Maldives. He settled down here, married a Maldivian lady and rose to a high position in government. Coming from North Africa with its ‘burqa’ clad women he was profoundly shocked that Maldivian women of all ages, wore nothing above their waists. He did his best to preach to them the virtues of a cover-up. But he had only one success – his wife.

Batuta left Male disappointed at the obstinacy of Maldivian women. It is this cultural milieu that gave rise to the two queens whom Bell wrote about in his ‘Excerpta Maldiviana’. He bases his account on the “Tarikh” the “Chronicle of the Sultans of the Maldive Islands” written in the tradition of our own Great Chronicle the Mahavansa.

One queen reigned during the 16th century when the Portuguese rampaged across the Indian Ocean and even gained a brief foothold in Male, from which the courageous Maldivians wiped them out.. The other reigned a century later.

I quote verbatim from Bell. Buraki Rani, Queen of intrigue

“The legend of Buraki Rani the infamous elder sister of [Sultan]Ali V ending with the deliberate murder of her brother, is of tragic interest, and doubtless rests on a substratum of truth.

Buraki Rani claimed the throne but her younger brother Dombula Farina Kilige was appointed Sultan [as Ali V]. Their aunt, younger sister of Sultan Abu Bakr was mother of Raddeba Magu Kalu Muhammad Manikufani [afterwards Sultan Kalu Muhammad]. Kalu Muhammad wished to marry Buraki Rani, but his mother opposed and he was banished by Sultan Ali to Wadu Island in Huvadu Atoll.

The Sultan permitted his sister Buraki Rani to follow accompanied by Kalu Ibrahim of Gafaru island who had served the family since childhood. Instead of making for Huvadu Atoll they sailed to Achin [Malaya]and back to [Poyuguese]Goa.

The Portuguese being promised a share in the Maldive revenues, Buraki Rani was escorted by a Portuguese armed vessel to Gafaru Island. From there Kalu Ibrahim was sent to Male to bring about [with the connivance of his step-father Huludeli Don Yusuf the Sultan’s sword bearer] the murder of her brother, Sultan Ali who was inveigled into leaving the Palace, attacked, hamstrung and left to die.
Buraki Rani then seized the throne by the aid of her Portuguese allies, recalled Kalu Muhammad from exile, and married him. He thus resumed the Sultanate for the tird time.

Later he banished Buraki Rani to Tiladummati Atoll, and married Shirazi Fatuma, by whom he had the son Hassan VIII who succeeded him on the throne.”

There is no further record of this truly remarkable queen who had the diplomatic finesse to utilize a faraway foreign power to gain the throne of the Maldives.

Mariyam: Blood thirsty and dissolute

“Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar I died from poison administered by his son’s mother; a concubine named Mariyam. The young prince, only six years of age, was faithfully guarded by the Vazirs; but the Queen Mother, Mariyam Kabafanu, by basest influence gained absolute power. Many leading Vazirs were banished, or replaced by her relatives and favourites.

Thereafter Mariyam threw all decency to the winds openly playing the role of a later day Catherine II of Russia. Nominally married to a commoner, on whom High Rank was conferred, she encouraged unrestricted vice in every form.

In 1691 piratical vessels from the Malabar coast descended on Thiladummati [the most northerly] atoll, committing much depredation before Maldivian boats could be equipped to confront them.

The Maldivians drove the enemy off. Mariyam, with her son then sailed to meet the victorious boats returning to Male.During the firing of a salute to the Royal Odi, sparks fell into the Powder Magazine and the vessel blew up.

Of the Queen the body was not found …..”
A fiery end to a fiery Queen !

The Maldivian past is as full of intrigue, romance and treachery as any country in the world.

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