Travel Bucket List: India – Lakshwadweep Islands Part 4

Minicoy, locally known as Maliku in the local language of Divehi, is an island which, along with Viringili, is on Maliku atoll, the southernmost atoll of the archipelago. Divehi is also the national and official language of the Republic of Maldives. The language is a descendant of Elu Prakrit and is closely related to the Sinhala language, but not mutually intelligible with it. However, the Lakhshadweep administration refers to Dhivehi as Mahl due to a misunderstanding on the part of a British civil servant who came to Minicoy in the 1900’s. The official asked a local what his language as and he replied Divehi-bas. When the official looked confused because he had never heard of this language, the the islander said Mahaldeebu as he knew that locals on the subcontinent referred to the kingdom to the south or the Maldives by that name. The civil servant then recorded the language of Minicoy as Mahl.

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The ancient name of Maliku was Mahiladu meaning women’s island which is derived from the Elu Prakrit term Mahila du, which literally means woman island. However, the name Maliku is thought to have been derived from the Arab trader’s term for the island, Jazirat al-Maliku or the the island of the king. Minicoy islanders have long settled in the Nicobar Islands across the Bay of Bengal and regularly travelled back to Minicoy. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands had a reputation in the Maldives and Minicoy of being inhabited by cannibals, and so collectively the Andaman and Nicobar groups were called Minikaa-raajje by the Maldive and Minicoy islanders which meant cannibal kingdom. A British official once asked a Minicoy islander what the name of his island was and was told he was Maliku but usually lived in Minikaa-raajje or Nicobar. The official thought Maliku and Minikaa were the same place and recorded the name of this islander’s home as Minikaa which later became anglicised as Minicoy. So because of this cross-cultural misunderstanding, Maliku would forever be called by a name that sounded like cannibal in the local language.

The Maliku Atoll has a lagoon with two entrances in its northern side, Saalu Magu on the northeast and Kandimma Magu on the northwest. Its western side is fringed by a narrow reef and coral rocks awash. The interior of the lagoon is sandy and has some coral patches. The Nine Degree Channel separates Minicoy and the Laccadive Islands. The closest island to Minicoy is Thuraakunu in the Republic of the Maldives. Since 1956, the Indian Government has forbidden the direct travelling between the two islands despite their geographic proximity and ethnographic similarities. Maliku Kandu is the traditional name of the broad channel also called the Eight Degree Channel between Minicoy and Ihavandippulhu or the Haa Alif Atoll in the Maldives. There are remains in an area of the island known as Salliballu dating back from Minicoy’s Buddhist past, about 800 years ago. The most conspicuous archaeological sites are two mounds or large heaps of ruins belonging to a stupa and another related structure. These sites were investigated by the Archaeological Survey of India in the 1980s and excavations yielded few discoveries, for the sites had been much damaged and vandalised previously. Still, a much-damaged large Buddha head was found buried in the area. The name Salliballu originated in the local name for the Christian cross, because the locals say that an inscription with a cross was found there. But it is likely that, coming from a Buddhist site, it was a cross-shaped mandala or visvavajra, like those often found on inscriptions in archaeological remains in the Maldives. Local oral tradition has it that 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. The Kamborani’s descendants are the bodun or the land and shipowners and the descendants of Kohoratukamana are the niamin or captains. The other status groups are made up of the descendants of their crew.

According to the documented evidence, Minicoy Atoll has been under Indian administrations since the mid 16th century. Until the 16th century, the Laccadives was under the suzerainty of the Kolathiri Raja of Chirakkal in what is today the Indian state of Kerala. With the Portuguese ascendancy in the region, it became necessary for the Kolathiri to transfer sovereignty of the islands to their hereditary admiral, the Ali Raja of Kolathunadu or Cannanore. However, the kings and queens of the Maldives also issued edicts addressed to the subjects in their realm Malikaddu Midhemedhu, meaning between Maliku or Minicoy and Addu. Previously Addu was the southernmost island in the dominions of the Maldive kings and was in the Addu Atoll. A 1696 grant issued under the seal of the King Siri Kula Ran Mani or Sultan Mohamed IV of the Maldives, regarding the building and upkeep of a mosque in Finey at Thiladhummathi atoll in Maldives, referred to him as Malikaddu Midhemedhu ekanuonna mi korhu anikaneh nethee korhu meaning the sole sovereign with no other over what lies between Maliku and Addu.

