Even when Sri Lanka was embroiled in political turmoil and civil war, the performing arts, particularly dance continued to be widely practiced. A characteristic feature of Sri Lankan types of performance are the various processions connected to religious festivities with dancers and dancing drummers performing while they move on the streets or in a temple yard. The processions often include acrobatics. Several the village rituals with dancing and drama are still practiced. Among these are sanni (Sinhalese exorcism ritual) and kolam (traditional dance drama), which are still practiced in villages but have also been adapted for the modern stage.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: As in most Asian traditions, in Sri Lanka, too, almost all of the theatrical traditions are dancing that is performed. Thus dance and theater are inseparable from each other. The accompanying music is provided mainly by drums and other percussion instruments, and often the dancers themselves play instruments while dancing. Thus music and dance are also very closely related to each other. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

Basically, the dance techniques, and thus also the theatrical traditions employing them, are divided into two basic categories, the “up-country” (udarata natum) and the “low-country” (patarata natum) traditions. The “up-country” covers the hill regions of the former kingdom of Kandy, and the tradition is thus better known as Kandyan dances. The “low-country” refers to the coastal regions of the island. In fact, there is also a third category, the so-called “mid-country” (sabaragamu natum) tradition, which blends elements from the other two categories. All these traditions share a more or less common religious and mythological background, while they differ in their dance techniques and in the accompanying drum music.

A lot of energy has been put into keeping Sri Lankan dance traditions alive. Nowadays Kandyan dance technique that was once the domain of men is also taught to female dancers, though only in an adapted form. The Institute of Aesthetic Studies is a department of the University of Kelaniya, near Colombo, offers instruction in dance. Private schools teach Eastern and Western dance and music. A national dance troupe regularly performs. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]


History and Origin of Dance in Sri Lanka

Dances have been performed in Sri Lanka since at least 600 B.C. In the old days dance was not so much a form or entertainment as an essential ingredient to important rituals and ceremonies. The influence of Buddhism have kept them modest in nature. The ancient chronicle the “Mahavamsa” describes ancient dances presided over by priests. It says that when the legendary King Vijaya came to Sri Lanka in 543 B.C. he heard wedding music and started dancing. Of a long time many traditional dances were performed only by men. But according to visual sources, such as the temple reliefs, it appears that the female dance tradition was abandoned only in the late Kandyan period after the arrival of Europeans.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Sri Lanka has several still extant traditions of dance and theater. The most archaic of them are some of the folk rituals, particularly exorcism ceremonies, that aim to propitiate various evil spirits. These forms include, among others, tovil and sanni. Characteristic of most of the folk rituals is the use of colorful masks. Sanni, for example, has created a complicated masks system with dozens of different types of mask. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

One of the forms of the mask theaters, kolam, has evolved towards folk theater with loosely constructed plots and entertaining stock numbers. Formerly there were also other forms of folk theater, such as nadagama and nurthi, both originally derived from India. They are now both extinct but during their heyday in the early 20th century they influenced the style and repertoire of Sri Lanka’s marionette theater, rukada.

On the origins of dance, some have speculated that primitive man, living in communities along the rivers, had a close relationship with the nature. Some of the things in nature became their Gods From the beginning the man was afraid of natural events such as floods, drought and storms and began making offerings in rituals with dance to appease the gods and get them to use their supernatural powers to help and protect them.

It is said the concept of dancing in Sri Lanka starts with “Kohombakankariya” in 4th century B.C. during the period of pandukabhaya in which people used dancing in ritual in an effort to prevent natural disasters and sickness. The Mahavamsa — the great chronicle of Sri Lanka — describes dancing in a procession of the tooth relic during Anuradhapura period (377 B.C. to A.D. 1017). At the end of Polonnaruwa period (1055 to 1232) Indian influences took hold. The Kandy kingdom (1469–1815) had an independent form of dancing with Hindu influence. In the south during the period of King Kavantissa (1st century B.C.) a dancing form developed in the south. “Sabaragamuwa dance" emerged in Kotte, a kingdom that flourished in Sri Lanka during the 15th century.

Important steps in the gradual secularization of Kandyan dances occurred when they were added to the annual Kandy Perahera procession in 1916, and later, in the 1950s, when they were, standardised and added to the curricula of schools and art institutions.

Chitrasena (1921-2006) was a pioneer of the Sinhala ballet and laid the foundations for modem dance theater in Sri Lanka. Vajira Chitrasena (1951–2004) was Chitrasena’s wife and dancer partner and a genius in her own right. Kandyan dances were adapted for the modern stage, first by Chitrasena and later by several other choreographers. More recently many dancer-choreographers have used Sri Lankan techniques as a basis for contemporary creations.

Kinds of Sri Lanka Dances

There are four main kinds of dances in Sri Lanka: 1) Kandyan “udarate” dances, associated with the hill country around Kandy; 2) Pahatharata and “ruhunu” devil dances from the southern coast and low country; 3) masked dances of the interior; and 4) “sabaragamuwa” for the western highlands. Many dances have traditionally been performed only by men but now many women participate in dances, even ones that were once exclusively the realm of male dancers. Many dancers belong to traditional dance castes and dances are kept alive by fathers and teachers passing them on their children and students. [Source: Book: “International Encyclopedia of Danc”e, editor Jeane Cohen, six volumes, 3,959 pages, $1,250, Oxford University Press, New York. It took 24 years to prepare.

