Scattered across the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the gemlike islands of the Maldives depict the rare vision of a tropical paradise. Palm fringed islands with sparkling white beaches, turquoise lagoons, clear warm waters and coral reefs teeming with abundant varieties of marine flora and fauna, continue to fascinate visitors, as it has fascinated others in the past, for thousands of years. Marco Polo referred to the Maldives as the '...flower of the Indies', and Ibn Batuta called her in his chronicles ' One of the wonders of the world '.
Truly a natural wonder, the height of the islands rarely reach above two metres. The 1,190 islands, consisting of 26 atoll formations, are spread over an area of 90,000 square kilometres. The Maldivian atolls are a classic discovery in its own right. The word atoll has been derived from Dhivehi, the Maldivian language, from the word atholhu.
The islands are surrounded by shallow crystal clear lagoons enclosed by coral reefs. The unique islands provide visitors with one of the most breathtaking views of underwater life in the world. Formed above peaks emerging from the depths of the ocean, upon layers of both living and dead coral, and remnants of other marine life, the islands are generally covered with dense tropical vegetation. Coconut palms towering above dense shrubs and hardy plants protecting the shores from erosion are natural features in most Islands. The smaller islands and sand banks under formation are also wonders in themselves. These islands together embody living entities in various stages of formation, as interdependent elements in an ecology, in a food chain where birds, fish, and other marine life co-exist, with humans at its apex as caretakers for centuries.
Measuring 820 Kilometres north to south and 120 kilometres east to west at its greatest width, the closest neighbours are India and Shri Lanka. With a population off 244,644 ( 1995 official estimate), only 199 islands are inhabited. Another 74 islands are set aside exclusively for tourist resort development.
The origins off the Maldivians are lost in ancient history. There are historical and archeological records which indicate the islands to have been inhabited more than 5,000 years. There are also indications that the Maldives, being on an important trade route, was settled by people from all over the world. This leaves the origins off the people enshrined in mystery. However, the main stock of the - Maldivian people, as seen from physical features and supported by historical evidence of migration, are predominantly Aryan or Dravidian. Throughout the Maldives a language which belongs to the Indo-Iranian group, Dhivehi, is spoken. It shows a strong Arabic influence. Dhivehi written from right to left is the official language of the country. As a second working language, English is widely used in Government offices. Other foreign languages, however, are widely used within the tourism industry. Foreign languages, mainly English, are also frequently used in commerce.