The Maldives archipelago comprises some 1,190 islands (202 of which are inhabited) in a chain of 20 coral atolls, located in the Indian Ocean 416 miles/670 km south-west of Sri Lanka, covering an area of 116 square miles/300 square kilometres. Protected from monsoon devastation by barrier reefs (faros), none of the islands rises above 5 ft/ 1.8 m. Tropical crops include breadfruit, mango, banana, cassava and screwpine. 10% of the total surface is arable and 3% is forested.
The Maldive Islands, settled by its original Dravidian inhabitants from southern India perhaps as early as the 4th century BC, came under the domination of Indo-Aryans mainly from Ceylon who arrived 400 years later. The king converted in AD 1153 from Buddhism to Islam, ordering the population to do likewise. The islands were ruled as a Muslim sultanate, with a brief interlude under Portugese control from Goa (1558-73).
The British established a protectorate in Dec. 1887. The powers of the sultans were circumscribed by the provisions of a 1932 constitution, and a short-lived modernising regime set up a republic (1953-4) before a coup restored the sultanate. Ibrahim Nasir, prime minister to the last of the sultans (from 1957) and effective leader of the country at the time of independence (26 July 1965), became president when a referendum approved a republican constitution (11 Nov. 1968); he strengthened the powers of the presidence (March 1975) but then stood down and left the country (1978), and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was elected to succeed him. Gayoom was re-elected, unopposed, for his fourth five-year term in a referendum held on 1 Oct. 1993.
The Maldives joined the Commonwealth as a special status member in July 1982 and became a full member on 20 June 1985.
Divehi, a Sinhalese dialect of Arabic extraction is the official language. Arabic, English and Hindi are also spoken.
7 January (National Day), 26 July (Independence Day), 11 November (Republic Day)