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The Maldives is a nation consisting of 28 natural atolls, comprising 1194 islands. Since ancient times, the Maldives were ruled by kings (Radhun) and occasionally queens (Ranin). The earliest written history of the Maldives is marked by the arrival of Sinhalese people, who were descended from the exiled Magadha Prince Vijaya of North East India. Historically, the Maldives had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives' nearest neighbours are Sri Lanka and India, both of which have had cultural and economic ties with Maldives for centuries. The Maldives provided the main source of cowrie shells, then used as a currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast. Most probably Maldives were influenced by Kalingas of ancient India who were earliest sea traders to Sri Lanka and Maldives from India and were responsible for spread of Buddhism. Hence ancient Hindu culture has indelible impact on Maldives' local culture.
After the 16th century, when colonial powers took over much of the trade in the Indian Ocean, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and the French occasionally meddled in local politics. However, this interference ended when the Maldives became a British Protectorate in the 19th century and the Maldivian monarchs were granted a good measure of self-governance.
The Maldives gained total independence from the British on 26 July 1965. However, the British continued to maintain an air base on the island of Gan in the southernmost atoll until 1976. The British departure in 1976 at the height of the Cold War almost immediately triggered foreign speculation about the future of the air base. Apparently the Soviet Union made a move to request the use of the base, but the Maldives refused.
The greatest challenge facing the republic in the early 1990s was the need for rapid economic development and modernisation, given the country's limited resource base in fishing, agriculture and tourism. Concern was also evident over a projected long-term sea level rise, which would prove disastrous to the low-lying coral islands.