The Localist

Speaking of the devil….

The Devil Dance

If you happened to watch the Sri Lankan leg of Amazing Race Australia in 2011, you may recall the chaos that followed the Sri Lankan Mask Festival, as teams were lost in a frenzy of masked dancers.

The history of Sri Lankan masks actually dates as far back as the 15th century, with strong links to devil-worship. For anyone interested in the art of Sri Lankan mask carving or mask dances, a trip to the coastal town of Ambalangoda is a must. There you will find the Mask Museum: a museum, workshop and library dedicated to everything mask related.

In Sri Lanka, we mainly use masks for mask dances, while hanging masks in the household to cast off the evil eye is also quite popular. There are three types of mask dances: Kolam (Folktale), Raksha (Demon) and Sanni (Devil Dance). Lay people use the Kolam masks for storytelling dances while the Raksha masks are used to ward off evil or as an aid in festivals. The Sanni masks are mainly used in healing ceremonies and worn by an edura (a sort of Sri Lankan artist/exorcist). Apparently, there are eighteen different Sanni masks, each specializing in curing specific illnesses.

Sanni masks – Gulma Sanniya (left), demon of parasitic worms and stomach diseases; Bihiri Sanniya (middle), demon of deafness; and Golu Sanniya (right), demon of dumbness Source:

The traditional Sri Lankan mask is hand carved by an edura, or exorcist, out of local wood and polished using certain plant leaves. Next it is painted with natural organic and mineral based pigments. Usually, white colour comes from clay, green from leaves, blue from fruits, yellow from yellow pepper, black from charred cotton and red from red bricks or clay. A sealant comprising of beeswax is then applied to protect the colours before the artisan makes the final touch ups. Facial hair is mimicked through the use of elephant hairs, and monkey skin is also sometimes used to give that authentic velvety skin-like feel. When not mass-produced, each mask is unique, intricately designed and evidence of incredible attention to detail.

While the production of handcrafted masks using traditional methods and the performing of devil dances to cure ailments have both greatly diminished in recent years, the making of synthetic masks and the enactment of devil dances for outsiders is still popular in the southern coastal region. Besides, surely it’s reassuring to know that whether you’re seeking protection from snakes or fire, or suffering from nightmares, epilepsy, nausea or blindness, there’s always a Sri Lankan mask cure for all your problems!





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