Who were the first settlers in the Maldives? Which language did they speak? What was their origin? Anyone curious about the history of Maldives would want these questions answered. Considering its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is likely to have been discovered long ago and inhabited for a very long time. People began travelling the Indian Ocean hundreds of years Before Christ (BC), and after the completion of the formation of this island chain facilitating inhabitability, it is improbable that much time passed before people settled here. Historical evidence suggests Maldives has been inhabited for over 2500 years.

The Mahavamsa, a Sri Lankan historical text, mentions that people arrived in Sri Lanka and Maldives from India ca 500 BC. This refers to the arrival of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The language spoken by the Sinhalese belongs to the Indo-Aryan family of languages, which means that the pioneers mentioned in the Mahavamsa spoke an Indo-Aryan language. According to Naseema Mohamed and Dr Ragupathy, the origin of the names of several islands of the Maldives comes from the Dravidian family of languages. Scholars agree that places are often named by their first settlers, and the names remain unchanged for a long time. This leads us to believe that the first settlers reached Maldives even earlier than the Aryan people mentioned in the Mahavamsa, and that they spoke a Dravidian language. 

Writings on the topic of early immigrants show that the first people to arrive in Maldives can be traced to Kalibangan in India. Kalibangan is an ancient town in the state of Rajasthan and according to Indian historical records, it used to be occupied by a people who spoke a Dravidian language.

Kalibangan is not a coastal town so they travelled to Maldives through the ports of Gujarat, which lies to the south of Kalibangan. Maldivian shells have been found in Lothal Port in Gujarat, pointing to links between this port and the Maldives. There is also evidence to suggest that travel took place between Maldives and Surat, another town in Gujarat. Both Surat and Lothal lie in the path of travellers going south from Kalibangan towards Maldives.

According to Aryan literatures, the Dravidians of Kalibangan were dark-skinned, spoke a coarse language, and worshipped the male organ. Research has shown that an ancient practice of worshipping phallic stone carvings existed in the Maldives. Other old traditions as well as the early matriarchal system, are believed to have come from the Dravidian culture in India.

Subsequent to the arrival of the first settlers in the Maldives, people of different races are known to have taken up residence in these islands. This was also the conclusion of Professor John Stanley Gardiner, who conducted studies in 1899 to understand the origin of the Maldivian race by taking measurements of people’s height, head, and other body parts. His findings showed that Maldivians are a mixed race.

While the Maldivian race is mainly linked to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, there are Maldivians whose origins lie in the Arab world, Iran, Africa, China, and Java (now Indonesia and Malaysia); as well as Europe.

The physical attributes of Maldivians today are most similar to Indians, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans. Maldivians are also alike in physique to Bombay’s fishing villagers, as well as inhabitants of Goa and Orissa in East India.

Since Maldives is located in the path of vessels passing the Indian Ocean, there is little doubt that throughout history, travellers entered marital commitments and set up home here. Records show that these arrivals included Kunbin, Redin, and Aryans.

Aryans are believed to have arrived in the Maldives at the same time as they reached Sri Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa, out of the Aryans who left India, some landed in Sri Lanka while others ended up in Maldives. Maldivians look like South Indians, but the Maldivian language belongs to the Indo-Aryan family - spoken in East, North, and West India. Nonetheless, language scholars have noted that the structure of the Maldivian language, Dhivehi, contains features not common to other Indo-Aryan languages. Many of these characteristics are seen in Dravidian languages, leading scholars to believe that they belong to the language spoken by Dravidian groups who lived here before the arrival of Aryans. It seems plausible that the Aryans as they settled in the Maldives, imposed severe influence on the language that already existed here - creating a new version which contains features of the old language.

The Mahavamsa states that Aryans came to the Maldives directly from India, and not via Sri Lanka. The similarities between Dhivehi and Sinhala are not due to the arrival of immigrants from Sri Lanka, but because the two languages share the same origin.

Unlike Sri Lankans, Indians are a known ancient seafaring people, says Naseema Mohamed, and there is no historical evidence from Sri Lanka to show that they migrated to or ruled Maldives. According literature on the history of South India, however, Maldives was ruled by them during the reign of the Pallava and Chola dynasties. The absence of any mention of similar events in Sri Lankan history, which has been comprehensively captured in writings dating back several hundred years, assures that there was no official arrival of people in Maldives from Sri Lanka. According to Naseema Mohamed (1998), the first Sri Lankan settlers reached Maldives somewhere between the 10th and the 12th century. Maldivians are known frequent Sri Lanka and there has always been a close bond between the peoples of the two countries, however, this does not serve as proof that the origin of the Maldivian race is Sinhalese.

Looking at historical and ancient evidence, the first settlers in the Maldives came from Southwest India. They arrived via Lakshadweep and Minicoy. Minicoy was in fact one of the first of these Indian Ocean islands to be inhabited, as its location serves as a first point-of-contact for travellers going south before reaching Maldives.