Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Giraavaru People

Of the Maldivian population there is a small minority called the “Giraavaru people” who is often considered to be the descendants of one of the earliest, if not the earliest stream of immigrants to the atolls who would have arrived long before the Legendary King Koimalaa Kalo.

According to research done by Xavier Romero Frias, The Giraavaru origins are descendant of ancient Tamils from southwestern coast of India and northwestern shores of Sri Lanka, who probably settled on the island around the Sangam period (300BC-300AD)

Until the twentieth century the Giraavaru people displayed recognizable physical, linguistic and cultural differences to the nearby islands. Their culture and language were of clear Tamil-Malayalam substractum.

I wouldn’t go so far as to classify them as the aborigines of Maldives, cause they speak the same language as the rest of Maldivians with only slight phonetic variations which is totally possible in any community and it is well known that there are more differences between the southern atolls and Male’ dialectically.

Giraavaru people always have claimed that they are the ancient owners and rulers of Maldives. And they granted permission to a foreign prince who visited Male’ to reside there.

Giraavaru island is thought to be much bigger, housing magnificent buildings and temples in earlier days, as the surrounding lagoon still testifies.
Giraavaru island is on the western side of the lagoon of North Male' Atoll.

Giraa literally means 'eroding' in Dhivehi. It is thought that the island was called Giraavaru because it was gradually being eroded away into the sea. It is quite possible that the name preceded the word.
It is quite possible that the word 'giraa' may have been stuck as a result of the natural erosion that was claiming the island.

The second half of the word ‘Varu’, is very popular in the Sinhala language where It is used to signify a certain group of people. The considerable relationship between Sinhala language and Dhivehi pose whether Giraavaru means community of the people called ‘Giraa’. However the first explanation seems more probable.

H.C.P Bell in 1922 records that there were 150 Giraavaru people who were strictly controlled by the Ravveri (Island Chief), that they were monogamous (without the widows marrying again), and that their only connection to other people were to visit Male’ to sell fish.

The Giraavaru dialect was very unusual for a community that lived only a few kilometres from Male'. They had a slightly different vocabulary and some consonants were different from the standard Maldive language. For instance, they used the sound r instead of the sound lh.

Dr Abdullah Waheed MD offered the following genetic evidence:

The Maldivian population has an 18% thalassemia carrier rate. But the Giraavaru population has a rate of almost 0. This shows that they are not only a separate group, but also that they have managed to preserve their racial characteristics intact throughout the ages against all odds. (Information is from 2005).

They were very different from other Maldivians. They never travelled to any other islands apart from Malé. They never married people from other islands. They never divorced, and a widowed woman would not remarry again. Any help received from Malé was shared by everyone.

While other Maldivian women wore their hair-bun on the right side of the head, Giraavaru women wore theirs on the left. They wore unusual jewellery.

The most distinct items were necklaces of tiny blue beads which no other Maldive islanders wore. They also wore a number of silver bangles on both wrists. These were made of strips of metal about 8 millimetres in width bent into circular bangles with the ends left without being soldered together. They wore four to five per wrist.

The Giraavaru people were a community headed always by a woman. It was the only island in the Maldives where the sultan's civil authority was deputized always to a woman.

Language Status

Ordinary Maldivians were required to address the Male' nobility in a different level of speech. The Giraavaru people did not observe this custom and addressed the Male' nobility as they would address themselves. The nobility did not challenge this attitude and always chose to ignore it. Any other lesser Maldivian who displayed this type of self-assured confidence would have found him or herself in deep trouble.

Common citizens of Male', who regarded the Giraavaru people as an inferior race, seemed to resent the apparent privileges enjoyed by them under the sultans, and mocked them mercilessly. It was believed that the Giraavaru people were mortally scared of frogs. In order to tease and victimize them, Male' folk would throw frogs at them.

The change to Male’

The changes began in 1968 when they were shifted to Hulhulé from Giraavaru. The government made the decision to shift people from islands with a population less than a congregation for Friday prayers - 40 males over the age of 16 - onto larger islands.

The Giraavaru people were not as cooperative as the others. Houses were built for them in Hulhulé and each family was given Rf100 to start their new life.

On Hulhulé were people from Viligili, Kaaf atoll, and people from Huvadhu atoll. The Giraavaruans lived separately from everyone else, and the most significant changes to their culture took place after they were moved to Malé in the late 1970s.

From that time on. the most ancient family in the Maldives mixed with the dense population of Malé. The lives of young Giraavaruans were shaped by modern life, and only a few kept their old customs.

Giraavaru people are very special. When they moved to Malé only 15 families remained. Though the population at the time of their resettlement from Giraavaru was officially not enough for the Friday prayer, the former island chief Adam Mohamed says that for as long as he could remember Friday prayers were held on Giraavaru.

He know why the population decreased. 'I think it was due to the Great Depression [1930s-1940s in Maldives],' says Adam who even now is known as the Katheeb (Chief).

'I think people starved to death in the depression, and the real reason for the disappearance of the old customs was this decline in population.

