If you are driving through the South Western coastal belt of Sri Lanka, you are bound to pass through the town of Ambalangoda which is well known for its mask making industry. The history of masks that are unique to Sri Lanka dates back to the 1800’s which were used to portray various characters in popular folk tales and for devil dancing.
Sri Lanka has inherited and been influenced by these traditions of mask making and devil dancing mainly from the cities of Kerala and Malabar in India while Sri Lankan artisans have managed to incorporate more decorative techniques and colour in the masks that are manufactured today. The craft of mask making has been perfected over the years and craftsmen have been able to provide new and improved designs when compared to the ones that were found in ancient Sri Lanka.
Other than devil dancing, there have been evidences that masks were used in a form of dancing during the early times in Ceylon.
Currently, the art of mask making is concentrated among a few families who reside in Ambalangoda, Wathugedara and Benthara as well as some parts along the Western coast. This craftsmanship has been passed from generations within the same families and has been a family trade since its introduction. The timber that is used to make these decorative and colourful masterpieces should always be light and durable and therefore trees such as “Rukkattana” and “Diyakanduru” are used.
Nowadays in Sri Lanka, masks are used in dramatic adaptations, dance performances, various rituals and also to cure sicknesses (according to ancient beliefs). There are different types of mask categories that are used in Sri Lanka which includes;
Raksha Masks: Used to perform Raksha dances in Kolam Maduwa. According to ancient chronicles, Sri Lanka was earlier ruled by a race of Rakshasas (devils) whose king was Ravana of the legend Ramayana. These Rakshasas were able to assume various forms which now the masks depict. There are 24 forms of Rakshasas but only a few are performed in Kolam dance. These masks include the cobra mask, the mask of a bird and the mask of the demon of death.
Sanni Masks: These are used to treat illnesses while there are 18 sanni masks in use.
Kolam Masks: This type is used mainly in dramas while popular kolam masks are Lenchina and Jasaya.
The Mask Museum in Ambalangoda
This is a privately owned museum which is run by a well known family in Ambalangoda and is located along the Colombo – Galle main coastal road on the seaside. The entire location consists of a mask museum, a mask making workshop and a mask showroom. The museum is quite educative with a number of exhibits being available which are related to traditional and ancient Sri Lankan mask making with brief descriptions about each item. All masks that are on display and for sale have been patiently hand carved with very intricate designs and painted in vibrant colours which depicts the traditional inheritance that have been passed on along the years.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.
This Kolam mask uses a makara arch to symbolize the Karava people, who are ethnic fisherfolk. The female figure standing under the arch can “juggle” the spheres in her hands — they move up and down on the wires as the mask is wiggled. It is seen, on this and the following mask, that Hindu religious iconography has been coopted to serve the cultural requirements of the villagers who carve and dance the masks.
The masks displayed here are modern, carved from a soft wood that is similar to balsa wood.