Only men have traditionally take part in Kandyan dancing. Drums called “udarata beraya” or “gataberaya” accompany the dance. Low country (Pahatharata) dance has a lot of drama in it and includes “maru sanniya”, “giri devi” and “shanthi karma”. ”Kolam” falls in this category but uses masks. The drum called “pahatha rata beraya” or"yak beraya” or “thovil beraya” accompanies these dance. Sabaragamuwa dancing is done mainly by men but women are allowed to participate. Sindu mathraya, gaman mathraya, yakpada mathraya, patu thala mathraya are some examples of this kind of dance. Drums called “daula” or “thammattama” accompanied these dance. There is also Bharata Natyam dance.

Well-Known Sri Lanka Dances

Mayura Natuma (Peacock Dance) features girls depicting the graceful movements of the peacock which according to mythology is the bird that transports Skanda, the War-God of Ceylon, worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus alike. [Source: My Sri Lanka ]

Pantheru Natuma is named after the primary the musical instrument used, the Pantheru, which is sort of like a tambourine. Rhythm is also provided by the accompanying drums. The dance itself shows Sinhala warriors on their way to battle. The Pantheru is manipulated with great skill and dexterity by the dancers who create a series of vigorous acrobatic and rhythmic forms.

Raksha Natuma (Devil Dance) is a a South Sri Lanka mask dance with the Raksha (devil) masks symbolizing the fight between a cobra and a bird. This dance is used to exorcise demons from the possessed and is still believed to be effective psychiatric treatment in Sri Lanka.

Lee Keli Natuma is popular in all parts of the country, particularly during festivals In which both male and female dancers participate. Each dancer has two sticks and the sound of the sticks sticking each other together with those of the accompanying drums provide the rhythm for the -'dancers

Raban Natuma is a traditional folk dance which uses the Raban, an Instrument similar to the drum. The popular Ath Raban (Hand Rabana) is almost, one foot in diameter and is both played and wielded in a variety of forms by the male and female dancers. Raban playing is accompanied by singing too.

Devol Natuma features dance sequences performed for general immunity from evil influences as well as for healing specific ailments. It is a part of ceremony connected with folk religion. The vigorous movements of the dancers are derived from the dance forms of the Southern parts of Sri Lanka.

Entertainment Dances in Sri Lanka

A number of dances are viewed today as forms of entertainment. These dances are often performed at tourist shows. Dance shows are held most nights at the Kandyan Arts Associations’s Hall in Kandy. The shows start at 6:00pm and cost 300 rupees and features Kandyan dances, masked dancing and firewalking as well as the puja dance, which pays tribute to guardian deities and pays homage to the dancer’s guru; the cobra dance, which depicts the movements of the cobra and efforts by a snake charmer to tame him; the Mayura Yannama, a dance that depicts the movements of the peacock; the raban dance, which features energetic drumming All these dances are quite athletic and features kung-fu-style leaps, hand springs and back flips.

Magul Bera (Ceremonial Drums) features dance rituals that have been around for a long time. The blowing of the Conch Shell is the traditional invocation at the commencement of any function and the drums (Bera) are an Integral part of the ritual. It is an ancient Sinhala custom to present ritual music when seeking the blessings of the Guardian Deities of the land. [Source: My Sri Lanka ]

Ves Natuma is the most important in the Kandyan dance form. Ves is the traditional attire of the Kandyan dancer. Sixty four ornaments complete the dress and traditionally their sheen symbolizes, the rays of the sun. It takes years of rigorous training before a dancer can achieve the status of a fully-fledged Ves dancer.

Gini Sisila (Fire Dance) is from southern Sri Lanka. It demonstrates the power of charms over fire and the twenty seven devils that can trouble mankind. The absolute faith of the fire dancers protects them from the flames. This dance also includes fire-eating.

Kulu Natuma (Harvest Dance) is a traditional folk dance performed by village women to celebrate a rich harvest The dance portrays sequences from reaping to winnowing of the grain. This is a buoyant dance providing ample opportunities for displaying feminine grace, It is danced to the accompaniment of light drum beats and the haunting strains of the flute.

Puja Natuma features girls carrying oil lamps and making an offering (Puja) of their dancing skills to the Guardian Deities. Natuma means dance.

Fire Walking is always a crowd pleasure. The origin of fire walking can be traced back to the epic story of Rama and Sita.Ravana, the King of Ceylon, had abducted the princess Sita from India. When Rama her husband (an Indian King) regained her, she proved her chastity during her enforced stay with Ravana, by walking on fire barefoot-unhurt. The devotees who perform fire-walking seek the divine blessings of Lord Kataragama and Goddess Pattini before they do so.

Kandyan Dances

Kandyan dances are from and still performed in Kandy, the last royal capital of imperial Sri Lanka. Regarded as classical Sri Lankan dances and the national dances of Sri Lanka, they have traditionally been performed by men and are considered the purest form of Sinhalese dancing. Dancers have traditionally been members of a dancing caste with fathers passing on the dances to their sons.

The rhythm for Kandyan dances have traditionally been provided by cymbals and drums. The drums and certain rhythms associated with certain deities are considered sacred. Male dancers from Kandy wear a fine white cotton costume that is gathered at the waist and held in place with a heavy ornamented belt. Below the gathered shirt are white cotton trousers. An ornamented breastplate is worn. It is made with silver discs and beads. The headdress is made of silver and decorated with gems.

