North Malé Atoll is the principle atoll of the Maldives and includes Malé, the island capital. The administrative capital is the island of Thulusdhoo. North Malé Atoll, which includes Gaarfaru, is 69km long and 39km at its widest point. There are 50 islands in the North Malé Atoll and several small islets, and there are eight inhabited islands, counting the airport. Out of the 42 uninhabited islands, 27 are resorts, and most of the remaining 15 are privately leased with some buildings on them. Many resort islands are close enough o the airport for transfers to be made by traditional dhonis, but those on more distant ones usually use speedboats and seaplanes to save time. Transfers to the more distant islands by engine Dhoni can take just over four hours.
Malé has grown its physical limits of 192 hectares and has a registered population of 47,862, although the transient population may exceed 80,000. In 1922, the archeologist H.C.P. Bell noted Malé’s population was 5,200. The word Malé has been shortened from the Sanskrit word Maaliu, which means big or principle island. In later times, Malé was called Mahal, meaning palace island, as it has traditionally been the seat of power for kings.
In The Story of Sigiri, historian Senate Paranavitana says the founder of the first ruling royal family was Taya-mall. He was the leader of a breakaway group of the Kalabhra people, who made their way to the Maldives from Madagascar in the 12th century. Taya-malla wed a princess from an ancient Sinhalese royal family that was exercising sovereignty in the Maldives at the time. When the Sinhalese king died, Taya-Malla received the sovereignty of the Maldives and became the founder of the Kalabhra dynasty. In 1153 AD, his grandson, Dhunei Kalaminjaa (Dhovimi) converted to Islam after ruling for 22 years as a Buddhist king. He adopted the title Sultan Muhammed-ul-Adil and ruled for a further 13 years before sailing to Mecca, never to return.
Old Malé used to have an eight-foot-high wall with ten forts around three sides of the island. Only one fort was located in the center of the unwalled southern side, where water was too shallow for sailing craft.
The forts were constructed during the reign of Sultan Shuja’I Muhammed Imad-ud-din I (1620-48 AD) after an attack on Malé in April 1632 by a flotilla of 15 Portuguese ships. The Armada. Led by Domingos Ferreyra Belliago aimed to capture Malé and insert Dom Felipe, the converted Christian Maldive prince in Goa, as the new king. The armada failed after the Sultan was notified in advance of its arrival. When the flotilla arrived, Malé was well fortified, and the only entrance to the island was stopped up with ships filled with stones.
Each fort, or bastion, had its cannon, many of which originated ‘by the grace of God’ from early shipwrecks. A further 14 cannons were purchased at Achin (Sumatra). By the early 19th century many of the guns were mostly ineffective. In 1819 Captain Sartorius wrote:
“I was told [there were] one hundred cannons between the fortification walls and the other ten bastions. Some of the cannons are of cast iron, the biggest number 12. Most of the guns, if not all of them, originate from the Netherlands. They are not in good fittings, neither are they in good condition. The bastions are as well in a bad state.”
The cannons may have been ineffectual, but they were much esteemed for their ceremonial valve. In the 1867 Indian Ocean Directory, it is written:
“The sultan and headmen are much pleased if a ship on her arrival salutes with a few guns, which compliment when they return.”
The old fort and bastions, which were of much interest to early travelers, were demolished in the 1960s during the rule of former President, Mr. Ibrahim Nassir. The remains, including cannons, were pushed into the sea and the land reclaimed for future development. Many guns were covered forever; others were left along the waterfront and on the reef. For years, dhaonis utilized these heavy cannons for mooring their boats in the harbor, but they have been gradually recovered and repositioned at points if interest in Malé. Two guns are on display at the President’s jetty. Nine cannons were recovered from the reef on the northeast side of Malé early in 1995 before reclamation work began.
