The Maldives is a beautiful archipelago of island clusters grouped into 26 atolls; all fairly similar in structure, but culturally unique. All of these atolls shaped their own customs for different occasions, with different methods of operations.
For the holy month of Ramadan, each atoll prepares, celebrates, and spends the fasting day differently. With such a momentous and weighty month, a special significance is given to the way the inhabitants of these islands go about their fast. We sat down with people from all over to get some insight on Maldivian Ramadan customs.
Let’s talk about Malé. The now, hectic city fasts in such fashion as well. Prior to the month of Ramadan, many citizens will take advantage of the huge sales by businesses. Old gets replaced with new. Scuffed and torn paint receives a fresh coat. Malé being the main hub of Maldives, different countries’ cultural intersection and infusion remain prevalent. Most dishes consist of primarily western influenced or inspired eats. There aren’t many festivities in association with Ramadan per se, but the livelihoods of everyone changes during the month. In this hustling and bustling city, Ramadan brings about a strengthened community where people are kinder and more respectful of each other. Kite flying is popular, and since the streets were emptier before, cycle stunts and tricks were commonplace. Cycle and car rides are ubiquitous in the evening from start to finish of the month. Children and adults alike play through the night, be it chess, carom, football, or the ritualistic card games oft played in the evening nearing breakfast; under a roof, or even outside in the shades.
However, Malé wasn’t always like this. Alaa, a research analyst from the Ministry of Arts, Culture, and Heritage, shared what it was like back in the early 1900’s. In Malé and mid-Maldives, one of the first things done to prepare for Ramadan would be replacing the sands of the homes. People would set out dhon veli and kashi veli. Basthaas of kashi veli would be brought to Malé from the residents of Fenfushi, or Maamigili so the tenants would dump out all the darkened sands or soil in favour of kashi veli. People would clean their houses extensively. Before paint became an import, they’d melt huni, and ‘paint’ it on the house walls.
A week before the first day of Ramadan, people of Malé would prepare a ground near the Islamic Centre in front of the Sultan Park, embellished with beautiful arrangements of flowers and available fruits. When the crescent moon is sighted after the Maghrib prayer by the moon-sighting committee marking the start of Ramadan, the decorations are removed and transformed into a space for a similar sport to modern day wrestling. They’d have these ‘wrestling’ matches during Ramadan at night, and sometimes even during the day.
Regarding maahefun at that point in time, Alaa told us, “I’m not entirely sure if maahefun is truly a Maldivian tradition, but it’s so heavily embedded into our culture it might as well be. This feast is truly held in such a way that it’s solely a part of Maldivian culture; any other country that has such a feast before Ramadan is doing so not in the name of a ‘maahefun’ at least.” The maahefun of these residents of Malé consist of masfen, fihunu mas, and other varieties of traditional Maldivian dishes. Malé people favour hedhika for both maahefun and iftar (breakfast), along with various preparations of chicken.
This is verified as even up until the 1930s there were more than 70 different types and varieties of hedhikaa; some of which are unheard of now. The original Maldivian bajiyaa can be classified extinct; now the bajiyaa resembles the Indian samosa.
Alaa shared with us what his grandfather told him of a highly acclaimed bajiyaa maker in old Malé whose moniker was Bajiyaa Beyhokko. “He’d prepare and cater tons of bajiyaa for maahefun days, all over the island. Grandpa told me of a common practice during his time involving Beyhokko, where he and his friends would steal some bajiyaa from the basket of bajiyaa atop Beyhokko’s head. Beyhokko would furiously run after them.”
These events tell us of the importance of bajiyaa for maahefun in those days. It was a common delicacy as well as a crucial one at that, especially for people who incorporated bajiyaa into their maahefun and daily iftar.
During these days, one would routinely break their fast with masfen, banbukeyo baiy, lonumirus, fihunu mas, kukulhu suruvaa (usually by another character of the time: Kukulhu Murugee) along with various hedhikaa. Zileybee, naana-kataa, and boa folhi would be available for dessert.
In those days, a man dubbed Zileybee Garmaa Garam would be responsible for making almost all the zileybee on the island. Come Ramadan, and he’d walk the streets with a basket filled with freshly made ones everyday after Asr Prayer. He’d walk while chanting his moniker, grabbing the attention of potential customers while they are in their homes. Navaidhoo Kuda Husain is another noteworthy person in Malé during Ramadan. He made tea as well as had a flair for cooking and fasters loved it so much they’d wait until they could break their fast with the tea and food he made.
The King/Sultan carries out a special deed come evening of Ramadan. He’d distribute aloe vera juice (a rare commodity then) to the homes of the high caste (think Bandairu Naibuge, Bageechaage etc.) of Malé, every day. The king himself takes part in the preparation of the juice, alongside a prominent tea maker at the time; Kimbidhoo Sai Ibrahim. This was a gift presented only during Ramadan, hence perceived as a prestigious honour to receive.