The Geta Bera is he most important kind of drum in Kanyan dancing. Also spelled “gete-bere” and also known as the “magul bere”, it is made from a carved out block of wood from Ehela, Kohomba or Kos tree and is said to be constructed according to a design first offered by Maha Brahma, the supreme god. The drum tapers towards the ends and on the right side. The skin on one side is from a monkey while the skin on the other side is from a an ox. Each produces different tones. The braces and strings on the sides are made with deerskin. They can be tightened to provide the desired tension. The drum is usually slung around the neck and the played with both hands. A student who begins his training in the use of the Greta Bera has to practice twelve elementary exercises.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: The Kandyan, or up-country (udarata natum), dances, are regarded as the classical dance tradition of Sri Lanka.. The technique, partly derived from South India, focuses on dynamism, powerful footwork, leaps and whirls. It has a vast repertoire, partly originating from an ancient indigenous ritual dance, partly influenced by South Indian dances. Kandyan dances are now probably the country’s most important cultural export. However, the most spectacular performances can still be seen in a religious context, particularly during the annual Kandy Perahera procession in the city of Kandy. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

Main Types of Kandyan Dance

There are five major types of Kandyan dance: 1) ves; 2) naiyandi; 3) uddekki ; 4) pantheru; and 5) vannans. The “ves” dance is named after the silver headdress which is worn by the dancers and is part of the ancient kohomba ritual, in which a demons living in the kohomab tree is exorcized. It is performed by high status dancers, known as “yakdessa”, wearing a costume with 64 ornaments. It takes many years of rigorous training for a dancer to attain the level to wear such a costume. The yakdessa are initiated in an elaborate ceremony in a Buddhist temple.

Naiyandi dancers have traditionally performed during the initial preparations for the Kohomba Kankariya (Devil Dance) Festival when lamps are lit and food is given to demons. The dance is graceful. Dancers wear white turbans and white clothes, silver chains, brass shoulder plates, anklets and beadwork across their chest.

The “uddekki” is a dance performed during the Perahera in Kandy. Named after an hour-glass-shaped lacquered hand drum, it is performed by bare-chested dancers in white turbans, brass arm bracelets, silver earings, beaded chest straps and ankle-length white cotton skirts with three rows of ruffles at the hips and a belt around the waist. The drum is said to be the gift of three gods, with its sound coming from Vishnu. The drum is difficult to play. It has strings that are tightened and loosened to vary the pitch.

The “pantheru” dance is named after a tambourine-like instrument dedicated to the goddess Pattini. The instrument is said to date to the time of the Buddha and is said to have originally been performed to celebrate war victories. The costume is similar to that of uddekki dancers.

“Vannam” dances are named after sacred songs that offer tribute and are often inspired by animals, deities, nature, legends, folk art and sacred texts. There are 18 vannamas. Individual dances have been inspired by elephants, conches, cobras, monkeys, arrows, crawling creatures, butterflies and kings. Episodes from the Ramayana are inspiration for other dances.

History of Kandyan Dance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “It is generally agreed that the roots of Kandyan dances lie in an ancient village ritual, called kohomba kankariya. It has been an important folk ritual of the regions of the Kandyan kingdom. It combined dance, music and dance. Like most of the birth legends of Sri Lankan theatrical traditions, the story of the origins of kohomba kankariya also tells us about the intervention of supernatural beings to cure a king. The original ritual is rare nowadays, but some of its dances are included in the repertoire of Kandyan dances. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“The South Indian form, and particularly the influential form of Kerala (read more about the traditions of Kerala), is said to have arrived during the early 18th century, when the King of Kandy invited dancers and musicians from Kerala to his court. However, it is possible that it was only one more wave of Indian influence, since probably some of the Buddhist music and dance traditions may have already been adapted from India in the centuries B.C. when Buddhism was received in Sri Lanka.

“In 1916 the Kandyan dances were added to the annual Perahera procession of the holy Tooth Relic. Thus Kandyan dances were performed outside the court and temple context for the first time. The dances are also still performed today at a grandiose temple festival dedicated to the previous Buddhas. In 1955 the technique of the Kandyan dances was standardised for the use of schools and art universities. Kandyan dances are now also performed at secular social festivities as well as in dance shows, aimed at either local audiences or tourists.

Kandyan Dance Technique

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “Kandyan dances were traditionally taught by gurus and guru lineages. This system allowed some variations in the technique. However, since the mid-1950s a standardised teaching method has been formulated. It includes twelve foot bar exercises for the feet, and twelve exercises without the bar. To master the technique, serious students must learn 18 vannams, or basic dances, which have both a loose literary content as well as fixed emotional states. The term vannam is derived from the South Indian musical system but it seems that the concept was localised in Sri Lanka to form the Sinhalese vannam system, which, in its movements, imitates various animals. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“If it is analysed from the Indian point of view, it is clear that the Kandyan dances represent the energetic, masculine tandava type of dance. The emphasis is on the extremely energetic footwork. In the basic position the space between the open legs almost forms a square, a position that first appeared in Indian dance imagery at some time during the 1st or 2nd century., and later spread to Southeast Asia.

“This extremely open-leg position enables the dancer to move his torso from side to side, while it also forms a firm base for jumps, whirls, and summersaults, so characteristic of many of the Kandyan dances. Furthermore, if compared with the Indian dance, Kandyan dances seem to belong to the pure, non-narrative nrtta numbers. This, however, is not completely true, since the vannams, discussed above, each have their own emotional content.

