Daha Ata Sanniya :
Mask dancers exorcise evil spirits
The traditional mask
carvers of Ambalangoda who originally catered to the requirements of the
ritual dancers now depend entirely on the tourism industry for their
The mask museum at
Ambalangoda has become a popular tourist attraction in the south coast.
A masked dancer
Research findings of anthropologists reveal that since the era of the
Stone Age, mankind has the propensity to hide the identity and acquire
features either of an animal or of a supernatural being representing
mostly a deity, a demon or an evil spirit.
According to research of the anthropologists the origin of masks
proved to be a highly complex subject shrouded in mythology and mystery.
A mask has been a common device used worldwide in every culture for
disguise to hide the face of the wearer thus acquiring an alien
appearance which is further enhanced by appropriate costumes matching
the relevant ritual.
Masks vary from culture to culture and in accordance with their
diversity of functions. They are used in ritual dancing and exorcism,
fertility and funeral rites, for safety and security and in pageants of
cultural and religious significance.
Ambalangoda, a fast developing town in the south coast of Sri Lanka
is recognised worldwide as a region of traditional forms of folk arts
and crafts. Despite numerous challenges, puppeteers and mask carvers are
still engaged in their traditional forms of livelihoods inherited from
several generations which now entirely depend on the tourism industry.
The traditional mask carvers of Ambalangoda were well versed not only
in wood carving but were also fully aware of every aspect of mask dance
forms and the majority were able to recite long folk songs and ritual
poems which they had memorised from generation to generation.
They were experts in narrating folk tales mingled with humour mostly
punning on words.
Traditional mask carving in Sri Lanka originated in Ambalangoda and
in the beginning it was closely associated with folk dramas of puppetry,
Kolam and curative ritual dancing of exorcists long before masks became
a curio item for tourists.
Mask carvers have now spread in the Southern coastal belt and in and
around tourist resorts but wherever they operate their origins could be
traced back to Ambalangoda.
At the beginning there were two prominent traditions of mask and
Kolam dance forms representing two sections of Ambalangoda town limits.
The late Gunadasa Gurunnanse represented the Maha Ambalangoda
tradition while master craftsman Juwan Wadu Ariyapala Gurunnanse
represented the Hirewatta tradition.
Ariyapala Gurunnanse inherited the folk arts and crafts from his
grandfather Juwan Wadu Onderis de Silva the creator of a unique belfry
which is considered as a rare work of art and still stands majestically
at the entrance to the Ambalangoda Sunandarama Maha Vihara.
Traditional master craftsmen handle the tools with a ritualistic
fervour believing that the tools also possess certain mystic powers
affecting even the craftsmen. Both, Ariyapala Gurunnanse and Gunadasa
Gurunnanse were staunch believers of age-old mythology and mystic powers
These traditional craftsmen derived a great inner satisfaction by
carving masks and by successfully performing ritual mask dances playing
the role of an exorcist and curing the patients suffering from numerous
Masks are worn by the mask dancers in accordance with the rituals
they perform. Raksha Masks (Demon masks) are carved having all the weird
and grotesque features intricately embedded in them by the traditional
master craftsmen of Ambalangoda revealing their inherent expertise.
Mythology originated in the beginning of human civilisation long
before the origin of masks had been woven around every mask used in Sri
Lanka and in the world where masks had been used for a variety of
Naga Raksha (Cobra demon) mask as the name suggests is made up of
numerous cobra hoods and depicts all the features of a demon having a
ferocious face and a wide mouth with a set of sharp flesh eating teeth
and a blood thirsty tongue.
Gurulu Raksha (Eagle demon) mask, Maura Raksha mask (Peacock Demon)
and, Ginidel Raksha mask depict the flames of fire.
The Garunda mask is used in ritual dancing to drive away cobra demons
thus preventing cobra bites bringing sudden death to the rural folk in
The Gara Raksha mask is used in ritual dancing to dispel the evil
influence believed to have been caused by evil mouth and evil eyes still
commonly believed by the majority of the people in the country. Even
though Gara Yaka (Gara demon) was originally considered as a demon later
on due to its meritorious acts it had joined the pantheon of gods. Gara
mask is used in Kolam drama performances too.
In the pantheon of super natural beings, yakkas or demons belonged to
the lowest strata and it was attributed to their anti social and
nefarious behaviour patterns during their former birth.
The rural folk in Sri Lanka still believe that demons have the power
to cause numerous diseases.
Yakkas or demons cause certain diseases. For instance, the Suniyam
Yakka is believed to cause paralysis and deals with sorcery. The Mahason
Yakka's role is to frighten people and make them suffer from fever. It
is believed to haunt graveyards and most people fear to walk passing
graveyards at night due to the presence of the Mahason Yakka. The Riri
Yakka is believed to cause diseases related to the blood circulation of
human beings. The Kalu Yakka is believed to cause ailments of females
and babies. The Ahimana Yakka is used to frighten people and causes
The person believed to have mastered the rituals dealing on spirits,
yakkas (demons) and exorcism are known as Kattadiyas and the term Shaman
is generally used in the other parts of the world.