There was a special festival held in pre-modern Malé; bodu-hithi and kuda-hithi, for both Henveiru and Maafannu. This is an event where locals would gather round to cook their best for the King. Flags will be raised on all streets of Malé, music would be in abundance, and the crowds would cheer the home chefs along with praise for the King. In the end, the King would accord a winner; the person with the best dish, and they would be presented the opportunity to be the King’s Royal Chef.
Back then, the sense of community was more pronounced and close-knit. This can be seen from even the smallest communal activities. Families would bring friends and neighbours after breakfast to indulge in a session of gudu gudaa smoking. The residents would rigorously clean the smoke vessel of the home before Ramadan and would watch the time fly by in smoke as conversations and discussions went on.
The practices and customs of islands’ residents significantly differ from those of the centralised city of Malé. One of the most prominent and typical preparations that all island residents do in time for Ramadan would be putting out a fresh layer of dhonveli, kashi veli or akiri in the courtyard or around the house. The sharing of their daily bread is also ingrained into the island communities, more so than it is in the city of Malé.
Acclaimed entrepreneur Nuzair reminisced about a different time in his hometown of Gaafu Alifu atoll’s Kolamaafushi. “We fasted in a way unlike today; it seemed like the days just felt longer.” In the island, there wasn’t an abundance of fridges or even ice, so the boys would be occupied with plucking coconuts off coconut palms, cutting it, and dropping it down wells so they’d be cool and refreshing in time for iftar. “We did this thing where we’d eat some unripe kanamadhu right before we drink water; making the water taste better. In Huvadhoo, we refer to it as ‘gobu’.” A commonplace breakfast in Kolamaafushi would consist of mashuni and roshi, or hanaakuri/thelhuli mas and roshi. Back then, roshi was very common, alongside rice and ala for breakfast.
As for suhoor, Nuzair states that almost 90% of all households ate fihunu mas, bananas, and rice with sugar and coconut milk. Some people would also eat baiypen. Kolamaafushi had a special tradition every Ramadan, especially for suhoor. “A collective of men would come out around thirty minutes before fajr prayer with drums to wake every household up. They’d drum to a certain beat, and only stop once they’re sure everybody had woken up.”
Like every other island, cleaning plays a big role in Kolamaafushi; everybody of every house will replenish the sand in the front yard with kashi veli collected from the shore. Nuzair remembers “…back when I was a child, we didn’t really have beds. There weren’t mattresses; the beds would be lined with coir rope or thatch weaves, and on top there’d be a mat. These beds were riddled with bed bugs, so as Ramadan nears all household would take these beds to the beach and give them a proper wash. We didn’t have access to modern day chemicals to get rid of them; the only thing available would be kerosene, so this was how we’d kill the bedbugs. All the islanders would give their beds a good wash as we didn’t replace things as much as people do nowadays.”
Raa atoll’s Hulhudeli also makes similar preparations in regards to cleaning, as curated by Yumna, resident of this island. She recalls a slower-paced time, where everyone and everything was relaxed and unhurried. She remembers “…in Ramadan, (we) used to play on the beach, making different things using coconut tree leaves. As a young girl, my grandmother let me spend most of the time at the beach in the fresh air and cool breeze of the sea so I may not feel thirsty.” As she grew older, she was invited into a tradition followed by the women of the island; cleaning rice while reminiscing about past events and exchanging stories with one another.
In Hulhudeli, sharing is second nature. It’s customary to cook with the neighbours in mind, and especially during Ramadan, it’s a common sight to see neighbours exchanging plates and containers of food without ever getting them back empty. The locals usually have garudhiya with rice or roshi, with some fihunu mas for suhoor, and break their fast with these as well.
Alaa’s coworker Najih told us that in Addu, all the usual preparations are done, though, the sand bit is done differently. “Almost everything concerning sand is handled by the women. They refer to it as ‘roadhaa veli hedhun’, they’d pick out specific types of sands for the homes; from fothi veli, akiri veli, bodu veli. These are used in different places such as the front yard, the roads, etc.”
For the residents of Addu, the maahefun is also distinct. They call it ‘roadhaah henun’, which translates to showering for the fast. It’s carried out as sort of a picnic, where families would go with small eats and spend the day at the beach maybe two or three days before Ramadan. Sports would be played, and the entire time is spent having fun, with little to no attention given to eating.
During this time, people from 8 different regions would gather at the beach, making it a large-scale festival-like event. It provides a chance for the elderly to meet and converse, as well as a chance for young love to bloom, along with a way to maintain friendships with people far from home.
With the island nation moving forward into a tech-savvy and modernised future, the cost of such a movement is at the loss of culture, tradition and the original Maldivian taste. However, it doesn’t have to be as-is; we can breathe new life into old customs and rebirth them with relevance and a new essence. Many of our old customs can be utilised in a way that’s perfectly aligned with the current day life, with a great focus on strengthening the bonds in the community. With this newfound information, let’s play an active role in this revival.
Words by Ali Ifaz