IIAS Newsletter 10, Autumn 1996, Insular SW Asia 02

IIASNewsletterNo 10Regions

Insular SW Asia

Union Territory of Lakshadweep

The Social Structure of Maliku (Minicoy)


'All the islands in Lakshadweep are the same, only Minicoy is totally different', I very often read when I was working on my MA thesis on the Matrilineal Muslim Societies in Southwest India and Lakshadweep, and my curiosity about that island was roused. Through the scant literature available I learned that culturally Minicoy forms a part of the Maldives. Since the people themselves call their island Maliku, I will also use this term. The language spoken in Maliku, a dialect of Maldivian Dhivehi, is called 'Mahl' by outsiders, a fact which the islanders find quite amusing. 'Mahl' is based on a phonetic misunderstanding, as I was told by Furakad Musa Befanu: 'During his stay on Maliku, a British officer asked somebody for the name of the language. The islander answered: 'Mahaldibu bas (lit. language of the Maldives.)', and the officer noted down 'mahl'.'

Taking heed of its geographical isolation I had the impression that in Maliku one could find the Maldivian culture in a traditional form, above all not influenced by tourism. An idea - as I learned right from the beginning of my stay there - only a tyro, as I was, could conceive of. With the support of the Government of India and the German Academic Exchange Service - to both of whom I wish to express my gratitude - I was able to conduct anthropological field research in Maliku from November, 1990 to November, 1991. Basing my work on the data collected during this period, I am now writing a Ph.D. thesis on the social structure of Maliku.

The purpose of this article is to give a short introduction about Maliku and to clarify some of the confusion concerning the status groups, the village organisation and the nomenclature which have been published so far. The publications available are mostly travel accounts, reports, and articles written by British officers and, after 1956, by Indian officials. Clarence Maloney also writes about Maliku in his monograph People of the Maldive Islands (Bombay, 1980), but he has never been there and has therefore inadvertently taken over many of the errors. The basic work on Maliku so far has been the manual A Short Account of the Laccadive Islands and Minicoy written by the British officer R. H. Ellis (Madras, 1924). It has exercised an influence on both the islanders and the authors who wrote about Maliku. At the beginning of my stay almost all my questions were answered either with quotations from that book or with the advice to read it myself. This also appears to have been the fate which befell most of the other authors.


Little is known about the history of Maliku. In the tarikh, the chronicle of the Maldivian sultans, we are informed that as early as AD 1500 Maliku was detached from their rule, then falling under the Ali Rajas of Cannanore. Neither a reason nor an exact date are given for this change. Officially it remained under the Rajas' rule until, with the Laccadive islands, it became a dominion of the British Empire in 1905. In 1956, a referendum was held in Maliku and the people decided to join the Indian Union. Since then, Maliku has been a part of the Union Territory, first called 'Laccadive, Aminidivi and Minicoy', now 'U.T. of Lakshadweep'. It is a restricted area, meaning that without a special permission even Indian nationals cannot enter the island. The indigenous people are quite happy about this restriction, since they fear that their island would otherwise be overrun by outsiders. However, they are concerned about the fact that their relatives from the Maldives are not allowed to visit them. Although politically Maliku has been separate from the Maldives for a long time, until 1956 the people maintained intensive trade and marriage contacts with these islands. Since their decision to join the Indian Union, the frequent trade relations between Maldivian islands and Maliku were defined as smuggling by Indian authorities and to moor or to embark on those ships was prohibited. This led to disturbances on the island, which the people still vividly remember. Many people were arrested and the seamen had difficulties in obtaining their passports, which they needed for working on foreign ships.


Maliku, the southernmost island of the U.T. of Lakshadweep, is situated at 8° 7' North latitude and 73° 19' East longitude between the Eighth and Nine Degree Channel. The land area is 4.8 km2, the population was 8313 according to the Census of India 1991. Maliku has a very old seafaring tradition. Archaeological research there would surely lead to interesting results. Old men from Funhilol, for example, showed me the rai hilai (lit. red stone) in the compound of the Jumah Mosque. Muräduganduar Ali Befanu, a very learned and fascinating island scholar, identified it as a stone anchor looking very similar to one discovered near Mandapam, dating to the 4th century BC.

