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Sunday, 31 March 2013





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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 survival.

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.

Folk songs

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.

Master craftsmen

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 of masks.

Kolam dancers

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 diseases.

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 rituals.

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

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 Sri Lanka.

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 mental ailments.

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 the demon.


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 drums.

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.

Second stage

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.

Sanni demons

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 the patient.

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.



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