Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dheli Maali

By: Zueshan Ali

Marching to a slow beat chanting rhymes, ash-covered men emerge from the woods. The ‘Dheli Maali’ festivity has begun. They walk on slowly, beating drums. Led by an elder holding a spear called ‘mada’,
‘Dheli Maali’ are men who act out a scenario where they are the saviors of the island who have arrived to expel an imaginary beast. Cautious in their movements, they look from side to side hoping to catch a glimpse of the beast.
Weeks prior to the ‘Alha Eid’ (Muslim Festival of Sacrifice), Maldivians collect and beat coconut husks, which are then burnt in remote areas of the woods; in preparation for the main event. Then, smeared in layers of ash, wearing skirts woven out of palm leaves, young men come out, ready to ‘hunt’. Twelve chosen men, walk in two lines side by side, following their leader with great zeal. Sharp eyes searching the surrounding, attentive ears listening for any signs of danger around them while they walk the sands of the island; searching for the predator they want as prey: ‘Namuru’ (a spotted animal).This March proceeds slowly, as the first ‘Namuru’ song is sung lazily to a slow beat:

“Dheli hahdhaa valaku therein nerunu maali”
(Maali’s decorated with ash in the woods),
“Balaa belumah kathunnah rivethi vaane”
(People will find them beautiful to look at),
“Fari hahdhaa valaku therein nerunu maali”
(Maali’s dressed up in the woods and brought out),
“Balaa belumah kathunnah rivethi vaane”
(People find them beautiful to look at).

 As time passes, the mood starts to change. The lazy drum beat picks up momentum, footsteps quicken. The men start marching faster, ever more determined. The atmosphere becomes dense with anticipation. The men are increasingly readier to hunt. In a wild frenzy, the whole environment changes as the drums beat faster and so does hearts. The slow introductory song dies down and is taken over by a more exotic one giving away a sense of urgency:

“Lamuge aa emme thakun hamdhu sana kiyaa dhulun”
(People of the universe; sing praise!)
“Namuru annaane thi hey ronee?”
(Are you crying because ‘Namuru’ will come?).

Meanwhile, crawling cunningly on all fours, the ‘Namuru’ roams around the island. It is a masked man covered in ash. This is personification of the ancient beast hunted by our forefathers from Africa. It looks for none other than the leader of the hunters. It goes about slowly, petrifying anyone who sees it. Knowing little of what fate will befall on it, it prowls like a proud monarch unknowingly surveying its imminent doom.
The time has finally arrived when the men and the ‘Namuru’ are face to face. Then, the much anticipated duel begins to take place. May the best man win? The twelve chosen men in ash surround the beast, blocking any path of escape. The leader and the beast attack each other in a game of death. Drums beat faster as the men cheer for their leader. After vigorous fighting, the man stabs the beast which succumbs to his spear. Drums beat all around, songs are sung fast and loud as the men drag the ‘Namuru’ to the sea to drown it. The men then bath in the shallow waters after which they walk onto the island, emerging victorious as saviors of the island. It is their moment of glory.
For centuries, this practice has been a common feature of Eid celebrations. Although there are some variations in the way it is performed, the ‘Dheli Maali’ festivity is held throughout the country. It is a men-oriented game. The whole island gathers to watch ‘Namuru’ being hunted. In some islands like Maafaru in Noonu Atoll, the ‘Namuru’ goes around the island scaring everyone before it is hunted. People of all ages take delight in being scared by the masked man playing ‘Namuru’, watching it being hunted and drowned.
The origin of this festival is unknown. But it is believed to have come from the Africans who settled in the Maldives.

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