The ships, odi, used for the trading expeditions were constructed on Maliku itself. Boats that are still built on the island fascinate because of the precision, elaboration and the quality of their construction. Today, there is only one odi left, which is engaged in the trade with the Kerala coast, but people still remember that until the 1940s there was a whole fleet of sailing vessels. Maliku seamen then had small colonies in Burma, near Rangoon, and on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Nowadays, the men prefer to work on cargo ships owned by national and international shipping companies. Their 'Minicoy Seamen's Association' shifted from Calcutta to Bombay, where they teach the young men and supply employment. Their contracts last between six months and two years and afterwards they return home for some time. Maliku seamen are familiar with the whole world and their reputation among seafarers is excellent. Whenever a seaman met me the first time and found out that I was from Germany, the usual question was: 'From Germany? Then you must know Hamburg, Brake, Kiel, Kielkanal, Bremerhafen, Rostock!'

Status groups

'Kamborani and Kohoratukamana, two princesses from the Maldives, came to Maliku. When they arrived, the tivaru, who had been living there before, left the island for Sri Lanka. Kamborani had children and became the ancestress of the boduñ; Kohoratukamana, who died without children, the ancestress of the niamiñ. The offspring of the servants who accompanied the princesses are the medukembiñ and the raveriñ.' This is the only oral tradition people narrate about their coming to Maliku and the origin of the four status groups. There is another tradition, the written songs called tävaru. Tävaru are the Maliku version of the Maldivian rävaru. They cover a large field of topics and are composed in a special language, which, lack of time prevented me from learning.

Boduñ, niamiñ, medukembiñ, and raveriñ are the terms used by the nilavanka, the messenger of the rahuweriñ (lit. ruler of the country), to call the whole island to a havaru, a decision-making meeting. Boduñ connotes the highest of the four status groups. They are the owners of the private land and the ships. The niamiñ are the ships' captains, the medukembiñ their crew. The raveriñ are responsible for the work on the island, especially for the harvesting of the coconuts, jaggery, and the production of coconut sugar. Raveriñ are not toddy-tappers, as some authors write. Toddy is not produced on Maliku at all. The people are Muslims and any kind of alcohol is strictly prohibited on the island.

The respective status group of a person can be deduced from his or her name: names are composed of the housename, the personal name, and the title of the status group. Besides this, their title depends on the relative age of the speaker. A female boduñ is addressed as tadufanu (eE) or manika (yE), a male befanu (eE) or manikfan (yE). A female niamiñ is referred to as datifanu (eE) or koifu (yE), a male takrufan (eE) or koifu (yE), a female medukembiñ bibi (eE) or koifu, a male takuru (eE) or koifu (yE). Raveriñ do not have titles, they are called by their personal names.

In the literature extant on Maliku there is a lot of confusion concerning the terms for the status groups and the concomitant titles. Frequently, the titles are given as terms for the status groups.

Village and Island Organization

The southern part of the island, called tundi, it is generally assumed, was given to all the Maliku people by the sultan of the Maldives. It remained communal property until it was divided among them in the 1970s. The northern part of Maliku, called kodi, is the private property of two boduñ houses, a grant from the sultan of the Maldives for special services, according to the people. The inhabited area is on the lagoon side, approximately in the middle of the island. Until the disturbances after joining the Indian Union changed conditions, there were nine central houses for women, the varhange (lit. building where coir is twisted), and nine for men, the avazhoge. These central houses had names and, usually, one varhange and one avazhoge together formed an ava, a village, according to the concept of the islanders. Contrary to the opinions of all the earlier authors, especially Ellis and Maloney, who insist that the people in Maliku use the term atiri for their village and not ava, the islanders definitely use the term ava and only this. By atiri they are simply denoting the lagoon side of the island. The names of the pairs were: Bada-men - Koluvarhange-women, Aumag-men - Diguvarhange-women, Boduathiri-men - Oikolu-women, Ramedu-men - Hanimagu-women, Sedivalu-men - Hikandivarhange-women, Aloodi-men - Ondu-women, Funhilol-men - Ramavarhange-women, Kudehi-men - Bimbiawa-women, Palessery-men - Boduvarhange-women. Women of the four status groups are associated with a varhange and men with an avazhoge. Medukembiñ and raveriñ support the village-houses with their labour, boduñ and niamiñ with advice, money, and natural products. Boduñ can support more houses, the other status groups are limited to only one. Raveriñ and medukembiñ have separate houses. Men and women of each respective village select their leaders. Men select the bodukaka (lit. big brother) and his two assistants, women the bodudata (lit. big sister) and her one assistant. Their main duties are the organization of the collective work and the village finances.

As a consequence of the disturbances of 1960, the people destroyed most of the varhange. Since that time the women have shared the avazhoge with the men. A tenth avazhoge, without a corresponding varhange was also founded: Kendypatty. Before these events, being excluded from an ava was the worst punishment for a house, apart from being exiled from the island. Nowadays, people can dissociate themselves without suffering negative consequences.

