Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Dummala Pāliya © Iranga Weerakkody & G.A.C. Sri Palitha

Sri Lankan Tradition of Mask Dancing

Sri Lanka has a diverse dancing culture where three main styles represent the classical dance tradition. These styles are known as Kandyan dances of the hill country (Uda Raṭa Nätum), the low country dances (Pahata Raṭa Nätum), and the mid-country (Sabaragamuva Näṭum). These three classical dancing styles are transmitted across generations with their ritualistic identities that are unique to movements, motions, costumes, and instruments. In the context of mask dancing, it is more relevant to the low country style, which is highly ceremonial and performed for ritualistic offerings to various devils. The dancers wear masks portraying many characters in different forms of spirits according to their characteristic features.
Daha Aṭa Sanniya is a part of Sanni Yakuma an overnight ritualistic performance prescribed for specific ailments caused by evil spirits controlled under the lord demon— Mahā Kōla Sanni Yakṣayā. The word sann means “severe illness” that affects the patent’s body and mind and not curable with only medical treatments according to indigenous beliefs. Therefore traditional physicians consult yakadurā or exorcist to arrange a ritual to perform a Sanni Yakuma to expel the evil spirit affecting the patient. The eighteen masks used for the performance are designed to represent visible features of specific disease conditions characterized as sanni under various names. Daha Aṭa Sanniya is a unique indigenous cultural heritage of identification and personification of “faceless diseases” by assigning an individual face to each disease by a mask as they are caused by malicious supra-human beings.

Pansdam Pāliya © Iranga Weerakkody & G.A.C. Sri Palitha

In this ritual, nineteen masks are used with the mask of the lord demon, which incorporates miniature representations of the masks of the other eighteen demons. According to legend, Mahā Kōla Sanni Yakṣayā as mentioned in folklore dating back to prehistoric roots, he was born with a vengeance. Then he created eighteen other demons with poison lumps and charmed to assist him in the destruction of the entire city. This ritual is performed to please Mahā Kōla Sanni Yakṣayā. The lord demon summons the other eighteen demons then sends them back to their habitats after bringing them under control as tamed by Lord Buddha by agreeing to ritualistic oblations when humans are affected by sickness caused by them.
At the beginning of this ritual after worshipping principal deities of the ceremony the dancing events initiate with performing the characters of Maruvā, Kalu Yakā, Rīri Yakā, and Sūniyam Yakā and three female incarnations of Sūniyam as a beautiful damsel, a pregnant woman and a woman carrying a baby in different masks and costumes. Dolaha Pāliya or the twelve apparition dances, each uses different masks for each dancing event. In Sinhala, pāliya means dramatic procession or presentation wherein these dancers hold some specific item related to the name of this dance.
The names of eighteen masks and afflictions represented are Amukku Sanniya (vomiting and stomach diseases), Abūtha Sanniya (not–spirit related insanity), Būtha Sanniya (spirit related insanity), Bihiri Sanniya (deafness), Dēva Sanniya (epidemic diseases), Gedi Sanniya (boils and skin diseases), Gini Jala Sanniya (malaria and other high fevers), Golu Sanniya (dumbness), Gulma Sanniya (parasitic worms and stomach diseases), Jala Sanniya (cholera and chills), Kana Sanniya (blindness), Kora Sanniya (lameness and paralysis), Maru Sanniya (delirium and death), Nāga Sanniya (bad dreams about snakes), Pissu Sanniya (temporary insanity), Pit Sanniya (bilious diseases), Slēsma Sanniya (phlegm and epilepsy), Vāta Sanniya (neurological disorders and rheumatism). The dancing represents a dramatic picture of the specific disease characterized by that particular sanni, including mask, costumes, movements, gesticulations, and dialogues.

Incarnation of Sūniyam Yakṣani © Iranga Weerakkody & G.A.C. Sri Palitha
Kendi Pāliya © Iranga Weerakkody & G.A.C. Sri Palitha
Atu Pāliya © Iranga Weerakkody & G.A.C. Sri Palitha

A ritual performed to bless the infertile women for conceiving a child or preserving the fetus, or safe delivery is called Raṭa Yakuma, Riddi Yāgaya, Nānu Muraya, or Dolaha Pelapāliya. Sabaragamuva traditions also have a ritual for the same purpose, but only some of the twelve dancing events use masks. Kadavara Yak Kankāriya in the hill country tradition, performed for the same reason, also has no mask dancing included. However, in most dancing events with no mask, the dancer’s face is highly masqueraded with makeup.
Also, another ceremonial ritual named ‘Gam-Maduva’ or ‘Devol-Maduva’ prescribed annually for collective blessing and preventing epidemics has a dancing event called ‘Garā Yakuma’ that is performed with a specific mask. It is the concluding event performed to close the ceremony with entertaining the audience and appealing for the blessings of divine beings. According to the folk story, this devil is also known as “Dala Kumāra” who was reborn after a tragic death with anger and grief. He has twelve forms and is presently performed with a colorful mask featuring a pair of long fangs in two corners of the mouth. Performing this dance is common during droughts and seasonal hazards caused by epidemics or famines to bring the blessings from local deities for prosperity and affluence. All of these dancing events are performed at a specially constructed ceremonial site decorated with many traditional ritual structures banana stems, tender coconut leaves, and recommended green leaves. Maha Sohon Samayama is another healing ritual performed to expel the affliction of a furious devil called Mahasōnā (Great Demon of the Graveyard), who is believed to have severe and fatal ailments in patients. This ritual features a bear mask. According to legend, the devil was a violent human who lost his head in a deadly fight. His head was replaced with that of a bear. As described in folklore, Mahasōnā is chief to 30,000 demons and is close to forty meters tall, with four eyes and four hands and red skin. He rides a boar and drinks buffalo blood. Outfit of this devil is fearsome and decorated with black, which is highly symbolic to represent the deadly affliction and malicious power against health.