The famous explorer Marco Polo referred to the Maldives as the 'flower of the Indies,' while the great traveller Ibn Babuta called her 'one of the wonders of the world.'
The archipelago of Maldives has been a constant source of attraction to many tourists all over the globe.
Its golden beaches, washed by the azure waters of the Indian Ocean, are enticing to one who loves to venture into the sea.
There is a fear that as sea levels rise, island countries such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands will simply be swamped and disappear.
The Maldives has made progress in developing its infrastructure and industries, including the fisheries sector, and in improving health, education and literacy.
A short history of Maldives
Maldives comprises approximately 1,900 islands in the Indian Ocean. The earliest settlers were probably from southern India. Indo-European speakers followed them from Sri Lanka in the fourth and fifth centuries BC.
Towards 12th century AD, sailors from E Africa and Arab nations came to the islands. Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid-12th century.
While the early history of the Maldives is obscure, Maldivian legend has it that a Sinhalese prince - Koimale - was stranded with his bride - daughter of the king of Sri Lanka - in a Maldivian lagoon and stayed on to rule as the first sultan.
Over the centuries, the islands have been visited and their development influenced by sailors from countries on the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean littorals.
Mopla pirates from the Malabar Coast - present-day Kerala - harassed the islands. In the 16th century, the Portuguese ruled the islands for 15 years (1558-73) before being driven away by the warrior-patriot Muhammad Thakurufar Al-Azam.
Though governed as an independent Islamic sultanate for most of its history from 1153 to 1968, Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 until July 25, 1965.
[In 1953, there was a brief, abortive attempt at a republican form of government, after which the sultanate was reimposed.]
Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another 3 years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name.
Location: Maldives is a group of coral islands that stretch along the 73rd meridian between latitudes 0°42' south and 8°10' north.
The shortest distance from the mainland of India is 350 km and from Sri Lanka 740 km.
The islands lie in the northern Indian Ocean and the sea area is approximately 107,500 sq km. At least 202 of the hundreds are inhabited.
The archipelago is 823 km long and 130 km at its greatest width. The islands are formed into 26 natural atolls but they are divided into 19 administrative regions, also known as "atolls."
Climate: Generally, the year is divided into two monsoon periods: the northeast monsoon or Iruvai lasts from December to March, which are the drier months; the southwest monsoon or Hulhangu lasts from April to November, which are wetter, with more storms and occasional strong winds.
Daytime temperatures are about 28°C throughout the year. The humidity is slightly lower in the dry season but on most days, there is a cool sea breeze.
Flora and fauna of Maldives: Though several of the bigger islands have an abundant growth of palm trees, there are others that have poor, sandy soil that supports only a few plants-bamboo, banana, mangroves, breadfruit trees, banyans, tropical vines and numerous coconut palms.
The larger, wetter islands have small areas of rainforest. The main crops are limited to sweet potatoes, yams, taro, millet and watermelon, though in a few fertile islands citrus fruits and pineapples are grown as well.
Natural fauna is sparse-giant fruit bats, colorful lizards and the occasional rat. Domestic animals include cats, a few chickens, goats and some rabbits. The most exciting wildlife is under the water.
Diving under the azure waters will enable one to see butterfly fish, angelfish, parrotfish, rock cod, unicorn fish, trumpet fish, blue-stripe snapper, Moorish idols, oriental sweet lips and more. Larger life forms, keenly sought by scuba divers, include sharks, stingrays, manta rays, turtles and dolphins.
Population: 328,000 (UN, 2004)
Area: 298 sq km (115 sq miles)
Major language: Divehi
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 68 years (men), 67 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 rufiyaa = 100 laari
Main exports: Fish, clothing
GNI per capita: US $2,300 (World Bank, 2003)
International dialling code: +960