“The facial expression of the Kandyan dances is not as detailed as in Indian abhinaya mime. However, the eyes seem to follow the hands and there are even some stylised eye movements. In the most spectacular ones the dancer’s eyes roll upward until only the whites are showing, which creates an impression of ecstasy or trance. In fact, both in their music and dance the Kandyan dances seem to reflect an ecstatic quality that is characteristic of many trance rituals.

“The technique includes several specialities, such as acrobatics and the handling of the approximately two-meter red cloth strip fastened to the dancer’s tiara-like headgear. By means of controlled head movements the dancer is able to whirl the long strip in the air and regulate its movements according to the rhythm of these climatic dance sequences.

Kandyan Dancers and Songs

M. B. Dassanayake wrote: “Kandyan dances are world famous. The curious part about these dances is that singing as well as the playing of musical instruments such as the ‘udekki’ or ‘Geta-bera’ and ‘Talampata’ (hand cymbals) accompany the dance. In the ‘udekki’ dance, the dancers sing, play and dance. This shows that from ancient times the Sinhalese ‘sangita-sastra’, the art of Sinhala music, had three component parts — dancing, singing and the playing of musical instruments. The art of music was considered incomplete without all three elements. Incidentally the form of Buddhism that came into Sri Lanka about the third century B.C., forbade monks from indulging in these three arts — ‘nacca, gita and vadita’ on the ground that they roused the passions. [Source: M. B. Dassanayake]

“Most of the remarkable ‘Vannams’ sung by the Kandyan dancers during the Kandy Esala Perahera as a prelude to their dance are named after animals and are based on their movements. Thus the ‘gajaga vannama’ moves to the slow majestic tread of the elephant. The ‘kudiradi’ or ‘thuranga vannama’ follows the trot and gallop of the horse. A vivid portrayal of the leisurely gliding flight of the hawk and its sudden swoop to the earth to seize its prey, is characterized in the ‘ukussa vannama’.

“These colorful dances are magnificently executed; but the descriptive song has hardly any definition of melody, though the rhythm supplied by the ‘udakki’ is rigidly observed. The singing, too is usually unrefined, crude and nasal. One cannot imagine our cultured Sinhalese kings countenancing such poor voice production in any of their royal musicians. This again goes to support my contention that there has been decadence owing to lack of patronage, especially from 1815 onwards when the last king ceased to rule the Kandyan Kingdom. When Emperor Dharmasoka sent his daughter Sanghamitta with a branch of the sacred bo-tree to Sri Lanka, she was accompanied by bands of musicians and dancers who performed on the five kinds of musical instruments ‘panca turya nada’ thrice a day in honour of the sacred bodhi tree.

Kandyan Dance Repertoire

Dr. Miettinen wrote: “The Kandyan dances have a rich repertoire. They have been an integral part of the Kandy Perahera procession since the early 20th century, and thus many of the dances have a procession-like quality. Like many of the Sri Lanka dances, Kandyan dances can also easily be performed as part of a procession, which freely moves along streets or the grounds of temples. This is partly possible because the drummers are also able to dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“Possibly the most archaic of the dances, such as the opening invocation, derive from the above mentioned kohomba kankariya village ritual. The vannams, also mentioned above, which possibly derive from the Kandyan period, have a literary content, because they, in an extremely stylised way, illustrate Hindu and, particularly, Buddhist themes. Their movements, however, also echo ancient animal movements.

“The vannam dances have their own structure. They start with tanama, a musical arrangement for drummers and cymbal players, in which the musicians sing a few syllables. In matra the dancers start to move in various directions and in circles; they also start to jump and whirl. In kastirama the movement becomes even faster and complex, while the adauwa section includes leaps, spins and static poses. The climatic finale is provided by the sirumanam. Nowadays, the masculine Kandyan dance technique has also been adapted for female dancers and it has served as a basis for new creations.

Kandyan Dance Costumes

Dr. Miettinen wrote: “The ves costume, the common dance costume for most of the Kandyan dances, consists of a large white loincloth, which is wrapped to form a kind of pair of loose trousers. The upper body is bare, except the large breast ornament, a kind of beaded net, constructed of small seashells and silver beads. The arm and shoulder decorations are also made of silver, like the impressive tiara-like headgear with its large ear ornaments. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“According to studies on visual sources, it is believed that the outfit was simpler in older times. In the earliest relief showing a Kandyan dancer, the tiara was in the form of a naga snake. Now the tiara has seven protruding “leaves” or “flames”. It was during the two last centuries that the outfit gradually got its present, spectacular shape.

“The costume with its ornaments was originally regarded as sacred and kept in a temple. There are still many magical beliefs connected to it. The ves crown, in particular, has been venerated and until rather recent times a dancer was allowed to wear it only after a ceremony (ves mangalya) in which he was initiated and blessed as a mature dancer.

Fire Walkers and Trance Dancers in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is famous for its fire walkers. These men, women and children dance across a 20-foot-long carpet of coals, burning at a temperature of 720̊C (1,328̊F) — hot enough to melt aluminum — and say they feel no pain. The longer one stays on the coals the more merit they earn. The walkers often dance two or three times over coals, picking up burning embers as they go and heaving them over their shoulder.

Firewalkers perform before tourist in Kandy and are a fixture of some festivals and events. Before they walk across the burning coals, the pray and seek a divine blessing of the Goddess Pattini. After the ritual is over, fire-walkers often display their feet. They usually have ash all over their feet but no blisters. The faithful believe it is their religious conviction that prevents them from being injured; scientists say that years of walking barefoot toughens their feet, the ashes provides insulation, and perspiration cools the feet enough so they don't burn. Physicists say that feats such as firewalking or placing a hot knife to the tongue can be explained by the fact that vaporizing moisture can provide a protective barrier against intense heat for a short time.