Old government buildings in Malé
Malé used to be dominated by the old palace, which was partly demolished under President Nassir. The street now called Meduziyaraiy Magu was previously closed off at either end by large gates, and a fort protecting the palace, the A’Koattey Buruzu, was inside. The present-day museum was once part of the old palace and in place of the demolished sections of the palace is ‘Sultan’s Park.’
Malé also had more than 15 public bathing tanks located mostly near mosques, however, these were taken away to prevent the spread of malaria. One street on the eastern side, Henveru Kebu Ala Magu, now called Sosun Magu, was used for making anchor ropes, where twine made from coconut fiber was spun into a thick rope and laid out from one end of the street to the other.
Funadhoo is a strategic island close to Malé which had added its fair share of intrigue to the history of the Maldives. Funa is a hardwood tree with white flowers (Calophyllum inophyllum), and dhoo means island. Ships anchor in Malé’s outer harbor to the west of Funadhoo, and as far north as Dhoonidhoo and Galu Falhu. Many ships have come adrift in these waters, and some remains of early boats can be found.
There are several graves here, including Captain J.C. Overend, who died in Malé in 1797 after his ship, The Tranquebar, was stranded on one of the islands.
The head of Utheemu Ali Thakurufaanu is also buried there. Utheemu Ali fought alongside his famous brothers, Muhammed and Hassan, during an eight-year guerrilla war that finally ousted the Portuguese from Malé in 1573. Uthemeemu Ali was slain by the Portuguese and his head delivered to the governor n Malé as a gift. The head was stolen by Maldivians and secretly buried at Funadhoo, while his body was buried at Thakandhoo in Haa Alifu Atoll. The island has always been used for government purposes, including being a refinery for shark oil, had a coconut fiber mill to make ropes, a poultry farm and is now an oil storage island.
Hulhulé was once two small islands joined together in 1968 to extend the airport’s runway, the other of which was Gaahoo. Once used by royalty as a holiday island, Hulhulé was first surveyed for an airport by the British in 1960. On the south-west side of the reef is the remains of an old wreck, which lies 200 meters to the north of the Maldives Victory shipwreck. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Portuguese wreck,’ however, it is more likely to be the remains of a Baggala from India which may have come adrift during a cyclone in 1820 that wrecked more than 30 vessels. The remains of the copper sheeting and some partially exposed timbers lie near the reef on the bottom at 37 meters, while copper rods, more timbers and coral encrusted pieces of metal lay scattered away from the reef over 30 meters.
Hulhulmalé is the largest land reclamation project undertaken in the Maldives and will provide the future housing and commercial needs in the Malé region, as well as help solve the overcrowding problem in Malé. The ground level of Hulhulmalé has been raised to two meters above mean sea level, making it the highest island in the Maldives and thereby reducing the possibility of inundation. Phase One of the project began in 1997 and was completed in 2002 with a land area of 195 hectares. Phase Two will enclose Farukolhulfushi and is expected to be 240 hectares. Phase Three will be dedicated to the extension and further development of the airport and is expected to be 350 hectares.
Dhoonidhoo means ‘bird island’ and is nowadays used to house political prisoners. It has an old building on it which was once the residence of the British governor until 1964.
Feydhoo Finolhu is the education island, where school children have holiday camps, school seminars, and scout camps. The island was completely washed away in 1960, partly as a result of the removal of sand for building purposes. The sand gradually replaced itself, and with the aid of reclamation form the lagoon, the island was re-established.
Aarah is the president’s holiday resort.
Vihamanaafushi is an ancient island and was initially known as Viharanapura. Viha means poison and manaa mean forbidden. It is believed a Buddhist monastery existed on the island in early times. The first president of the Republic of Maldives, Mohammed Amin, was buried there. He died in 1954, Vihamanaafushi opened as Kurumba Village in 1972 and was the first resort in the Maldives.
