NOTE: This article was originally published in the Maldives Traveller blog.
“Oh, so you’re from those beautiful tropical islands.”
Whenever I’m visiting another country, that’s the usual response I get from people when I introduce myself and tell them that I am from the Maldives. Obviously the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board has done an excellent marketing job, but the response always jolts me a little as I try to take the phrase “beautiful tropical islands” and apply it, with some degree of difficulty, to the island where I live: Malé, the Capital of Maldives. The refreshingly enticing postcard image of tall coconut trees swaying in the breeze under a hot sun while gentle waves lap against white sandy beaches is true for every single tourist resort in the country, but the same cannot be said for the Capital.
Malé is an entirely different kind of beast. It’s noisy, dusty, and there are only a handful of places in the entire island where you can actually find a coconut tree or a white, sandy beach. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, Malé is definitely not the place. So it’s no wonder that most people living in Malé would find any excuse to take a break from their frantic lifestyle and set off for one of the numerous inhabited or uninhabited islands – or if you can afford it, one of the resorts. It is one of the ironies of life in Maldives that the average Maldivian can’t afford a relaxing holiday in the very islands that their country is so famous for. However, the hundreds of inhabited and uninhabited islands have a lot to offer to the weary local traveller, and it’s a lot cheaper too.
Take for instance the islands in Baa atoll. Roughly around 100 kilometres away from Malé – two and a half hours away by speedboat – the atoll hosts several world class resorts such as Soneva Fushi & Spa, Royal Island Resort & Spa, Reethi Beach Resort and Four Seasons Resort. The atoll has over 75 islands and only 13 are inhabited. The Capital of the atoll is Eydhafushi.
The population of Eydhafushi is about 3000 and it is a very popular destination for holidaymakers from Malé during the two Eid holidays that occur every year. Several activities, including many traditional ones, are held in the atoll but Eydhafushi is usually the hub of activities. Local celebrities such as actors, singers, dancers, and whole entertainment troupes tour the atolls during the holidays and while they may skip some islands due to their busy schedules, it’s rare that they would give Eydhafushi a miss.
The first time I visited Eydhafushi was in November 2004, just five weeks or so before the Asian Tsunami swept through the country, destroying several islands and causing untold damage to Eydhafushi and several other islands in many other atolls. The day I arrived in Eydhafushi also happened to be on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, or ‘Kuda Eid’ as the festival is usually called by locals, which roughly translate as ‘The Lesser Eid’. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The other religious holiday that is celebrated in Maldives is Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated after completion of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims worldwide to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is the most important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God, but instead was able to sacrifice a ram (by God’s command). Depending on the country, the Eid celebrations can go on for days. In Maldives, the holidays are marked on a national level and the festivities during both holidays can continue for three or more days.
Compared to Malé, most other islands of the Maldives can only be described as ‘sleepy’ and Eydhafushi is no exception. Sure, the harbour area where the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company’s ferry docked was thronged with people looking to welcome friends and relatives or to collect cargo and other goods that had been sent to them from Malé. But once the ferry was empty of cargo and passengers, the area became deserted in no time at all. A friend from the island, at whose house I was staying while in Eydhafushi, met me at the jetty and after exchanging greetings we started walking towards his house. The short trek to his house was uneventful. Since it was almost noon only a few people, mostly children, were out and about on the roads, playing under the shade of a tree or taking turns riding a small bicycle across the uneven ground. As someone who had grown up with the noisy bustle of Malé as a backdrop, it always takes me several minutes to adjust to the stillness and silence of the rural islands. I commented on how peaceful it was and my friend explained that there were only a few vehicles on the island, mostly taxis, motorcycles and a few trucks. As if to accentuate his point, a motorcycle turned the corner, skidding slightly in the soft white sands, and then roared past us. Long after the motorcycle had disappeared from view down the road, I could still hear the distant thunder of the engine’s roar.
After stashing my travel gear at my friend’s place I headed out to explore. A trek around the island was over too soon and after capturing some shots of a spectacular sunset on my camera I headed home and spent the rest of the day in bed, watching TV and reading a book. After a traditional rice and garudhiya dinner with my friend and his family, I decided to call it a night so that I could be up early to attend the Eid prayers the next day.
The next day, after attending Eid prayers, I made a beeline for the harbour area. Another ferry had docked and the place was bustling with activity: the holidaymakers had begun arriving. The first ferry had not even finished unloading when another entered the harbour, and then three more arrived in quick succession. Just like that, the sleepy atmosphere began to melt away.
In the span of a few minutes, groups of children armed with water pistols and water balloons transformed the main roads and alleys into major warzones. A road that appeared to be deserted would suddenly turn out to be a well planned ambush point, and many an unwary pedestrian found this out the hard way after being hit on the back of the head with a water balloon or being doused with a whole bucket of water by giggling girls hiding on rooftops. More often than not, the ammunition used was coloured. Soon it wasn’t just the children taking part in the “Fen Kulhi” (water game). The sight of middle-aged men and women with their arms loaded with water balloons chasing someone while their own face and clothes were covered in multihued splashes became more common as the day progressed. When the older boys joined in on the fun, things took another twist as instead of coloured water they began using a more potent mix of paint, oil colour, glue, flour and anything else that could not be easily washed away. It apparently worked, as even after three days some people could still be seen sporting multicoloured hair and traces of bright colours on their faces and hands.