Young girls in the Colombo suburb of Kolonnawa sometimes perform trance dances to honor the Hindu gods Vishnu and Kataragama. To the hypnotic music of drums and flutes, the girls twirl around ecstatically in a courtyard decorated with fronds from the tree of purity and coconut flowers, holding arched wooden frames called Kataragama's over their head.

During penitence festivals, drummers quicken their tempo and penitents in a trance step forward to fulfill their religious vows. After doing a frenzied dance themselves the penitents are rubbed with ash and some have skewers stuck through their cheeks. Others put on sandals with spikes digging into their feet and drag heavy carts with a rope attached to hooks piercing the skin on their backs. Still others hold up wooden frames with skewers dug into their skin. The penitents do not bleed and they say they feel no pain. National Geographic described one event in the 1960s in which a pertinent said that he drug the cart with hooks in his back to fulfill a vow he made with his gods to get murder charges dropped against his father.

Mask Dances of Southern Sri Lanka

Masked dances are associated with southern Sri Lanka. They are a form of dance-drama that deal with a variety of themes. There are four main kinds: 1) kolam; 2) sokari; 3) nadagam; and 4) pasu.

Kolam is the most well known. Many of the masks depicts demons with bulging eyes and exaggerated noses. Performances have traditionally been held around New Year and have references to Buddhism. One of the of the most famous of these dances, the “Sandakinduru Katava”, is about a king that accidently kills a man-bird that is brought back to life by the Buddha. Another, “Gothayimbala Katava” is about a youth who falls for a beautiful woman and is beheaded by her husband. The demon is able regenerate his head and the husband cuts it off again and again only to have it grow back. The dance ends when a forest spirit comes to help the husband get rid of the demon. once and for all.

“Kolam natima” dramatizes myths about legendary hordes, gods and demons. These dances are believed to have once been used in important rituals with religious meaning but now are performed mainly as a form of entertainment Kolam masks are used to represent the characters in the drama. The masks themselves are typically made from a light of balsa-style wood called “kadura” that has been smoked dried and carved by hand. Many have a base of yellow paint on which other colors are added. The west coast town of Ambalangoda is famous making masks.


Ruhunu Devil Dances of Southern Sri Lanka

“Ruhunu” are southern Sri Lankan devil dances used in exorcisms. There are many different kinds. “Sanni” dances are performed with eighteen masks, each representing a different demon associated with a different disease. The aim of is to get rid of the disease by exorcizing the demon. Sometimes a range of characters are used to represent a single demon.

Devil dancing masks have traditionally been used to give a visible form to the spirts and deities that causes illnesses and disease. There are masks for blindness, hallucinations, even flatulence. There is one mask that depicts a major demon and his eight attendants all on a single mask.

Masked dancers often depict Nagarakhsa, king of the serpents, and Garuda — both froom Hindu mythology. The wooden Nagaraksa mask has a large snake with long fangs and bulbous eyes, with three smaller snakes on each side. One south Sri Lankan mask dance shows the killing of a cobra by a bird called a gurula. This dance is often performed to drive off evil spirits and is still used as a psychiatric treatment.

Devil dances are often performed in Ambalangoda on the West Coast. Dances here are performed by members of special low caste of dancers. Before the dance starts a shrine is set up to draw the demon. To rhythmic drumming, the dancers leap about with strips of palm leaves hanging from their head. The dance climaxes when the dancers don masks of the demon they are casting out and caste out that demon.

Yakun Natima — Devil Dance Ritual of Sri Lanka

Alan Pate wrote: “A midnight ceremony. Crowds milling, bodies slick with sweat in the tropical night. Torches lining an earthen arena. A patient is dazed with illness, propped on a low seat. The rhythmic beat of drums. The smell of smoking resin. A figure enters, back first and the rhythm of the drums changes, intensifies. The figure whirls and the patient is suddenly presented with the face of his tormentor! [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The yakun natima, or devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka, is nothing if not full of drama. Not just a charade or interval designed to entertain, the yakun natima is a carefully crafted ritual with a history reaching far back into Sri Lanka's pre-Buddhist past. It combines ancient Ayurvedic concepts of disease causation with deftpsychological manipulation. Lasting up to twelve hours, it mixes raucous humour with deep-rooted fears to create a healing catharsis for both patient and community.

“But while the beating of the bereya drums, the torchlight, and the smoky resin contribute to the aura of the night's magic, it is the masked face of the edura, or exorcist/shaman, that personifies the power of the moment-the devil incarnate. It is the mask or vesmuna which localises the fears and anxieties of both patient and audience. To the Sinhalese, it is this face, carved of wood, with bulging eyes, protruding nose and gaping mouth, disfigured and fierce, which represents both cause and cure.

“Of all the dance rituals, the yakun natima focuses most directly on healing. In Sinhalese thought diseases are either caused by the natural or the supernatural. In the case of the natural, traditional Ayurvedic and/ or medical avenues are pursued. In the case of the supernatural, or where the other systems fail, they have traditionally turned to the edura for aid through such rituals as the yakun natima.

“In both cases, however, it is the cause rather than the symptom that must be addressed. And in the case of the supernatural it is the yakku demons that are the cause.. Collectively, these disease-afflicting demons are known as the sanni yakku. They are a group of demons who, in past battles with the Buddha, were ultimately banished from earth. Living under the loose control of their king Vesamuni (from which the term for mask, vesmuna, is derived), the yakku are unable to appear physically upon the earth, but retain the power to afflict, and through the influence of the Buddha, to heal.