Farukolhufushi means ‘island on the edge of the reef.’ It was uninhabited in early times although it was leased to a Maldivian family who holidayed there. Farukolhufushi Tourist resort was established in 1973 and was later taken over by Club Mediterranee. The Club Med entertainment and dining complex burned down in 1994 resulting in extensive renovations. Farukolhufushi has a big lagoon which is a popular overnight anchorage for safari boats because of its proximity to the airport. Between Farukolhufushi and Furanafushi is Kuda Kahli, a small channel through which much of the boat traffic between Malé and some of the islands to the north pass. Kahli is a word meaning ‘pupil of the eye,’ warning locals to look sharply when passing through the channel. Currents can be treacherous here, especially during the north-east monsoon and there are also a couple of hidden, shallow reefs just inside the atoll. Banana Reef is one of them – a popular dive location. Large schools of dolphins use this channel when migrating through the atoll.
Kuredhigadu is a tiny island on the north side of Furanafushi reef. Whale sharks are sometimes seen cruising along the outside reef edge across Kuda Kahli and Bodu Kahli during the south-west monsoon. On December 25, 1923, a baggala with full cargo struck Furanafushi reef in a storm and sank. No visible evidence of the wreck remains, but an anchor lies on the reef a considerable distance to the north of Furanafushi in 32 meters of water.
Kandu’oiy Giri is also called ‘chicken island’ because it had a poultry farm on it. The sea-cow or dugong, known locally as Kandu-Geri is on record as visiting this and nearby islands, mostly at night. The sea-cow is traditionally regarded by many as dhevi, a kind of spirit, both visible and invisible. It may be Malévolent or harmful and hinder good health, or it may be helpful; it may require sacrifice in the form of flowers or even as the blood of birds or animals. The Malévolent dhevi is mainly observed on clear moonlit nights, and when seen by Maldivians, the believers take fright, fearing their lives or some misfortune to themselves or their family. The sea-cow has also been sighted in earlier times at Vihamanafushi, in North Malé Atoll. One was seen at Vattaru in Felidhoo Atoll in 1986, however, the sea-cow in the Indian Ocean is now very rare and threatened with extinction.
Bandos was settled in ancient times, and the original inhabitants were believed to be a tribal group of Tamils from India. In 1602, Pyrard noted that people were living there and that the water was favored much above that of Malé. The island was made an orphanage in 1962, and in 1968 the orphanage was moved to Villingili. Bandos was the second resort island in the Maldives and commenced operating in 1972. It became well known for its diving, particularly shark feeding at Bandos and Banana Reef. It now has a permanently staffed medical clinic and decompression chamber.
Kuda Bandos is an unspoiled island that has been made a public reserve and is especially famous for day-trippers from Malé, and on Fridays, Malé residents flock to the island for picnics. In the past, the stretch of water between Bandos and Kuda Bandos was reserved for the traffic carrying essential messages to the sultan’s island, Malé. This was the rule, and it effectively served early warning to the sultan that something was happening in the Northern Atolls, such as looting by pirates, a shipwreck, or a fleet of Malabar pirates heading towards Malé.
Thulhaagiri was an uninhabited island before opening a resort in 1980. A thulhaa is a half coconut shell tied to a stick and used to retrieve water from pits. The small, almost perfectly round island could well be imagined as being like a thulhaa.
Lankanfinolhu, eight kilometers north of the airport, started as a tourist resort in 1979. It was rebuilt and the lagoon dredged to create more land in 1994 and renamed Paradise Island Resort and Spa.
Lankanfushi opened as a Hudhuveli Resort in 1980 and has since been rebuilt as Soneva Gili Resort. It is believed that Lankanfinolhu and Lankanfushi were once part of the same island but eroded away I the center dividing the islands and leaving small sandbanks in its place.
