The Maldives, officially the Republic of Maldives, is an island country consisting of a group of atolls stretching south of India's Lakshadweep islands between Minicoy Island and the Chagos Archipelago, and about seven hundred kilometres (435 mi) south-west of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea of Indian Ocean. The twenty-six atolls of Maldives encompass a territory featuring 1,192 islets, of which two hundred islands are inhabited.
The original inhabitants were Buddhist, probably since Ashoka's period,in the 3rd century BC. Islam was introduced in 1153. The Maldives then came under the influence of the Portuguese (1558) and the Dutch (1654) seaborne empires. In 1887 it became a British protectorate. In 1965, the Maldives obtained independence from Britain (originally under the name "Maldive Islands"), and in 1968 the Sultanate was replaced by a Republic.
The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in terms of both population and area; it is the smallest predominantly Muslim nation in the world. With an average ground level of 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) above sea level, it is also the country with the lowest highest point in the world, at 2.3 metres (7 ft 7 in).