Sri Lankan masks have it all


Quebec novelist and writer André Berthiaume once said that “we all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” A mask is never merely an accessory; it goes beyond external attire since it’s worn over our main personality reflector – the face.

Sri Lankans have a longstanding history with masks, and it is not uncommon tosee these colourful – partly awesome, partly gruesome – wooden carvings hung even in urban homes.

Ambalangoda is perhaps the birthplace of masks. Artisan families here pass on their skills, knowledge and expertise of the craft from father to son, teacher to apprentice and old to young.

While the origin of mask usage is unknown, history swathed in legend says that ancient witch doctors wore masks when performing healing rituals and exorcisms to protect themselves from angry spirits that were drawn to the ceremony. The masks not only gave them a demonic appearance to deceive the spirits but also acted as protective gear; for if a spirit should enter the shaman’s body, it would settle in the mask instead.


The complex process of carving masks requires their makers to be patient, skillful and creative. Using wood such as vel kaduru, these masks are made with simple yet effective tools like the chisel, hand axe, crosscut saw and paintbrushes.

The masks come in various shapes, sizes and forms but are broadly categorised into three varieties – viz. raksha, sanni and kolam.

Legend has it that in ancient times, the island was ruled by rakshayas (demons) headed by their king – Ravana. Big eyed, scaled and with sharp fangs, these bodiless spirits freely roamed the forests and could take on various forms. Banished by Prince Rama, they’re said to still wander through the land looking for sustenance, lost souls and vulnerable bodies. There are around 24 types of demons. Some are depicted by various masks used in exorcism rituals including Maru Raksha (mask of the demon of death), Naga Raksha (cobra mask) and Gurulu Raksha (bird mask).

Some rituals require people to wear the devil masks. Others don different masks to scare the demons away. For instance, the Garuda mask that depicts the solar bird, which is considered the vehicle of God Vishnu, is used to frighten the cobra masked demon. Sanni masks are used in healing rituals to treat the 18 illnesses that are depicted by 18 masked demons in the elaborate ‘sanni yakuma,’ which is still practised in rural Sri Lanka.

On a lighter note, kolam masks are used in dramas and folk plays. Said to originate from the time of King Sammatha, whose pregnant wife craved ‘mask dances,’ kolam dances depict the king and queen through two characters wearing royal masks. The kolam masks of Jasaya and Lenchina are probably the most famous of the lot although they include many other characters like Panikkala, Nonchi Akka, Hewa and Mudali.

Sri Lankans are known to dance around with demons, decorate walls and doors with masks depicting them, and sometimes even use them to lure success and luck.

Well, what can we say…?

We’re a brave lot!

Compiled by Ruwandi Perera



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