Himmafushi was a significant fishing island, but people now earn their primary income from tourism, selling handicrafts, souvenirs, and boat building. Himmafushi was once two islands since joined together, the other of which was Gaamaadhoo. A guest housed used to be located on Himmafushi to cater for low-budget travelers, but this was closed in 1984 because of the negative social impact of travelers on the island community. Prison is now located on Gaamaadhoo. The outside reef has one of the best right-hand surfing waves in Malé Atoll. Surfing was previously banned here for security reasons but is now open.
Girifushi is a military training camp.
Thanburudhoo is named after a plant Tamburu, (Biloba pescaprae), which has a heart-shaped leaf and violet flower and spreads like a vine along the sand. This plant has fruit the same shape as the leaf and is used for medicine. During the south-west monsoon, there are good, clean, left-and right-hand waves breaking off the outer reef of this island.
Kanu Huraa was opened as Leisure Island resort in 1981, with its name later changing to Tari Village, which has now been redeveloped as Cinnamon Dhonveli Maldives. Kanu means corner and Huraa is an island with more coral than sand. Dhon Veli is a popular resort for surfers during April through to November when the winds are predominantly from the south-west and conditions are ideal for surfing. Here, surfers paddle out from the island to swells pumping onto the reef at a break called ‘Pasta Point,’ after the popular dish served to Italian guests. When working, this wave creates hollow lefts which have the speed and power to attract some of the world’s most celebrated names in surfing.
Vabboahuraa is a small privately leased island with a long jetty leading to the sandbank island of Rahgandu.
Kuda Huraa opened as Kuda Huraa Resort in 1977 and was rebuilt in 1996 as the Four Seasons Resort.
Huraa is an uninhabited island which was once joined to Kuda Kuraa, but like so many islands, erosion eventually split them. On Huraa is a mangrove swamp that fills with water at high tide.
Kanifinolhu was opened as a resort in 1978 and upgraded in 1992 to a Club Med Resort, which has good anchorage and is just 16 kilometers from the airport.
Lhohifushi opened as a resort in 1979 and is a favorite surfing island. The island is named after the Lhoss tree, which is a tall tree that is prevalent on the island, and the resort is now called Adaaran Resort.
Gasfinolhu began as a camping resort in 1980 and is now a luxurious Club Med Resort.
Thulusdhoo is an inhabited island surrounded by sandy beaches and is the administrative capital for North Malé Atoll and visited by island traders who sell their salted fish lonu mas at the government warehouse. It has an excellent deep-water lagoon, and significant trading boats and safari dhonis are anchored here. It has a boatyard where new-era style dhonis are constructed of fiberglass. Many resorts are upgrading their fleet of diving, and transfer dhonis with the faster and more practical Thulusdhoo made boats. This island has a Coca-Cola factory on it.
The locals are well-known for their boduberus, an island dance performed by men to the beat of a large drum. The drum is made from a hollowed coconut tree and of the boduberu – the babaru – came from Africa. It starts off slowly get quicker, then finishes in a frenzy, leaving dancers in a state of delirious exhaustion.
Viligili-mathidhahuraa is uninhabited and was once two separate islands until natural deposition of sand joined them. There is also good anchorage in the lagoon here for shallow draft vessels, and picnic boats take advantage of the island’s seclusion for day trips.
Dhiffushi is an inhabited island that lies on the northern end of the Dhiffushi Falhu. Fishing is the main industry of the island and dhonis loaded with freshly caught tuna make their way down to the Malé fish market almost daily. Three baggalas were wrecked on the reef of this island: the Dheen Ganja in 1898 Deylaa in 1903, and the Jandar in 1911.
Meerufenfushi meant sweetwater island and was an uninhabited island until it opened as a resort in 1978. It is a large, heavily timbered island with lush vegetation and in the past, it was a popular stopover for fishers who refilled their water pots from the island’s abundant reserves of rainwater. Meeru is the most eastern island in Malé Atoll.
Asdhoo is a resort inside the atoll, 37km from the airport.