In 1857, suzerainty over Minicoy transferred from the East India Company to the Indian Empire when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress and in 1790, Maliku was surrendered to the Court of Directors of the British East India Company by the Ali Raja Cannanore, Junumabe Ali-Adi Raja Bibi II. The Ali Raja was allowed to administer Maliku in return for a tribute to the East India Company. On 27 July 1795, Junumabe Ali Adi-Raja Bibi’s monopoly over coir trade was abolished and in 1905, under the heavy burden of debts to the Empire, Mohamed Ali-Adi Raja of Cannanore agreed to surrender sovereignty and control over Minicoy, but died before the formal transfer which was finally signed on 9 February 1909 and backdated to 1 July 1905 and Minicoy came under the district of Malabar. After India’s independence, India held a plebiscite in Minicoy in 1956 to determine whether the people of Minicoy wished to join the Indian Union and a referendum was held and because of an absolute majority Minicoy joined the Indian Union. In December 1976, India and the Maldives signed a maritime boundary treaty whereby Minicoy was placed on the Indian side of the boundary.

The cultural traits of Minicoy differ from those of any other island in Lakshadweep. Manners, customs, lifestyle and food are similar to those of the Maldives to the south of Minicoy and Malikubas, officially referred as Mahl by the Lakshadweep administration, a dialect of Dhivehi language, is spoken on the island. Like in other Dhivehi-speaking communities, the right-to-left Tāna script is used for writing. The social structure is anthropologically interesting, being a matrilineal Muslim society where a man will live in either his mother’s or his wife’s house. Property is inalienable and owned by houses or the matrilineal descent groups. Minicoy islanders, like the other Lakshadweep islanders, follow Islam. Thuraakunu in the Maldives is the closest island to Minicoy. Formerly there was direct trade between both, and fishermen from both islands used to visit each other. This exchange continued even after Minicoy became part of India, but since 1956 the Indian government has forbidden these visits between two nations.

Investigator Bank is a submerged bank or sunken atoll located 31 km to the northeast of Minicoy Island in the southern region of the Nine Degree Channel. The bank was named in 1886 after the wooden paddle hydrographic survey vessel HMS Investigator.

Minicoy is the second largest and the southernmost among the islands of the archipelago and is located 201 km to the south-southwest of Kalpeni, at the southern end of the Nine Degree Channel and 125 km to the north of Thuraakunu, Maldives, at the northern end of the Eight Degree Channel. It is one of the few inhabited islands of the group and is one of the 36 small islets. The small island has a total area of 4.801 sq km and is known for its vibrant coral reefs and quaint white-sand beaches. The atoll contains two islands with the main island located on the eastern and southeastern side of the lagoon, along the reef fringe. Minicoy is almost completely covered with coconut trees and one of the few landmarks of the island is a tall lighthouse built by the British in 1885 which offers jaw dropping views of the island and the sea. Juma Masjid is another attraction which is an old mosque built in the medieval era and houses the rich ancient sculptors that were found on the island. Minicoy has a tropical Savanna climate, with a warm temperature throughout the year. The best season to visit this island is during the winter months from September until May. Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit this island.

On the southern side of the main island lies the uninhabited islet of Viringili, also called the Small Pox Island where formerly the lepers of Minicoy were banished to this island where they lived in abject conditions. Viringili is barely 200 m in length and is fringed with gravel and covered with bushes. A few stunted coconut trees grow in the center of the island which is 0.6 km from Minicoy.

This ends the series on the Lakshwadweep archipelago. Writing this series has made me want to visit, but that’s a thought for another day. I’ll be back soon with a new state to explore in India.

1 thought on “Travel Bucket List: India – Lakshwadweep Islands Part 4

  1. Pingback: Travel Bucket List: India – Uttar Pradesh Part 1 | Memories and Such

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