Mosques, Mandalas, and the Uncertainty of Our Roots
Our ancient past has always had a quality of ambiguity, a perpetual shroud hanging over it borne by our own disinterest in the history of our nation, and of ourselves as a people.
Archeological remains and accounts of travellers who have encountered our archipelago reveal that there was a thriving culture before the last of the Radhun converted to Islam. It may be that the reason for our lack of interest is due perhaps to the confusion between our inherited customs and our nation’s later adoption of Islam, a relatively new dogma compared to the long practiced religion of Buddhism for 1200 years.
This conflict, that has left uncertainty to fester in our roots and ultimately in our cultural identity, owes credit to our inability to integrate one with the other. There are now only a few remaining artifacts preserved from our history, a great number of them destroyed in the vandalism of the National Museum in 2012.
The country’s mass conversion to Islam in the 12th century revoked the grants previously given to building Buddhist monasteries, and new ones were introduced toward the creation of mosques. The same craftsmen who built temples were now responsible for building mosques, of which they did not have knowledge. There are no indications from evidence that foreign experts were employed to educate the nation’s craftsmen on the concepts behind mosque building, and as the design of a mosque had to be presumed, the first mosques were still heavily grounded in the ancient concepts of temple construction.
Traditionally, Maldivians believed that light kept evil and darkness at bay. Mosques and houses had lamps burning through the night for this very reason. Sacralisation of space was important to us, and it was only rational that the oldest mosques would be based on customary concepts of sanctification.
Like most temples in the Indian subcontinent, some of the oldest mosques in Maldives borrow methods from the ancient doctrine of Agama, which instates the symbol of the Mandala or Madulu in Dhivehi. A Mandala is a pattern of powers, divided into 8 directions, each division representing a realm of the heavens which are believed to be guarded by divinities. Many of the oldest mosques and their compounds in the Maldives are quadrangular in shape.
In an account in HCP Bell’s monograph, a detailed description is given of an old mosque:
(Pensee and Sacre in 1529 sailed from Dieppe & landed in Fua Mulah. An account of the main mosque in Fua Mulah from their captain & crew)
“In this island was a temple or mosque, a very ancient structure composed of massive stone. The captain desired to see the inside as well as the outside, whereupon the chief priest bade them open it and entered within. The work pleased him greatly, and chiefly a woodwork screen of ancient moldings, the best he had ever seen, with a balustrade so neatly turned that our ship’s carpenter was surprised to see the finesse of the work. The temple had galleries all round, and at the end a secret enclosure shut off by a wooden screen, like a sanctum sanctorum.
The captain bade them open it and see what was within, and whether there were any idols, but he perceived nothing but a lamp formed of the coconut. The roof or vault of this temple was round in form, with a wainscoted ceiling covered with ancient painting.
Hard by the temple was a piscine or lavatory, flat bottomed and paved with a black stone like marble, finely cut with ancient moldings and having all the appearances of massive workmanship.”
This excerpt draws many similarities to one of the oldest mosques in Male’, one I had visited many times throughout my life: Hukuru Miskiy. Built in the 15th century, it still retained the features of traditional Maldivian mosque interpretation. I still remember the day when my friend and I paid a long visit to investigate its glories. The intricate carvings on the wood and coral stone bearing ancient Maldivian art, the flowers and vegetal motifs representing traditional Hindu/Buddhist iconography blended with Arabic scripts.
At the time it did not occur that I was seeing not only my peoples’ representation and upholding of the Islamic tradition, but also gazing into my ancient ancestral heritage, and listening to its silent song, the one which is forgotten.