Shaman usually calls relevant Yakka (demon) to the residence of the
patient and reveals that the disease is due to the evil influence of the
demon. During the elaborate healing ritual the Yakka's role is performed
by the dancer wearing the appropriate mask and the costume while the
shaman recites ritual verses to the blasting sound of the drums. The
demon leaves the patient after appeasing with due offerings demanded by
There is a strong belief among ritual dance performers that there is
a massive transformation in them both mentally and physically, a kind of
a trance when they wear a ritual mask and dance, to the tune of the
Both, the patient afflicted by the evil spirits and the Kattadiya are
also under a trance in the height of the ritual performances. The
blasting sounds of drums, the burning of incense and the reciting of
numerous verses create a bizarre atmosphere suitable for the ritual. It
is a common experience of those who have watched the Gam Madu ritual
performed annually in many parts in Sri Lanka that even onlookers could
be seen in ecstasies.
The system of Ayurveda medical treatment and the exorcism that still
prevail have strong links. According to Ayurveda, everything comprised
five major elements such as air, water, fire, earth and space.
The imbalance of three Doshas identified as Vata (Air), Kapha
(Phlegm) and Pitha (Bile) is believed to be the root cause of all human
ailments according to the teachings of classical Sanskrit treatises of
Susruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita on Ayurveda.
Even today Sri Lankans believe in both the Ayurveda system of
treatment and healing rituals as effective ways of curing ailments.
Mostly in the rural sector Thovil the healing rituals are practised.
It is evident that mask carving and mask dancing coexisted with
exorcism and Ayurveda since very ancient times.
Healing ritual of 18 demons
The healing ritual dance popularly known as Sanni Yakuma is still
performed both as a system of exorcism to drive away evil spirits and as
a tourist attraction in the tourist resorts.
The healing ritual comprising 18 demons is a very elaborate and time
consuming procedure in which numerous dancers wearing a diversity of
masks have to perform before a large gathering. A team of ritual
artistes have to spend a considerable length of time to arrange a
location suitable for the ceremony. In the evening, the patient is
requested to be seated in the specially prepared place in front of the
residence. Sanni Yakuma commences at the auspicious time by conducting
religious ceremony, worshipping the Buddha and Bhikkhus. Just after the
religious ceremonies the chief Kattadiya, his assistants and the troupe
of dancers invoke the Gods.
The mask dancers representing the Yakkas (Demons) Kalu Yakka, Riri
Yaka, Mahason Yakka, Suniyam Yakka and Abimana Yakka are invited to the
scene during the second stage of the ritual dance of 18 demons.
The Kattadiya reveals the root cause of the suffering of the patient
seated before him. The patient at this stage provides the specific
offerings to the demons. The demons after receiving the offerings
promise leave the patient.
During the elaborate procedure numerous verses are recited and the
silence of the whole area from evening to dusk is disturbed by the
deafening sound emanating from the beating of drums.
Role of palis
Twelve mask dancers known as 'Palis' arrive at the location as
forerunners of the 18 Sanni demons and arrange the place for the ritual.
Palis assigned with different tasks come one after the other. Pandam
Paliya carries burning torches, Anguru Dummala Paliya carries (resin
powder and charcoal, Kadu Paliya carries a sword, Kalas Paliya carries a
flower pot, Salu Paliya carries betel, Dalumura Paliya carries betel,
Tambili Paliya carries a king coconut, Muguru Paliya carries a club,
Kukulu Paliya carries a cock, Athu Paliya carries branches, Dunu Paliya
carries a bow and arrow and Kendi Paliya carries holy water in a pot.
At the next stage the mask dancers representing the 18 Sanni Demons
arrive on the scene. Deva Sanniya causes measeles, mumps, smallpox,
diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera, Vata Sanniya causes paralysis; Pitha
Sanniya causes ailments related to bile; Amukku Sanniya causes stomach
pain and vomiting; Naga Sanniya causes pain in the body similar to cobra
bite; Ginijala Sanniya causes heat similar to fire in the body; Selesma
Sanniya causes diseases as a result of phlegm; cough and sneezing;
Kapala Sanniya causes headache; Maru Sanniya causes death; Kadawatha
Sanniya breaks the barrier between the patient and the Sanniya; Kora
Sanniya causes lame limbs, swollen joints; Bhuta Sanniya causes
temporary madness; Kana Sanniya causes temporary blindness; Jala Sanniya
causes unbearable cold and shivering; Bihiri Sanniya causes temporary
deafness; Golu Sanniya causes temporary dumbness; Veulum Sanniya causes
shivering and fits and Gedi Sanniya causes abscesses. The Sanni demons
wear the mask depicting the features of the disease they represent and
costumes of black and a skirt of leaves and perform the ritual dance.
During the continuous dialogue between the demon and the Kattadiya they
are questioned on what they did to the patient and the Sanni demon
explains the influence on the patient. Sanni demons demand offerings
from the patient and after receiving the offerings they agree to leave
At the end Prince Maha Kola the chief of the Sannis arrive on the
scene. Maha Kola tries to approach the patient but the Kattadiya
prevents the attempts. He leaves the place after receiving the
offerings. The Maha Kola mask is the most intricate of all the masks. It
comprises all the masks representing 18 demons. Finally, Purifying
Ritual is performed by the Double Torch Dancer.