Background Behind the Yakun Natima

Alan Pate wrote: “ For the ethnographer, the traditional belief systems and practices surrounding the yakun natima and other masked dance rituals of Sri Lanka's southern coast provide a rich and fascinating field for research. For the collector, these ritual masks represent a sophisticated folk art form; beautiful and mysterious. Carved of wood and pigmented with natural hues and resins, these masks are infused with a spirit and animation which command attention. The patination of a ritual mask, darkened by years of use, and the repairs upon repairs of cherished examples bespeak their importance within their village communities. Within the context of the dance they are hypnotising. Taken out of that context and viewed on their own they are masterpieces of a rich folk art tradition. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The medical systems of the Sinhalese have been renowned since the first century B.C. when the northern capital in Anuradhapura boasted some eighteen hospitals. Traditional Ayurvedic principles practised for centuries-balancing internal humours to promote and modify health-are now being studied and implemented by many Western healthcare professionals. But predating these systems, and stretching far back into antiquity, there has been an alternative system of healing, a system based on early Vedic concepts of aetiology, in which diseases and ills of all sorts were believed to be caused by demons. Identified predominantly by the symptoms manifested by the patient, these demons could be summoned and exorcised in stylised ritual mask dances, or natima.

“The various natima of Sri Lanka belong to that great Asian mask tradition which extends from the Indian subcontinent, across the high Himalayas, through the Southeast Asian archipelago, northwards onto the Siberian plains and into Korea. Within these diverse cultures the masked shaman plays a central role, bridging the gap between the natural and the omnipresent supernatural. Through various transformation rituals the shaman blurs these perceived boundaries, comforts his community, diverts evil and effectuates healing.

“In Sinhalese society the edura works alongside the rest of society. He wears no special clothes, as a monk would, nor is he granted special status. He lives within the community with no divisions. It is only when his special services are required that the edura sets himself apart. Much of the preliminaries and ritualised aspects of the masked dance rituals are designed to distance the edura from the rest of society.

“Through a complex and sophisticated mixture of theater and drama, which includes wearing special clothes, burning his own body and simulated death experiences, the edura creates a space where in his mind and in the mind of his fellow villagers he "becomes" something other and takes on the essence of and personifies the afflicting demon.

“Most important to this transformation both visually and psychologically are the fantastic masks worn during these rituals. Representing specific demons and the maladies they inflict upon man, the masks allow the edura to embody, at least temporarily, demons which normally exist only on a supernatural plane. This personification allows for dialogue and, amidst frenzied dance and ritualised chants and speeches, provides an opportunity to discuss the troubles facing the individual and the community. The edura, cloaked in the power and visage of the demon, creates a visible and immediate link between the natural and the supernatural. As the embodiment of the afflicting demon he cites causes for disease, discusses immediate concerns for the community, and following the reception of a tribute, he promises to lift the illness: tindui nivarani ("it is done").

Eighteen Sanni Yakku and Sinhalese Cosmology

Alan Pate wrote: “The cosmology of traditional Sri Lankan beliefs is a complex mixture of native Vedic gods, spirits, and demons, overlaid with imported Hindu and Buddhist deities, beliefs, and practices. This pantheon is vast, filled with hierarchies and sub-hierarchies which the uninitiated finds nearly impossible to grasp. The synthesis is a spiritual landscape where Buddha reigns supreme, but where the day-to-day is fraught with danger from the yakku (devils) and other malignant forces (vas) which seem all too ready to afflict man with scourges of every description. In this word, life is a constant struggle against these forces. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Central to this struggle are the natima devil dances-masked dance ceremonies to cure diseases, help failing crops, prevent drougth, and provide protection for troubled pregnancies. A cast of specific characters and dramas have developed over the centuries to counteract almost every affliction and ailment. The yakun natima, and the kolam natima (masquerade dance) represent two of the historically prominent forms these dance rituals have taken. Masks used in these rituals provide wonderful insight into the belief systems and practices which form the core of traditional Sinhalese beliefs regarding health.

Alan Pate wrote: “Every demon has an identity, a story. Unlike among the Balinese, where demons often represent types (i.e., hero, villain, clown, etc.), the Sinhalese yakku represent individual demons whose lineages and exploits are recited and commemorated. The masks used in the various rituals are carved to represent particular demons and can, with some exceptions, be specifically identified. Although the yakku. seem limitless in number, there is a core group of eighteen which form the focus for the yakun natima rituals.

“Known as the daha-ata sanni yakka, these demons represent specific afflictions, both mental and physical, which commonly afflict the Sinhalese villagers. Although the number eighteen has now become standard, indications are that this number has decreased over time. Nor are the identities of the eighteen consistent. Different areas, or even different communities within the same area, will count different demons among the list.

“Paul Wirz, in his seminal work Exorcism and the Art of Healing in Ceylon (1954), lists the following demons and their effects: 1) Kana-sanniya (blindness); 2) Kora-sanniya (lameness/paralysis); 3) Gini-jala-sanniya (malaria); 4) Vedda-sanniya (bubonic plague); 5) Demala-sanniya (bad dreams); 6) Kapala-sanniya (insanity); 7) Golu-sanniya (dumbness/muteness); 8) Biri-sanniya (deafness). 9Maru-sanniya (delirium); 10) Amuku sanniya (vomiting); 11) Gulma-sanniya (parasitic worms); 12) Deva-sanniya (epidemic disease; i.e. typhoid and cholera); 13) Naga-sanniya (evil dreams particularly with snakes); 14) Murta-sanniya (swooning and loss of consciousness); 15) Kala-sanniya (black death); 16) Pita-sanniya (disease related to bile); 17) Vata-sanniya (shaking and burning of limbs); 18) and Slesma-sanniya (secretions and epilepsy).