When we look at history, the Giraavaru people need to be treated as special. It is claimed that before people settled in Malé it was a small island in the care of the Giraavaruans. Malé was known among them as 'blood island'. The first people who settled in Malé are said to have received permission for the Giraavaru people.

Because of this the Malé kings gave the Giraavaruans special attention, and helped provide them with their needs.

Sometimes the Malé aristocracy used to say 'no' to the Giraavaruans as a practical joke just to see what they would say in reply. Apparently this would provoke the Giraavaruans to insist that, 'This island is ours, and you stay here if we allow you. You must give us whatever you can.'

Special aspects of Giraavaru culture include tambourine playing and trance during dancing. Trance is achieved by bleeding on both sides of the head after stabbing with a chopping knife. The young men of Giraavaru look forward to the trance state. During the playing of the tambourine for the trance ceremony the knife that is kept by the leaders is used to make stab cuts on either side of the head. Even as they bleed the men are high on trance.

'I also attained trance. No pain at all. It was an important custom among us in those days,' said the Giraavaru chief.

Now there is no tambourine playing, and the Giraavaru girls don't wear the distinctive dress. When they get married they don't look for someone descended from their island. It is no problem for them to marry any Maldivian now.

Real Giraavaru people are those born on the island of the same name, near Malé. They lived in Hulhulé for about ten years after being moved from Giraavaru. Then they were shifted to Malé and settled on land reclaimed from the western side of the island.

The dress of the Giraavaru women, with a skirt and frock with white stripes around the neckline, is unique. Nobody else wears that fashion. They also wear their hair tied in a bun on the left side. This is a trademark of the Giraavaru people.

This style of dress is very simple. The specialty is the eight white stripes around the neckline. This part of the fabric is very carefully sewn. A white strip is also sewn at the end of the long sleeves.

Due to their strong family ties, they walk around Malé holding each others hands. This is not a usual practice in Maldives.

In the past it was common to see Giraavaru women on the streets of Malé. These days there are many more families, far more than in the past, yet the people obviously from Giraavaru are rarely seen.

Traditional dress is complete when worn with a necklace made of beads, and a set of bangles atound the wrists. Hawwa Dhaitha says that people have sold almost all their necklaces and bangles. Some still have their bangles.

The previous government [under Ibrahim Nasir] disapproved of their habit of wearing their hair bun on the left side.

Giraavaru people have no longing for a wealthy material lifestyle. Their eating and drinking habits are simple. Fish soup, rice and roasted chillies was the lunch of one person sitting and eating on a mat in the dining room.
Giraavaru people still keep some of their customs, despite the onslaught of modern culture. One thing is their attitude to shampoo, soap and toothpaste.

Though they don't use these items, Giraavaru people are always showered, clean and dressed respectably.

Unlike other Maldivian women, Giraavaru women become bald with age, and they aren't embarrassed about it.

Giraavaru people use the word 'fori' for 'folhi', 'gura' for 'gulha', and 'karusai' for 'kalhusai', says Hawwa Dhaitha, and it's not because they cannot pronounce the sound lhaviyani [ lh ]. She proved it with a perfect pronounciation of the word 'hulhulé'.

The proud Giraavaru elders tried very hard to preserve their culture, but their youth very quickly lost their sense of identity and were soon assimilated into the Male' culture.

The former headwoman (Fooruma-dhaita) of Giraavaru lamented to me when I was visiting Male' in 1977, that the first ever Giraavaru divorce was registered recently. She was appalled. An ancient and proud culture was thus wiped from the face of the earth in the latter years of the twentieth century.

The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom by Xavier Romero-Frias

Countries and Territories of the World. PediaPress.

Srilanka-Maldives Cultural Affinities by V.Vitharana (1997)

Translated texts from Huvaas Magazine (12 may 2001)

Dhivehi: The Language of the Maldives by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan

The Maldive Islands; Monograph on the History, Archaeology and Epigraphy. Reprint Colombo 1940. Council for Linguistic and Historical Research. Male’ 1989 by H. C. P. Bell

Abdul Rasheed, M.D. Ph.D.
Composed on 17 January 1989
In my childhood days
They were already a vanishing breed,
Like their "giraa" island,
Slowly dissolving into the sea.
The folks of Giraavaru stood apart from the rest,
Numbering some sixty or so,
In a nation of eighty thousand then,
Telling us a story of a distant past.
Why they were different,
As a child, I wondered,
Speaking with an accent
Unknown in the neighboring isles.
Their men and women
Often burst into song and dance,
Recounting the ancient lore
Of discovering Malé, the capital of this age.
Some other yarns of the fishing folks
Told of a "bodu-Baburu"
In the middle of the sea,
And of their adventures in Andaman, the Cannibal Isle.
Shrill voices and a dialect of their own,
Costumes of women, bright and gay,
With circles of beaded necklaces,
Distinguished them from us all.

Of their customs, little do I remember,
Though the fear of the frog, and ban on the isle
Of nightly sojourns of strangers,
Stick well in my mind.

Giraavaru is no longer inhabited, I'm told.
Thus the island and its people
are like a lost book of history -
A link broken between the present and the past.

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