The ‘Fen Kulhi’ participants, those who joined voluntarily and involuntarily, called a truce around noon, as time for the mid-day prayers neared. As the men prepared to attend the prayers, the smell of cooking, usually involving chicken that had been slaughtered in ritual sacrifice earlier – or as has become more commonplace lately, bought from stores – wafted through the island. Every household prepares a scrumptious feast and invites neighbours, friends and relatives, and sometimes total strangers, to share the meal. Some families would even get together to host veritable banquets in their courtyards or on the sides of the roads. By the time the men return from the mosques the tables are set with dozens of varieties of food. Once the men have eaten their fill, the women dig in. A short siesta follows before activities resume.
Earlier, while the water fights were ongoing on the roads, other activities such as ‘Koadijehun’ had also been taking place. ‘Koadijehun’ is one of the oldest traditional games that have been played among men and women of Maldives. It begins with the womenfolk preparing a special ornately designed hat – the koadi – and placing it on the head of one of the men that they selected as the bearer. In order to get rid of the hat the man has to climb a tall coconut tree and place it there. When this happens, the womenfolk will have to “convince” one of the other men to climb the tree and get it back. The catch is that if the “hero” the womenfolk had convinced is discovered to be conspiring to get the ‘koadi’ back for them, the other men will surround the tree and paint the trunk with all sorts of slippery, gooey, disgusting and smelly stuff so that the person who climbed the tree will have to get really filthy if he climbs down. Usually, the man will have no option but to jump off the tree to avoid a sticky and smelly end but that doesn’t mean he will get away easily. Men and women will surround the tree with the men trying to ensure that the traitor is properly punished for betraying them and the women trying to save him. In any case, in the end the traitor will be carried off by the women and washed clean near the beach using sand and seawater. Traditionally, he will then be carried off to a gifili – an open air toilet – where he is given a special shower by three young ladies. In some islands, the special shower is delivered by three older women. If the man happens to be married, the women have to get permission from the wife before he’s taken into the gifili.
Later, with the koadi on his head, the hero will be pampered from every side by the womenfolk who will attend to his every wish while a huge feast is prepared especially for him. This ancient custom obviously includes a lot of subtleties that is now lost to the mists of time. Some historians even argue that ‘koadijehun’ had initially been some sort of mating ritual and not surprisingly, if you were to inquire about the game and ritual from senior citizens in different atolls you’ll likely end up with several variations.
A large percentage of the holidaymakers, especially the young boys and girls, also like to head out on hired boats to go fishing or visit nearby islands. The rhythmic banging of bodu berus (traditional drums) and singing accompany the boats as they head out into the open sea or towards other islands. The boats will return within a few hours or by sunset, depending on the whims of those who had hired it out.
As the heat of the day begins dissipating and the sun sinks lower in the western horizon, the official games begin. Most of the games organized are competitive games between different wards, districts or sports clubs in the island. Football, volleyball, baibala and bashi are the most popular games and supporters from nearby islands arrive in droves to cheer their teams. Baibala, similar to kabaddi played in India, used to be a men’s sport but now several women’s teams have also started taking part. Bashi, however, still remains a women’s sport. It was traditionally played with a ball made of woven coconut leaves. The game is played between teams with a player from one team hitting the ball across the net with her bat while the fielders from the other team try to catch the ball. During the time of the country’s first President, Mohamed Amin Didi, he introduced a modernized version of the sport by using a tennis ball instead of the woven ball. Later the wooden bat was replaced with a tennis racket and now the sport has become so popular in the islands that bashi teams regularly travel within and outside the atolls to play competitive games. The football field at the heart of the island is where most of the football matches are held while the huge playing field in the eastern side of the island hosts most of the other sports activities, usually several events simultaneously.
By sunset, most of the sports events had concluded, although some of the competitions would continue for two more days before winners were announced. With the coming of the night, the celebrations turned more festive as the island prepared to host the stage shows and other musical events that would continue late into the night. While visiting celebrities took the main stage at the island’s stadium area, other smaller musical events organized by local talent were preparing to rock the night in various corners of the island. Most people would flock to see the dances, songs and plays being performed by the most popular artists in the country, but the younger crowds usually eventually gravitated towards the several music shows hosted by the youth clubs from the island. The music and stage shows would continue as long as there were an audience there to cheer them on and it isn’t rare for the shows to last way past midnight. After checking out the stage show at the stadium I came upon three music shows held just blocks away from each other. As expected, the audience here were mostly young couples and small groups of teenagers huddled together in small isolated groups. Feeling the effects of an exhausting day sightseeing and walking all over the island, I returned home and went to sleep. My first Eid holiday in Eydhafushi had turned out to be as eventful, interesting and entertaining as I had expected.
Since that initial visit to Eydhafushi, I have visited the island several times over the years. Although the island has gone through many changes, mostly due to the after effects of the Asian Tsunami and the evolving political climate of the country, it continues to be the hub of activities in Baa atoll during the Eid festivals and is still one of the best places to experience Eid holidays in Maldives.