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Several Dhivehi scripts have been used by Maldivians during their history. The early Dhivehi scripts fell into the abugida category, while the more recent Taana has characteristics of both an abugida and a true alphabet. An ancient form of Nagari script, as well as the Arabic and Latin scripts, have also been extensively used in the Maldives, but with a more restricted function. Latin was official only during a very brief period of the Islands' history.
The language of the Maldives has had its very own script since very ancient times. It is likely that the first Dhivehi script appeared in association with the expansion of Buddhism throughout South Asia. This was over two millennia ago, in the Mauryan period, during emperor Ashoka's time. Manuscripts used by Maldivian Buddhist monks were probably written in a script that slowly evolved into a characteristic Dhivehi form. None of those ancient documents have been discovered yet and the early forms of the Maldivian script are only found etched on a few coral rocks and copper plates.
Divehi Akuru "island letters" is a script formerly used to write the Dhivehi language. Unlike the modern Thaana script, Divehi Akuru has its origins in the Brahmi script and thus was written from left to right.
Divehi Akuru was separated into two variants, a more recent and an ancient one and christened "Dives Akuru" and "Evēla Akuru" respectively by Harry Charles Purvis Bell in the early 20th century. Bell was British and studied Maldivian epigraphy when he retired from the colonial government service in Colombo.
Bell wrote a monograph on the archaeology, history and epigraphy of the Maldives. He was the first modern scholar to study these ancient writings and he undertook an extensive and serious research on the available epigraphy. The division that Bell made based on the differences he perceived between the two types of Dhivehi scripts is convenient for the study of old Dhivehi documents.
The Divehi Akuru developed from the Grantha alphabet. The letters on old inscriptions resemble the southern Grantha of the Pallava dynasty and Chola dynasty periods of South India. However, this does not mean that the Maldives were dependent on those kingdoms, for the Maldives have been an independent nation for practically all their history. There has been very little interference, cultural or otherwise, from other neighboring kingdoms in South India and Sri Lanka.
The early form of this script was also called Divehi Akuru by Maldivians, but it was renamed Evēla Akuru "ancient letters" in a tentative manner by H. C. P. Bell in order to distinguish it from the more recent variants of the same script. This name became established and so the most ancient form of the Maldive script is now known as Evēla Akuru. The ancient name of the Evēla Akuru was Dīvī Grantha. This is the script that evolved at the time when the Maldives was an independent kingdom and it was still in use one century after the conversion to Islam.
Evēla can be seen in the Lōmāfānu (copper plate grants) of the 12th and 13th centuries and in inscriptions on coral stone (hirigā) dating back from the Maldive Buddhist period. Two of the few copper plate documents that have been preserved are from Haddhunmathi Atoll.
The oldest inscription found in the Maldives to date is an inscription on a coral stone found at an archaeological site on Landhū Island in Southern Miladhunmadulu Atoll, where there are important Buddhist archaeological remains including a large stupa. The Landhū inscription is estimated to be from the 8th century A.D. Even though long before that time Maldivian Buddhist monks had been writing and reading manuscripts in their language, older documents have not yet been discovered yet.
The reason why even at that time the local script was known as "Divehi Akuru" by Maldivians was because another non-Maldivian script was used in the country. This was a Devanagari script related to the form used by Bengali and it had a ceremonial value. The oldest paleographically-datable inscription found in the Maldives is a Prakrit inscription of Vajrayana Buddhism dating back to the 9th or 10th century AD. This inscription is written in an early form of the Nagari script. Thus the name "Divehi Akuru" was used historically by Maldivians to distinguish their own writing system from foreign scripts. Foreign scripts were learned and introduced at that time when Maldivian monks visited the Buddhist learning centers of Nalanda and Vikramashila.
Among the Divehi Akuru scripts, the later form of the Dhivehi script was the script that evolved from the ancient Dhivehi script or Evēla Akuru after the conversion of the Maldives to Islam. It was still used in some atolls in the South Maldives as the main script until around 70 years ago. Since then it is rarely used, not even having a ceremonial role in scrolls of coats-of-arms or badges of government entities and associations, where Arabic is favoured.
This script can be found on gravestones, old grants in paper and wood, and in some monuments, including the stone base of the pillars supporting the main structure of the ancient Friday Mosque in Malé. British researcher H. C. P. Bell obtained an astrology book written in Divehi Akuru in Addu Atoll, in the south of Maldives, during one of his trips. This book is now kept in the National Archives of Sri Lanka in Colombo.
Apparently, the Dhivehi script was abandoned in other parts of the Maldives in favour of the modern Thaana script about 200 years earlier, perhaps at the beginning of the 18th century. Some modern Dhivehi historians want to believe that the Thaana script was introduced a few centuries before that. But the claim that the Thaana letters were devised in the 16th century is not supported by historical documents, for the oldest writing specimens in the Thaana script, interspersed with Arabic, are from the 18th century.
Thaana is the first Dhivehi script written from right to left. It was inspired by numbers. It uses numerals as consonants and adds the diacritical (vowel) marks of the Arabic language.
The first Thaana manuscripts are written in a crude early version of this script called Gabulhi Thaana (incipient Thaana), where the Arabic numerals have not yet been slanted 45 degrees and still look like numbers. Since no ancient writings in Thaana written before the 18th century have been found, it is doubtful that this script could be much older.