“Surveys by individuals such as Alain Loviconi and E.D.W. Jayewardene, have demonstrated significant differences between various areas and the impossibility of creating a universally recognised list. One area might include 0lmada sanniya (babbling) and another area Avulun sanniya (breathing difficulties, chest pains). Contemporary ethnographers such as Obeyesekere have also noted the addition of certain more contemporary maladies to the list. For example Vedi sanniya as relating to gunshot wounds, dramatically reflecting the change in times and the adaptability of this indigenous system.

“Although there is no single, uniform list or all eighteen demons, certain demons do seem consistent and universal, such as Biri for deafness, Kana for blindness, and Golu for dumbness. Presiding over these eighteen yakku is the demon known as the Kola sanni yakka (10), a composite demon containing and regulating the other eighteen. In the yakun natima it is appeasing the Kola and gaining his benediction that is most important. His origin story, as recorded by Wirz, is as follows:

“A certain king left for a great war, leaving behind his queen. He was unaware that she was pregnant. Upon his return he found his wife to be in an advanced state and ready to give birth. A handmaid to the queen, through lies and deceptions, convinced the king that it was not his child but that of the war minister, who had remained behind. In a fury he ordered the queen tied to a tree and cut in two. The child managed to survive, living off the remains of his mother. As he grew, the child vowed revenge on the father. He gathered poisons from the different parts of the forest and formed them into eighteen separate lumps which transformed into demons. Kola sent these demons into the city and charged them to "capture humans and cause illness through wind, phlegm, and bile".

“The havoc wreaked on the city was awesome. Buddha, sensing this, came to the city and, appearing overhead, ordered Kola and his demons to stop. Angered, Kola attempted to refute the Buddha, vehemently justifying his actions based on the grievous wrongs done to him. But with a "single glittering ray" Buddha subdued Kola and ordered his chiefs to use water to cleanse the city and wash away the demons. Kola persisted in trying to justify his actions and the Buddha ultimately relented, granting Kola and his demons the power to afflict, but charging that they must also heal these afflictions when tribute is paid.

Identities of the Demons in Yakun Natima

Alan Pate wrote: “Accounts and photographs of masked dancers with bulging eyes, tusks, and gaping mouths have long attracted ethnographers and the curious. The result is that European museums boast significant collections of wondrous masks carved of wood with exquisite artistry, depicting a phantasm of creatures. The masks of the yakun natima, befitting their function, are generally gruesome, with distorted faces, cobras (called naga) coiled like crowns atop their heads, eyes bulging and strong protruding noses with flaring nostrils. They are powerful carvings designed to inspire fear, awe, and a recognition of the presence of these supernatural beings in our daily lives. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Although the identities of some demons are difficult to ascertain out of context, many masks can be readily identified by form and color. Biri-sanniya, the demon for deafness, for example, is consistently depicted with a cobra emerging from one eye and covering the side of the face where the ear would be. This relates directly to the Sinhalese belief that the cobra has no ears and therefore must "hear" with its eyes. Kora sanniya, the demon for lameness/paralysis, is often depicted with the features of one side of the face drawn up, approximating the signs of a stroke. Amuku sanniya, the demon for stomach disorders and vomiting, is often depicted with a green face, wide open eyes, and a partially protruding tongue.

“The yakun natima and other masked dances of the Sinhalese are all based on the concept of appeasement. They acknowledge the influence and power of the yakka as both the cause and the cure. They recite their histories, extol their power, and pay tribute to their prowess. These ceremonies are designed to call forth the "essence" of the offending demon. Through sweet-talk and offerings or through cajoling and threats, the yakka is made to remove the affliction.

Demon Mask Making in Sri Lanka

Alan Pate wrote: “Although a brisk trade in masks for tourists has developed in the Ambalangoda area of coastal Sri Lanka, the masks used in the various natima ceremonies were traditionally carved by the edura himself, infusing them with a particular power for the upcoming ceremony. While the edura in his normal walk of life might be a fisherman or farmer, rather than coming from an artisan class, the masks themselves often exhibit a great deal of skill and dexterity in their carving. This reflects the long apprenticeship period that has traditionally been required of all edura, studying under an established figure that may often be the father, uncle, or an elder family member. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Although some of the masks are quite large and complex in their structure, most of those traditionally used in the various natima ceremonies are considered threequarter masks. Strapped to the face, they extend from the middle of the forehead to just below the mouth. This type of lightweight construction makes it easier for the dancer to wear during the often spastic and exaggerated movements executed during a performance which could last up to twelve hours.

“Three types of wood are listed as common to mask construction that could vaty depending upon the region and the immediate availability of materials; kaddra (strychnox mux vomica) was prized for its durability; eramadu (erythrina india and rukatiana (alsronia scholaris), the latter being considered inferior and known for breaking easily. Divided into blocks, the mask is gradually shaped from the wood. Once the final form is created, the wood is polished using leaves from the mota daliya boodadiya, or korosa trees. Prior to pain g, the polished wood is treated with a t(, clay sealant called allidyu that acts as a gesso and creates a better bonding surface for the pigments to follow.

