he art of Sri Lankan Masks was existing from time immemorial. Mask carving is a local tradition in the southern coastal region in Sri Lanka. Ambalangoda is well known for traditional masks carvings and masks dancing. The present institution named ‘Ariyapala & Sons’ passing through their fifth generation of traditional masks carving and dancing is a very popular cultural center in Ambalangoda. It was named after “Ariyapala Wijesuriya Gurunnanse”, one of the greatest master craftsmen in Sri Lanka.

Masks are mostly turned out from the timber of a tree locally Known as ‘Kaduru’ (stychnos nux vomica). This tree grows in marshy lands bordering paddy fields. This wood is light, soft, and easy to carve.

Firstly, the trunks of felt tree are kept under hot sun to dry and to drain out the sticky juice. Thereafter it is measured and cut into pieces of required sizes of the various masks. Then the carver gives the basic shape of the mask to the piece of trunk with the help of chisels and a mallet. These measurements of carving have been given in ancient manuscripts. After this, the mask is kept on a stall of a hearth (Dum Messa) for six or seven days to get the smoke to season the wood. This is a very important step as well as a traditional method to keep masks free from the insects’ attack that we still follow. Subsequently, mask is taken out from the smoking stall and gradually shaped the face to epict specific expression by using various types of chisels and mallet.

Before a mask is painted, it is smoothen with Motadelia leaves and Delsavaran which is obtained from the Breadfruit tree. As a first step of painting, light-yellow (primary colour) is applied on the surface of every mask. Here onwards colours are applied according to ancient manuscripts of our forefathers of our family. Colours are mixed with ‘Dorana oil’ to assure the durability of colours. Each mask has its own particular colours to depict their characteristic features.

Expressions of masks varied from one to another because each and every mask has its own characteristic role that links with folklore stories. Most of the times masks have hidden expressions. So, to depict those particular expressions, carver should enter mentally to the character of the mask. Because of this, mask carving is not merely a practice of chisel and mallet. It should have a wide traditional and philosophical training background. 

Masks are classified as:

Human beings
Yakksha (Demons)
Composite masks
Those are utilized for traditional Sinhalese healing rituals like Sanni Yakuma as well as traditional comic folk plays like Kolam Dances.
                                                                 SANNI YAKUMA --------------------------------------

Sinhalese has variety of traditional healing rituals. Among them ‘Sanni Yakuma’ is the most elaborated ritual. This healing way related to the equilibrium of the body of man. If the mental or physical equilibrium of man gets upset by a trouble in the process of digestion of food, or wrong actions or wrong thoughts (psychologically), man is exposed to sickness. Which according to the traditions is brought to them by the demons. So ancient people personified these diseases in the form of the demons. There are 18 diseases attributed to 18 demons (Sanni) in Sanni Yakuma.


1. Deva Sanniya - causes measles, mumps, small pox, typhoid fever and cholera. 
2. Vata Sanniya - causes diseases caused by air in the body, also paralyses.
3. Pith Sanniya - causes diseases of the bile.
4. Amukku Sanniya - causes stomach pain vomiting.
5. Naga Sanniya - the vision of the demon causes poison like cobra poison in the body blister, swellings.
6. Ginijala Sanniya - causes heat similar to fire in the body and burning sensation.
7. Selesma Sanniya - causes headache, overproduction.
8. Kapala Sanniya - causes phlegm, cough, sneezing.
9. Maru Sanniya - causes the fear of the death, also death.
10. Kadawata Sanniya - is trying to break down the barriers which separate him from the patient. 
11. Kora Sanniya - causes lame limbs, swollen joints.
12. Buhutu Sanniya - causes temporary madness.
13. Kana Sanniya - causes temporary blindness.
14. Jala Sanniya - causes unbearable cold and shivering.
15. Bihiri Sanniya - causes temporary deafness.
16. Golu Sanniya - causes temporary dumbness.
17. Vevulum Sanniya - causes shivering and fits
18. Gedi Sanniya - causes Furuncles


Basically Sanni Yakuma is performed under three main ritual steps.

Demons are called by demon specialist to the place, where there is the patient and they are given offerings.
Demon specialist forces them to promise to leave from the patient’s body.
Demons are politely sent away after letting them to perform a dance.

Subsequently, patient re-establishes his equilibrium and he is emancipated from diseases. Ancient mask makers depicted these 18 demons associated with the diseases in the wood. Beside these the chief of Sanni demons is depicted as ‘Maha Kola’ masks (Medicine Mask).

KOLAM DANCES ( KOLAM MADUWA) ---------------

Kolam is a traditional folk play in the west and in the south-west coastal regions in Sri Lanka. Masks are utilized in Kolam called as kolam masks ‘Ariyapala Wijesuriya’ family is one of the families among few groups who perform traditional kolam dances from the beginning till today.

According to the mythologies, kolam masks were originated from the period of King Maha Sammatha, the first King of human beings. The queen of this King was pregnant and she felt a strong desire to see mask-dances. But no one knew how to perform it and queen suffered more and more. Finally God Sakra concern about her and asked God Vishvakarma (God of craftsmen) to provide the masks and the lyrics for such dance. Next morning the masks and verses provided by God Vishvakarma were found in the royal garden. After King’s order mask dances were performed in front of the queen.Then she was highly pleased and satisfied, and her pregnancy cravings disappeared.

This mythological aspect is referred to in every Kolam dance by arriving two characters wearing masks of King and Queen. But the Kolam dance depicts not only mythological aspects but also the aspects of lives in traditional Sinhalese society by performing various stories of royal servants.

Among the Kolam mask, prominence is given to characters like Panikkala, Nonchi akka, Hewa, Jasaya, Lenchina, Mudali, etc. 


Among the kolam masks prominence is given to Nonchi akka, Anabera and Jassara

RAKSHA MASKS --------------------------------------------------------

Raksha masks are also used to perform Raksha dances in Kolam Maduwa. According to legends, Sri Lanka was earlier ruled by a race called Rakshasas whose king was Ravana of the Ramayana. Rakshasas could assume various forms. Although we have 24 forms of Rakshasas only few are performed in Kolam dance. Those are:

Naga Raksha (Cobra Mask)
Maru Raksha (Mask of the Demon of Death)
Gurulu Raksha (Mask of the Bird)
Rathnakuta Raksha
Purnaka Raksha

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