Until 1960, all the villages selected an additional authority, the rahubodukaka (lit. the country's big brother), who was in charge of the rahuge (lit. house of the country). He and the rahuweriñ (lit. ruler of the country), a boduñ selected by the boduñ and niamiñ, were responsible for all the affairs concerning the whole island and the access to the southern part for collecting firewood and coconuts. Nowadays, an increasing number of people tend to view land as private property, but the majority still follows the traditional village system of collective work.


Most of the houses in Maliku are surrounded by either stone walls or coconut frond fences. Through a gate a visitor enters a yard in front of the house. The common traditional house in Maliku consists of two rooms and a separate building for the kitchen. Each room opens on to a veranda. One room is reserved for the family members, neighbours and friends. Strangers, male affines, or respected visitors are not allowed to enter that room. Only this room has a back-door.

Houses in Maliku are the property of the female line. Men, throughout their lives, have the right of a 'kot' in their mother's house. Members of the house are the siblings and the children of the sisters. All the members carry the same house name throughout their lives. Persons with the same house name are prohibited from marrying one another. At the outset, marriage is a visiting marriage. Ideally, husbands come after dinner and leave their wives' house before breakfast. During the daytime, they come for tea in the afternoon. They take the rest of their meals in their mother's house. As a couple grows older a husband spends more and more time in his wife's house until finally the daily rhythm is reversed: he takes his meals in his wife's house and visits his mother's for tea in the afternoon. But, at least once a day he has to visit his house, even if his mother is no longer alive. Discontinuing visits to a house is a definite sign of being ruli (lit. angry), that means breaking a relationship.

Throughout a person's lifetime an exchange of work, natural products, and visits goes on between affinally related houses. On the morning after the marriage the wife has to visit her husband's mother's house, which has become her usgothi (lit. high house). The mother-in-law is obliged to present her with a gold ornament and will tell her the names of more usgothi. The young wife has to visit all of them and they, too, will give her gold jewellery. From that visit onwards she has to go to these houses every day, sweep the floor and fill the respective vessels with drinking water until she has children old enough to do the work for her or until the women of the house grant her permission to stop. She has to go there whenever they call her for additional work, for instance at a marriage, a birth celebration, or a circumcision. The husband's mother-in-law will tell him the names of houses, which will be his fahaverigothi. The term implies that, whenever a death occurs in such a house, he has to visit it and to join the funeral procession. From time to time he has to visit these houses, he must inform them when he is going abroad, and, when he returns he has to bring presents like cloth, fresh fruit, or toilet articles.

Nowadays, there is a new tendency, men have begun to go to court and, with the help of the Islamic law, to enforce the division of the matrilineal property, especially the houses.


Parallel to the very strict village organization, there is an age-group system among the medukembiñ and raveriñ (again niamiñ can take part if they want) called vili. The members of a vili meet in a private house, the vilivanage, and take their name from that house. So the female vili I joined had the name Nuge boduvili. A vili needs at least eight members. In small villages this can lead to quite big age differences between its members. The members select a leader, who is also called bodudata or bodukaka. Each female vili is associated with at least one male vili. The male vili presents gifts, bananas and betel, to the female vili and dances for them. In response the female vili organizes a vili party for the male, i.e. the women invite the men for a dinner in the female vili's vilivanage. But these are the special occasions. In everyday life, vili meet in the evenings, sing, joke, and gossip. Before the disturbances in the 1960s, the male vili held dancing and singing competitions in the streets in the evenings, but that stopped, as did the tävaru composing contests. Work in the village has priority, but whenever there is none, the vili meet.


As already indicated above, there have been considerable changes in the island. In the 1940s, Wahabism was introduced to Maliku through Hussein Didi, an exile from the Maldives. Didi gained some influence and as a consequence Bada, a village of which the bulk of the population are raveriñ, stopped taking part in the all-island activities. Didi had to leave Maliku, but Bada people remained Wahabi.

After joining the Indian Union, government officials came to Maliku and, for the first time, started to live there permanently. As the islanders preferred to remain seafarers, the administration was taken over by people from Kerala and the other islands of the Union Territory. The government supplied them with houses which were built on the communal property land in the southern part, the land belonging to the villages. As a consequence, the people successfully demanded the division of that community land among the islanders. With the influx of the outsiders, party politics started to assume importance. Slowly, the outside influences have led to a splitting up of the island community into those who want to abandon the traditional system and those who want to go on as before.

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