Helengeli is the most isolated resort in the Malé Atoll, being 51 km from the airport if traveling by Dhoni – a trip from Malé takes about three and a half hours. Helengeli Tourist Village started as a resort in 1979. The word Helengeli means ‘shaking island reef,’ so-named because of its exposure to heavy seas during the north-east monsoon. In 1996, renovations to the resort were completed, and the channel across the shallow house reef was deepened. Divers have the advantage of diving in isolated and pristine locations. Non-guided house reefs can be made at any time of the day.
At Dhon La Faru reef, just south of Helengeli, a wooden ship from the Laccadives was wrecked in February 1991, and on the Helengeli reef, the 1937-ton Swiss was destroyed on May 20, 1890. She was sailing from Pondicherry to Marseilles and was a total loss. No remains of this ship have ever been found. Another boat, the Dharuma, a sailing vessel owned by the government, ran aground on this reef on January 24, 1962, and was a total loss.
Five kilometers inside the atoll is a large reef called Maahaa. A haa is a reef with a passage through it and boats traveling north can pass through this large reef at a passage marked by the light on the southern side. To the north of Helengeli is a narrow reef extending into the atoll called Dhigu Dhuni Falhu and this is a long arrow-shaped reef to be wary of when traveling north.
Kagi is a small picturesque island surrounded by a white sandy beach and a shallow lagoon. The island is privately leased, and in 1997, a jetty and a gas storage depot were constructed. Boats arriving here for picnics or stopovers may be charged a small amount per visit.
Gaafaru is an inhabited island that stands alone on one of the most extensive single reefs in the Maldives. Gaafaru Falhu is eight km long, 15km wide and has two natural deep-water openings to the north and a shallow entrance near Gaarfaru island. For a small price, fishers are happy to entertain visitors with a boduberu in a warm, friendly atmosphere. Gaafaru Falhu lies on the southern side of the Kaashidhoo Kuda Kandu which has since early times been one of the major shipping routes through the Maldives archipelago. The reef is virtually invisible during storms, and many ships have come to grief. Aracan, a Glasgow-registered boat of 1174 tons ran aground on August 12, 1873. It was sailing from Rangoon to London with a crew of 34. There were nine passengers and a full cargo. Clan Alpine, a wooden barque of 363 tons was wrecked on this reef in 1879 while traveling from Mauritius to Bombay with a load of sugar. SS Sea Gull, a ship of 1012 tons with a crew of 32 and three passengers was wrecked in 1879 while traveling from Calcutta to London.
Olhahali used to be a favorite stopover with day-trippers making snorkeling and dive trips in the north of the atoll but is now a resort called Lux. On the north side are a shallow channel and there secure overnight anchorage be made inside Huss Faru.
Akirifushi means coral island. It is uninhabited and Maldivian fishing boast anchor here. There are excellent snorkeling and diving on the reef, and there is a reef named Himmiya Faru nearby. Himmiya is the area between two reefs and this lagoon, with entrances at either end, is quite secure. It has a good anchorage in both the north-east and south-west monsoons.
Eriyadhoo is 38km from the airport and takes about three hours if traveling by Dhoni. Eriyadhu Island Resort opened in 1982 and had an excellent beach, lagoon and excellent snorkeling on the house reef, which closely surrounds the island. There are many small reef fish and regular sightings of manta rays, eagle rays and tuna are made here. The resort is the most northerly on the western side of the atoll and gives divers the added advantage of being able to dive many sites without contacting any other divers.
Makunudhoo opened as Makunudu Island Resort in 1983, and recent renovations have given this resort a distinctive Maldivian character with the additional benefits of air-conditioning and hot water. In former times it was a convenient overnight anchorage for sailing dhonis heading between the northern atolls and Malé. Francois Pyrard stopped here on his way to Malé after his ship, The Corbin, ran aground on Fulhadhoo reef in Goidhoo Atoll in 1602.