The main reason why the Divehi Akuru were abandoned in favour of the Thaana script was owing to the need the learned Maldivians had to include words and sentences in Arabic while writing in the Dhivehi language.
The most intriguing fact about the Thaana alphabet is its order (hā, shaviyani, nūnu, rā, bā, etc.). Its sequence does not follow the ancient order of the other Indic scripts (like Sinhala or Tamil) or the order of the Arabic alphabet. In fact, the order of the Thaana alphabet has no logic at all. This points to a likely esoteric origin of Thaana, namely to a script that was scrambled on purpose in order to keep it secret from average islanders. At their origin the Thaana characters, which are based on Arabic numerals and other symbols, were used in fandita (local magic or sorcery) to write magical spells. Many of these arcane incantations included Arabic quotations, which were written from right to left. Maldivian learned men, who were all well versed in sorcery, eventually saw the advantages of writing in this simplified hidden script. Hence, with the passing of time, Thaana came out of the shadows and was gradually adopted for everyday use.
This script is currently in use as the sole Dhivehi writing system. While at their origin documents written in Thaana were full of Arabic words and quotations, the tendency is now to include as little Arabic script as possible, especially since special Thaana letters with dots were introduced to replace Arabic letters. The Thaana script is widely used nowadays by Maldivians both in official and unofficial documents, for the literacy rate of the Maldive society is very high by South Asian standards.
The letter naviyani ޱ, representing the retroflex nasal]] /ɳ/ sound common to all Indic languages (Sinhala, Bengali, Hindi, etc.), was abolished from official documents in 1950 by Muhammad Amin, the ruler of Maldives. The reason why this particular retroflex sound was abolished and not others like Lhaviyani, Daviyani or Taviyani is not known.
Letter Naviyani's former position in the Thaana alphabet was the nineteenth, between letters Daviyani and Zaviyani. It is still seen in reprints of traditional old books like the Bodu Tartheebu. It is also used by people of Addu and Fuvahmulah when writing songs or poetry in their language variants.
In 1959, during Sultan Mohammed Farid’s reign, former Prime Minister (and later President) Ibrahim Nasir expressed a wish to have a book written about the former Dhivehi script which by that time was largely ignored by Maldivians. Thus, he contacted As-Sayyid Bodufenvalhuge Sidi, an eminent Maldivian scholar, who swiftly obliged.
By means of this small book Bodufenvalhuge Sidi (1888–1970) wanted to clearly show the fact that in ancient times Maldivians were writing from left to right in their own script. Hence Divehi Akuru is perhaps the only book ever written in Thaana that opens from the left side.
As-Sayyid Bodufenvalhuge Sidi was one of the very few Maldivian people of modern times who understood the now-forgotten ancient Dhivehi letters in which parts of royal grants, warrants and deeds were written. He learnt this ancient script in Addu Atoll. Until early in the twentieth century, all government correspondence to and from Addu Atoll was written using these ancient Dhivehi letters.
The last chapter of this book shows a text where the Divehi Akuru are coming along with Arabic script. As the reader acquainted with Dhivehi writing can see, this book is Volume 1 (evvana bai). Perhaps Bodufenvalhuge Sidi had the intention of publishing a second, or perhaps even a third volume on the subject. But he died before being able to do so.
Even though H. C. P. Bell undertook very careful and thorough research on the Dhivehi documents, Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir's intention was to have a book on the ancient script of the Maldives written by a Maldivian. Prime Minister Nasir's request to Bodufenvalhuge Sidi was done in order to clarify Bell's misinterpretations, no matter how few. A staunch Maldivian nationalist, Nasir took this issue as a matter of national pride.
Present day members of Maldivian cultural institutions are aware of the lacunae in Bell's research and of Bodufenvalhuge Sidi's valuable contribution to mend matters, but little has been done to correct those inaccuracies. Still, Bell's broad and valuable contributions to the study of the Dhivehi language and scripts should not be underestimated.
Towards the mid 1970s, during President Ibrahim Nasir's tenure, Telex machines were introduced by the Maldivian Government in the local administration. The new telex equipment was viewed as a great progress, however the local Thaana script was deemed to be an obstacle because messages on the telex machines could only be written in the Latin script. Following this, Dhivehi Letin, an official Latin transliteration, was swiftly approved by the Maldivian government in 1976 and was quickly implemented by the administration. Booklets were printed and dispatched to all Atoll and Island Offices, as well as schools and merchant liners. This was seen by many as the demise of the Thaana script.
Clarence Maloney, the American anthropologist who was in the Maldives at the time of the change, lamented the crude inconsistencies of Dhivehi Letin and wondered why the modern IAST Standard Indic transliteration had not been considered. Standard Indic is a consistent script system that is well adapted to writing practically all languages of South Asia.
The Thaana script was reinstated by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom shortly after he took power in 1978. There was widespread relief in certain places, especially rural areas, where the introduction of Latin had been regarded as a preliminary to the introduction of infidel mores. However, the substandard Latin transcription of 1976 continues to be widely used.
Although the Mahl dialect of the Dhivehi language spoken in the island of Minicoy in Union territory of Lakshadweep, India is also written mainly using the Thaana alphabet, in the 1950s a Devanagari script was modified to write the Maldivian dialect.