The Perseus of Maldives

The legend of Al-Barbari and the slaying of the sea-monster


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Until the first half of the 12th century, Buddhism was the principal religion in the Maldivian islands. It changed, according to legend, with the arrival in Malé of one Abu al-Barakat Yusuf al-Barbari from North Africa. The nature or purpose of his visit is unknown, but it can be assumed that al-Barbari was one of the merchants who visited the Maldives for trade. He is remembered in Maldivian folklore as a medieval Perseus, who saved a young woman marked for sacrifice from a sea-demon or sea-jinn called Rannamaari.

According to some unholy pact between the people of Maldives and Rannamaari, a virgin girl was sacrificed to the demon at regular intervals to appease its bloodlust, else its wrath would turn upon the people. The king of Maldives had the task of choosing the virgin girl.

On the appointed night, dressed like a bride, she was shut alone inside a temple near the sea and, the next morning, people visited the temple to collect her mortal remains. The demon appeased, the people of Maldives could carry on with their lives undisturbed, until it was again time for the sacrifice. Some traditions suggest Rannamaari’s visits were fortnightly; according to some, the sacrifice was made on the first day of every month; yet other accounts suggest the demon only emerged from the waters on the night of the full moon.

It so happened that the family whose hospitality al-Barbari had enjoyed during his stay in Malé had a young girl, and she was chosen by the king for sacrifice.

Al-Barbari decided to pay back his hosts for their kindness by taking the place of the girl on the night of the sacrifice. Nobody else knew about this arrangement. When it was night, al-Barbari, dressed as a bride, was led to the temple. Shut inside the temple by the priests, he waited for the demon, reciting Quranic verses.

The legend breaks here into two different traditions.

According to the first tradition, when Rannamaari emerged from the sea, it cried out in pain upon hearing the Quran being recited, and returned to the sea. The next morning, when people came to collect the remains of the girl, they found, to their surprise, the visitor from North Africa there instead, alive and unharmed.

Al-Barbari was taken to the king, where he made the proposal that if he could exorcise the monster forever, the king and his subjects would convert to Islam. The king agreed to the terms, and on the next appointed day for the sacrifice, al-Barbari returned to the temple and resumed recitation from the Quran. Before long, Rannamaari emerged from the waters but, this time, upon finding al-Barbari there, it attacked him. Al-Barbari gave fight, finally capturing and killing the monster, and drowning it in the sea.

From that day, the people of Maldives were released from its depredations, and as promised, the king converted to Islam along with his people.

But Maldivian history from the Dhanbidhu Lomafanu copperplates dating from 1193 AD tell a different story. They tell of the king’s edict, whose cause remains unclear, ordering all Maldivians to convert to Islam. The order was resisted by the people, and in an attempt to quell the rebellion, Buddhist monks were beheaded, idols broken, and temples and monasteries razed to build mosques. It was many years before the strife ended, and the Maldivians converted to Islam.

This brings us to the variant version of the Rannamaari legend. According to this tradition, as al-Barbari waited inside the temple on the first night dressed as a bride, the monster came into view. As it drew near, al-Barbari attacked it and, taking it by surprise, overpowered it. He then learnt to his amazement that the monster was none other than the king of Maldives who, with the collusion of temple priests and courtiers, used this method to satisfy his violent lust and keep his subjects in fear.

In the medieval period, the Maldives’ exports of coconut fibre and cowrie shells gave it an important status, and it is conjectured that upon learning this secret, al-Barbari manipulated the situation to his advantage by exacting a promise from the king that he and his people would convert to Islam.

The account given in the Dhanbidhu Lomafanu lends credence to this version of the legend, relating how a tyrant met his match in a cunning trader and how their complicity unleashed violence on a population.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF.

This monthly column explores the curious world of the myths and folk tales of South Asia.

Also Read Musharraf’s previous Lounge columns

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