The Many Faces of Sri Lanka: A Culture of Mask Making

Often regarded as the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’, the island of Sri Lanka has a rich history, both geographically and culturally. Perhaps most renowned for its exports of tea, gemstones and for its cricket, Sri Lanka is a restless little place in which tradition and modernity are in constant conflict.  The heritage of masks in Sri Lanka is thus a distinctive one and while masks are often used as a form of entertainment, they are also still prevalent in traditional healing rituals and religious ceremonies. There exists three main mask dances in Sri Lanka, each serving an entirely different purpose: Raksha (or demon) masks, worn for street processions and festivals, Sanni (or devil) masks, used during devil and demon dances, and Kolam (or folktale) masks, utilised for dramatically narrating stories. This article will explore the significant contribution that masks have made to South Asian culture, particular focusing on how mask culture has evolved in Sri Lanka.

Attempting to understand the history and origins of Sri Lankan masks leads one down a rather obscure and cryptic path. This is perhaps due to the fact that Sri Lanka is a young and steadily developing country that has in the past been repeatedly colonised by the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British; this in turn has created a fragmented history that is difficult to decipher without consistent records and authentic archaeological evidence. Many historians date masks that are unique to Sri Lanka to the nineteenth century simply due to the unfortunate lack of any masks of origin- much archaeological evidence of Sri Lankan masks is thus derived from terracotta figures which convey human characters with exaggerated and often phallic physical attributes. However, scholars have found that certain Sinhala literary works from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries make subtle references to the idea of entering into a guise or disguising yourself with the attributes of another. This alludes to emerging ideas of transformation and metamorphosis and is therefore compelling evidence for the existence of mask culture in early Sri Lanka.

Many of the ritualistic mask dances have direct connections to ancestor worship, drawing parallels with many other tribal societies in the world; for instance, the Vedda are an indigenous tribe who are deemed to be the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka. While the Vedda tribal languages are regrettably on the brink of extinction, the careful preservation of their ceremonies and ritual practices (which utilise face and body painting, as well as dynamic movement and mime) has arguably had an impact on the perpetuation of the masking tradition in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s mask heritage has also been particularly influenced by the Indian city of Kerala and as the usage of masks gradually filtered into Sri Lanka, craftsmen have incorporated their own decorative techniques and designs to make each mask distinctly Sri Lankan. Nonetheless, it is difficult to forget the myriad of masks that bare an uncanny resemblance to the ones in Sri Lanka: from the Lakhe masks of Nepal and the devil masks of Tibet, Mongolia and Bhutan, we see an interlacing network of mask tradition, each seeming to borrow from and influence one another.

It is common in Sri Lanka for families to turn to an exorcist when a loved one is ill.  The Sanni Yakuma refers to a sacred Sinhalese dance that is performed by an exorcist with the intention of curing certain diseases. They do this by using one or more of eighteen different Sanni masks. Legend has it that each of the eighteen masks represents a demon and that the Sanni Yakuma ritual summons each demon to the human realm; by performing the devil dance, the exorcist seeks to subdue and expel them back to the demon world, thereby curing the human that is suffering from an ailment. The Sanni masks are designed in such a way that they become grotesque demonic representations of certain illnesses. For example, the mask that represents vomiting carries a green complexion, while the masks that symbolises high fever and chills have flaming red complexions. However, the decorative splendour of the masks do not retract from the belief that they possess the inherent ability to both cause and cure disease. It is believed that when an exorcism ritual occurs in one location, all other masks on Sri Lankan land begin to vibrate. When these masks are not in use, they are each meticulously wrapped in red cloth and stored away safely so as not to compromise the power that lies within them.

Although the usage of masks for devil dances to cure disease has dwindled in recent years, the enactment of devil dances for visitors remains a popular tourist attraction along the southern coastal belt of Sri Lanka, particularly in the town of Ambalangoda, which boasts the title of the most distinguished manufacturer of masks in Sri Lanka. When the mask is worn, it provides the human with both a physical and psychological transformation of character. The most well-known masked dance is known as ‘Kolam’- this refers to a type of comic folk play which enacts satirical stories through dance and dialogue. The characters in a Kolam vary from exquisite kings and queens and striking mythic creatures to government officials and ordinary villagers. The masks are bizarre and fanciful, with bulging eyes and hooked noses sitting above taunting grins. The Raksha (Demon) masks are often hung around houses to ward off evil eye but are also used in street processions. These masks are large and heavy, with lolling tongues and hoods engraved with cobras and are also used in performances alongside Kolam masks. The actual performance of a Kolam is just as eccentric as the masks and props at hand. Rag torches illuminate the stage, fire wavering dangerously as the unsettling quiet is disturbed by the sudden blow of trumpets and the rhythmic beating of low-country drums. The performers also brandish torches, sauntering around the stage, flaunting the expertise with which they wield these torches and creating a kaleidoscopic spectacle in which no single colour stands out on its own.

The process of mask making is a delicate and laborious one as each mask is as unique as the artist designing them. The traditional Sri Lankan mask is hand carved by an ‘edura’, or an exorcist, using raw materials grown specifically in Sri Lanka. The bark of a tree is stripped, and the trunk is then divided into workable pieces. This is then whittled down, carved and then polished using different leaves. As evidenced by the few earliest masks found by archaeologists, sharp-edged knives and stones were used to carve out designs, but these have inevitably been replaced by far more modern utensils, such as chisels.  The mask is then painted with organic and mineral based pigments. It is interesting to note that the colouring of each mask is highly subjective and is dependent on the character that is being created. For example, characters of a higher calibre, such as those that are royal, are painted with pinks, whites and yellows, cheeks florid and flushed with glossy paint, whereas masks of villagers are painted in dull grey, brown or greenish hues. These masks stand in stark contrast to those of mythological creatures, such as demons, devils and gods, which are painted in deep reds, browns and blacks, unmissable amongst a plethora of ordinary, flesh-coloured masks. Depending on the theatricality of the mask being designed, they are often decorated with animal hair, coir and sometimes even tusks, before a natural sealant is applied.

Despite the allure of these masks, new Western forms of entertainment are eclipsing masked dramas in Sri Lanka, meaning tradition is slowly dying. As the world becomes more modernised and globalised, people have become disenchanted with traditional belief systems and instead choose to distance themselves from their cultural roots; they dedicate themselves to commercialised activities, such as the bulk production and consumption of cheap replica masks at the expense of authenticity and quality. Moreover, the notion of secularisation has also meant that Ayurvedic medicine has been replaced by modern medicine, consequently resulting in the declining use of Sanni rituals to cure disease.

Nonetheless, the intermingling of the indigenous ritualistic ceremonies of Sri Lanka with religion provides for a uniquely multi-ethnic and multi-religious cultural experience like no other. While it is a shame that the mask making tradition of Sri Lanka has become highly commercialised, it is comforting to know that these arresting objects continue to charm the visitors of Sri Lanka and thus remain an integral element of native Sri Lankan culture.  

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