Ziyaaraiyfushi opened as a resort in 1983. Ziyaaraiy is the resting place, or grave, of a holy man. Tradition says that a man named Mathukkala, believed to the grandson of the Maldivian Christian king Hassan IX (baptized in Cochin in 1552), is buried here. Mathukkala and his brother sailed from India to Malé during the reign of Ibrahim Iskandar I (1648-87 AD) with the intention of taking the crown. His brother was killed in Malé, but Mathukkala was drowned, and his body washed into the island. The resort is now named Summer Island Village.
Madivaru is a small privately leased island at the southern end of the reef.
Hembadhoohas a close-fringing housereef ideal for snorkeling, especially around the jetties. It opened as Hembadhoo Island Resort in 1982 and was renovated in 1997. It is now called Vivanta by Taj.
Boduhithi was an uninhabited island a long time ago, and Boduhithi Coral Island Resort was opened in 1979 and is now called Coco Bodu Hithi (which means ‘bitter’).
Kudahithi is an exclusive retreat called Coco Prive Kuda Hithi with only six cottages and was once. Guests can visit Boduhithi if they require diving.
Coco Prive Kuda Hithi
Rasfari is an uninhabited island with little vegetation and is surrounded by a broad, shallow reef. There are plans to make Rasfari Island and its entire reef a marine protected nature reserve.
Nakatchchaafushi opened as Nakatchafushi Tourist Resort in 1979. It was rebuilt and opened in 2004 as Huvafen Fushi. A nakatchchaa was an astrologer, often as important official in the sultan’s court who was in charge of determining the auspicious times for various activities of the state. He had considerable influence over many island affairs. The island is 20km from the airport and has an excellent beach on the northern side and a long sand spit at either end.
Baros was inhabited in early times but became uninhabited in the late 1700s. Baros could have been named after the once prosperous Kingdom of Baros in north-west Sumatra with whom Maldivians used to rade, but more likely it was an island to accommodate people with baros-bali, a skin disease often associated with leprosy. Baros is a semi-circular island and opened as a tourist resort in 1973.
Ihuru opened as a resort in 1979. It has a been rebuilt as Angsana Resort & Spa. An ihuru is a Fanditha man: a conjurer or wizard and practitioner of religious science. He is also an astrologer and herbalist, and when, for instance, a crop is sown, he must plant the first seeds. Later, when the harvest approaches, he must read the signs and cut the first crop. From those seeds, he makes a pudding to eat as an offering. Ihuru Island is a small, heavily wooded, almost perfectly circular-shaped island with a turquoise lagoon enclosed by a fringing reef.
Giraavaru is an ancient name by which the aboriginal people of the islands are known. Gira means ‘island washing away,’ and varu means ‘a group of people or islands.’ The Giraavaru people today have been swept from one island to another in recent years. The people moved from Giraavaru to Hulhule in 1968, and when the airport authorities took over the island, the people were transferred to Malé. The Giraavaru people, who claim to be descendants of a South Indian Tamil tribe, were once the most influential community in the Maldives. Today, the Giraavaru people are a small surviving community identified only by the older women wearing long dresses with distinctive neck embroidery. Giraavaru Tourist Resort opened in 1980.
Thilafushi is a new island which has emerged between Giraavaru and Viligili. It is without a doubt the fastest growing island in the Maldives. Otherwise known as ‘trash island,’ Thilafushi is the solution to Malé’s garbage disposal problem. The island began in 1992 and had grown considerably in size. A barge operates between the new harbor and the island.
Villingili was inhabited in ancient times and was burnt and looted sometimes, mostly by frustrated Malabar pirates unable to penetrate the defenses of Malé island. The people were moved to Hulhule in 1962, and a prison was established. In 1973, Villingili resort opened, however, was closed again in 1990 to allow the over-populated capital of Malé to expand. The island is now uninhabited.
(Source: Dive Maldives: A guide to the Maldives Archipelago. Tim Godfrey. Atoll Editions)