“Although contemporary masks are often painted with commercial pigments, even some of the older masks when they have been repainted reflect this growing trend, traditional techniques involve the exclusive use of natural organic and mineral-based pigments. White was derived from makulu clay, green from the leaves of the kikirindiya plant, the ranavara tree, or the ma creeper, blue from the ripe fruit of the bovitiya, and yellow from hiriyal orpi ment), or yellow pepper. Black was obtained from charred cotton, and red from cinnabar or a red clay called gurru gal. To protect these pigments the edura would then coat the mask with a lacquer sealant called valicci which was derived from a combination of resins from the hal and dorano trees with beeswax. Hair and beards were simulated through the use of various dyed fibres, elephant hairs, and monkey skins applied directly to the mask.

“Nineteenth century and earlier examples preserved in collections retain an amazing vibrancy of color. An exceptional kolam natima mask of the demon Naga Raksaya was exhibited in the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris and is shown here. Collected during the middle of the nineteenth century, it is a marvellous example of the strength and durability of the natural pigments used, as well as illustrative of the extraordinary carving talents of the edura

“Carved from a single piece of wood with only the small central naga and two ear pendants added, this mask reflects a master ful handling of materials. The painting itself is quite sophisticated with a banding pattern criss-crossing the nose, outlining the mouth and accentuating the eyes. The cinnabar red used for the face glistens through its lacquer sealant. The underbelly of the large central naga, as it executes a graceful arc over the face, is banded and appears very reptilian, as does the crown of three naga on his brow and the coiled naga pend-ants which serve as ears.

“The masks of the yakun natima and other dance rituals of Sri Lanka represent a re-pository of a fast-fading culture. Sharing their heritage with a broad range of shaman- based mask cultures of Asia, these masks speak a language which is increasingly fall ing on deaf ears. As the role of the edura becomes increasingly marginalised in Sinhalese society, and education begins to transform traditional concepts of the interaction between the natural and the super-natural, the yakku and the various devils are gradually fading from popular con-sciousness. And while mask carving for tourists and dance performances for the outsider will persist, the fundamental spirit, potency, and vitality of both natima rituals and their masks will sadly be lost. It will therefore be primarily through the older examples, preserved in public and private collections, that future generations will able to recognise the force and the beauty of the devil dance masks of Sri Lanka.

Daha Ata Sanniya

Alan Pate wrote: “The "Daha Ata Sanniya" is a traditional dance ritual held to exorcise 18 types of diseases from the human body. Though an extremely colorful and vibrant pageant, most Sri Lankans do not get the chance of witnessing it, due to the performance's exorbitant costs and the long duration. [Source: Alan Pate, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The origin of this Shanthi Karmaya (blessing) took place in the times of ancient kings and was performed in the southern and western parts of the country. According to the story, while King Sankapala was at war, his wife who was pregnant had a sudden craving for a certain variety of mango. As she ate it, her maid of honour too had wanted a piece of the fruit, but had been refused by the Queen. Angry at this refusal, the maid cursed her and when the King returned after the war, told him that the Queen had conceived out of wedlock. The story was believed and the Queen was sliced in two with a sword. The baby was born and ate off his mother and so, a devil was born. As the story goes, lead by this devil, 18 other devils were created and they in turn came to towns and cities and began to spread in the form of diseases. It is to counter this type of sickness that the Daha Ata Sanniya originated.

“'Daha Ata Sanniya" will be performed in two sections where the first part will consist of seven palis, while the second part will be performed as the 18 sannis. The mask known as Dahaata Sanniya or ‘eighteen disease’ is studded with 18 diseased faces atop a pair of their gods and two spirits one the spreader of pain through disease and other the saviour is placed vertically apart. Prof. M.H. Goonatilleka explained that in folk religion this is in vogue. He explained that "Pritiatory magical and therapeutic effects of mask and attendant rituals of Sri Lanka are still not forgotten in the remote parts of the country. The dancer donning demon masks may not be aware of the significance of ritual transformation and the assumption of the role of the disease-causing demon."

“Those eighteen masks are: 1) Buta Sanniya which is associated with derangement, distortion and listlesness of limbs; 2) Jala Sanniya relates with vomitting, dysentry etc; 3) Gulma sannya refers to lack of appetite, swelling of the abdomen ; 4) Kana Sanniya relates with blindness; 5) Kora Sanniya and 6) Bihiri Sanniya relate with Lameness and Deafness respectively; 7) Vata Sanniya is related with Flatulence provoked by aerial humour; 8) Slesma Sannya is associated with Phlegmatic diseases; 9) Pneumonia is represented with mask Kola Sanniya; 10) Maru Sanniya is wallowing and contortions in the eyes etc. 11) Amukku Sanniya relates with running with the head tilted to the left trembling of the limbs; 12) Golu is Dumbness; 13) Vevulum Sanniya is associated with shivering and feats; 14) Gini Jala Sanniya is about burning sensation,headache and fatigue; 15) Pissu or Kapala Sanniya is related with madness and delirium; 16) Demala Sanniya is also related with madness with distortion of the body; 17) The Naga Mask is related with swelling of the faces and peeling of skins; and 18) Deva Mask is related with epidemics and infectious diseases; [Source: ‘Sanni Yakuma: Its mythical dimensions and religious interaction’,By Goonitilleka printed in Ananda,Essays in honour of Ananda W.P.Guruge,Srilanka 1990.)

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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