A seven-hectare dot in the remote Raa Atoll, Maamigili appears at first glance to be a quintessential Maldivian resort island, complete with all the trappings of barefoot luxury. But beyond its sybaritic pleasures lies a broader purpose: to provide a rare showcase for Maldivian artifacts and artistry.
A hole in the ground is not the sort of thing you’d expect to be a point of pride at a five-star Maldivian resort, but then, this is no ordinary hole. Carved out of the sandy soil of Maamigili eight or more centuries ago, it’s an ancient bathing tank, presumably part of a Buddhist temple compound that once stood at the heart of a prosperous island community. The temple is long gone, as are most traces of Maamigili’s erstwhile residences. But the sunken bath remains, recently excavated to reveal a circular, sandstone-lined cavity maybe four meters across and now half-filled with brackish water that a man is busy siphoning with a pool pump.
“This is an important historical site,” says Umair Badheeu, the culture and heritage manager at Loama Resort, which opened earlier this year as the seven-hectare island’s sole occupant. “It is in such good condition because it was filled with sand for a very long time, so everything inside was unharmed. When we are done cleaning it and removing the silt, it will be one of our chief exhibits.”
The Buddhist era in the Maldives came to an end in the 12th century with the coming of Islam, and precious few relics from those times have survived. This is true even in the National Museum in Male, the capital, where, in February 2012, vandals destroyed an irreplaceable collection of Buddhist coral-stone carvings—some 30 pieces dating back a millennium or more. It was a major loss to the archipelago’s cultural patrimony, one that Loama hopes to partially redress by preserving and collecting relics of its own, keeping what Umair calls “our connection with our ancestors” alive.
The bathing tank (and in fact there are two on the island; the other has yet to be excavated) is by far the oldest artifact discovered on Maamigili during the construction of the resort, but there were plenty of other treasures found buried in the sand. These include caches of cowrie shells—prized as currency in centuries past—and dozens of unglazed terra-cotta pots, antique Chinese porcelain bowls, and 400-year-old Dutch onion bottles, all of which suggest that this tiny, teardrop-shaped island in the remote Raa Atoll once served as a hub for traders plying the ancient sea routes across the Indian Ocean. Umair, a genial 33-year-old with a background in fine arts, was hired a year before the resort opened to begin assembling these finds into a collection that has since grown to more than 300 pieces, a good many of which he purchased from households and collectors elsewhere in the far-flung archipelago. A fraction of these are now displayed in Loama’s open-air lobby museum, which Umair tells me is one of only two licensed museums outside of Male and the only one operated by a resort. Carefully arranged in glass cases and vitrines, the objects range from the aforementioned ceramics to lacquered boxes, lacemaking bobbins, and a copper medicine kettle, alongside such sturdy wooden implements as grain measures, coconut scrapers, and idiyappam pressers. “Even these items that were used by regular people a generation or two ago are precious, because they are no longer in use, lifestyles are changing in the Maldives very much. They represent traditions we are losing.”
The museum at Loama is very much a work in progress. At the behest of the resort’s owner, Umair has already acquired far more items than the existing display cases can possibly hold, and for now, the bulk of the collection fills the shelves of his office, an air-conditioned hut tucked in a thicket of mangrove trees. There, he shows me more relics: an inscribed coral-stone tablet plucked from the remains of an old mosque on some other island; a small terra-cotta oil lamp decorated with a Buddhist tortoise motif; a child’s limewashed writing tablet, once used for studying the Koran; five-liter buckets brimming with cowrie shells. And a short walk from the clearing where the bathing tank was unearthed is another of Umair’s projects: a low, wood-paneled Maldivian house that he brought over from a neighboring island and is now reassembling here as an exhibit of traditional domesticity, complete with hand-fashioned furnishings and a rope bed.