Mask Art of Sri Lanka: A dying Tradition

Masks have been used all over the world since ancient times for their utilization as an expressive medium.  They are utilized in multiple art forms mainly in performance art such as dramas, theatres, dance and religious rituals. One such distinctive art of mask making can be found in the town of Ambalangoda in Sri Lanka.

The history of mask making is quite old in Sri Lanka and the small town of Ambalangoda is a living proof of its existence. The Wijesuriya family is responsible for running this institution of mask making since five generation where they have established a cultural centre with a workshop for mask making and a museum to store and display the unique masks along with a small library which is one of a kind in Sri Lanka.

The traditional mask making technique is done on timber which is obtained from the tree of Kaduru tree (Strychine tree) due to its soft texture easy for carving. The craftsmen follow a traditional and lengthy process of producing the masks which involves drying the wood to get rid of the sap, chiseling it and again drying it over the hearth and then the dried wood is carved to obtain the desired face of the character and finally completed using traditional colors to make it look appealing and dramatic. These masks are made for fitting various characters of humans, animals, birds and demons and they vary in their facial expressions ranging from comical to devil looking grotesque masks.

In Sri Lanka the practice of using masks is believed to have been a really old which dates back to the pre-Buddhist times where the masks were mainly used for exorcism. In this process the healer in order to cure people performed some rituals which required the use of various masks personifying various sannis (diseases). The illness which was believed to be caused due to supernatural phenomena was cured following a few steps; firstly the demon which causes the disease was called upon and then he was pleased by making offerings and lastly by allowing the demon to perform a dance and thus sending him away pacifying him. The masks used in these kinds of rituals are locally termed as Sanni Masks and there are in total 18 sannis for various diseases like measles, mumps, smallpox, paralyses, temporary madness, bile diseases etc.

There are again two very important type of mask namely the Raksha Mask and the Kolam Mask. According to tradition the Raksha masks are worn during the Raksha (demon) dance performance in Kolam Maduwa. The Raksha Masks are worn during the Raksha dance performance. This dance is mainly performed to show king Ravana and his demon race from the mythology of Ramayana. There are mainly 24 forms of Raksha masks out of which a few main are used in Kolam dance like the Naga Raksha, Maru Raksha, Gurulu Raksha, Rathnakuta Raksha etc.

The Kolam masks are worn in the traditional comic folk play which depicts the famous folk story of King Maha Sammatha and his pregnant Queen. The Ariyapala Wijesuriya family is one of the families who perform this traditional dance from beginning till today. This mythological rendering is seen in every Kolam dance with the arrival of a King and a Queen character. The masks are mostly comical in expression which makes them very different from rest of the masks of Sri Lanka. The most popular Kolam masks characters are Lenchina, Mudali, Jasaya, Nonchi, Panikkala, Hewa etc.

The Wijesuriya family has been protecting these rare artefacts as they are on the verge of decline The Ambalangoda museum houses different types of masks like the entire collection of Sanni Yakuma ritual masks and Kolam dance masks. Another important feature is the mask library which is the only surviving kind in Sri Lanka, where various anthropological records on history of mask making are kept. These beautiful art pieces must be preserved and the art of making them must be taught and carried forward by the young generation for their revival and promotion. These idiosyncratic traditions of art and craft should not be battle for finding a surviving ground they must be given proper place of repute to preserve the culture and heritage of a society.