Stranger than Fiction Folk Tales: Huvadhoo
Marhaba, and welcome to the (terribly overdue) third edition of our folklore series. Created to help preserve an integral part of Dhivehi culture, this series attempts to retell a few of our favourite occult tales from across the archipelago. ‘Cause us Maldivians, if you didn’t already know, we’re a real mystical (albeit somewhat loony) bunch.
This time, we’re bringing you two unusual stories all the way from Huvadhoo, a southern atoll with arguably some of the most exquisite (and ill-omened) swathes of land in our country.
The Isle of the Lepers
Long ago, a trading vessel once set out on a journey across Huvadhoo. The majority of voyagers onboard, including a boy by the name of Kedere Mohamed, had hailed from the adjacent atoll of Fuvahmulah.
According to Mohamed’s account, stormy weather struck one afternoon, forcing the captain to head towards the nearest island and seek shelter. The island was small, its vegetation green and dense, with tall, lanky coconut palms towering above the heavens. As the boat drew near, fearful whispers could be heard among its crew. They claimed it was the isle of the lepers, a dreary place for Huvadhoo’s hopelessly diseased.
As soon as the anchor was cast, Mohamed could make out a growing crowd on the beach. He suddenly became overwhelmed with terror; in front of his eyes were the most abject bunch of human beings he had ever witnessed. Some were on all fours like felines, others hobbling like rabbits, but most of them were crawling, dragging their miserable bodies across the sand. They waved and called out to the boat, the sounds of their laments filling the air.
“The sickest men of this atoll are left to rot here,” said the captain matter-of-factly. “The women are taken to Funadhoo, much further north. If they were close, they would likely swim to meet each other.”
Mohamed and the rest of the crew were mesmerized. The captain went on: “It is strictly forbidden by the king to anchor close to this island, let alone step foot on it. But I’ve travelled far and wide, I know the ins and outs of almost every other island around here. This is a good chance to have a look, and those that are brave enough may venture by my side.”
To sate his curiosity, Mohamed hesitantly joined the three others who disembarked. Wading through the shallow, waist-high water, they reached shore before long. The inhabitants of the island were even more ghastly to look at up close; bereft of dressing to cover their wounds, fluids seeped from their skin, a sickly smell hanging heavy around them. Many were deformed and had either no eyes, no lips, or no noses.
Recognizing that the boat’s crewmen became frightened if they got too close, the lepers silently kept their distance. The island itself was lush, fine clumps of banana grew here and there. Mohamed noticed the tumbledown huts the inhabitants had built for themselves; the roofs of the shacks, thatched with woven palm fronds, were no higher than a man’s chest.
As the crewmen turned back to board the boat, one of the locals who had been shadowing them motioned for them to wait. They soon returned with a freshly cut hand of maalhoskeyo (green banana), offering it to the crew. In spite of their circumstances, these banished men thought it important enough to be generous to strangers, Mohamed realized. He accepted the hand, feeling immeasurably moved by their gesture.
Soon, the rain let up, and shafts of golden light began pouring through the patches of cloud. With everyone back on board, the captain signalled to weigh anchor and continue onwards. Once they had sailed away from the isle of the lepers, the crewmen let out a collective sigh of relief. Nothing in the world could have compelled any of them, not even Mohamed, to spend the night near that forlorn, desolate place.
The Girl in the Shark’s Belly
On the island of Fiyori, in the massive coral reef that fringes South Huvadhoo atoll, there once lived a young girl. As her parents’ only child, she was very well looked after. Perhaps too well; always stuck at home, she yearned for more freedom, for a sense of independence like the other children on the island. She said to her mother one day, “Won’t you let me go outside with my friends? They tell me it’s such fun to go collect seawater by the beach.”
Her mother refused, and instead told her this story. “My daughter, when you were a baby, a learned man from Vaadhoo visited us and read our palms. He told your father and I that you would be our only offspring, that we were fated to have no children but you. He then gazed upon your hand and told us something would happen to you before you came of age. We asked him what he meant, but he said that he did not know.”
The girl pleaded with her mother, swearing that she would be careful and that the other girls would watch over her. After much insistence, she was finally let go. She was given a gulhi (terracotta pot), and went along with her friends to the beach, to a place known as Addhanaahutthaa. After a while of playing in the water, they waded out even deeper and filled up their pots to carry home.
However, having had no experience in the sea before, the girl lost her balance and fell as she was trying to imitate the others. The current was strong; although she managed to stay afloat by holding onto the pot with its mouth downwards, she was swiftly carried away from Fiyori, across the lagoon towards the ocean. The blue beneath her deepened, and she screamed until her voice gave out.
The island was now far off in the distance, and the girl was being relentlessly hurled by the waves. Close to the surface, one of the tiger sharks that wandered the channel noticed the little figure floating over the darkened depths. Without hesitation, it opened its mouth wide open and gulped her in an instant.
After a few days had passed, in a northern atoll of the Maldive kingdom, some fishermen were out hunting for large sharks, as was customary on their island. These pelagic creatures were killed for their liver oil, which was primarily used to coat the wood of boats below the waterline. That day, the men aboard caught the very shark that had swallowed our heroine whole. When they got close enough, the keyolhu (master fisherman) exclaimed, “Look! It’s turning and showing its belly.”
“What does this mean, Keyolhube?”
The master fisherman stood quietly for a moment, as if lost in thought. “I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “But I’ve heard the elders say that this means a human being is inside.”
Thus, the fishermen threw their harpoons skilfully, close to the shark’s jaws, making sure not to touch its belly. Blood oozed profusely from the wounded gills, staining the sea around them crimson. Once they were certain the fish was indeed dead, they tied it to the boat and an abdominal incision was made with a knife. To the men’s astonishment, they found a small child holding a pot tightly against her side. By God, a miracle — the girl was alive! She opened her eyes and offered no resistance as the men retrieved her and bathed her with saltwater.
Fast forward some years, and Keyolhube had taken the mysterious girl to live with him under his wing. Nobody on the island had managed to place her origins; whenever asked, the girl fell completely silent, staring into the void. As time went on, they all slowly forgot about the extraordinary way in which she was found. The girl eventually became a woman, marrying one of Keyolhube’s sons and bearing his children. The only strange thing about her, though, was that she stayed within the confines of the island at all times, utterly terrified of the water. She refused to go by the shore even to wet her toes, because she could no longer bear to look at the blues of the sea.