Located in the Indian Ocean, Maldives has a long history and culture that has been shaped by a variety of cultural influences. These have come from India, Arabia and Africa as well as the island’s unique geography and climate.
The early Maldivian culture was largely Buddhist or Hindu with a strong influence from North India as evidenced in the architecture and silver punch engravings found on some of the ancient structures that still remain. Later the islands became a Muslim nation when the first Islamic rulers arrived in the 12th century. The arrival of Islam and the Arabs was instrumental in reshaping the culture of the country with changes to language, religious teachings, governing institutions and art. The economy also flourished as the islands became a center for sea trading, with textiles, wood products and coir (dried coconut husks used for making durable products and rope) being main exports.
After the arrival of the British in 1796, the islands were a crown protectorate and in 1953 the sultanate was suspended to allow the formation of a short-lived republic. The republic was overturned in 1958 and the sultanate reinstated. The Maldivian people enacted their first constitution in 1932, relegating the sultan to the position of constitutional monarch. In 1965 the Maldives gained independence from Britain and in 1988 a military coup failed to overthrow President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Today, Maldives is a republic with Sunni Islam as the state religion. While the culture is mainly Islamic, other influences are still present in everyday life. For example, a large percentage of the population is influenced by Bollywood music and dancing. The language spoken is Dhivehi, which has close connections to Sinhalese. Women continue to play a major role in the society as the Maldivian culture was once considered a matriarchy.