Pics and text by Juliet Coombe

Whether you have a permanent headache, lacking sexual drive or suffering from stress or insomnia, Sri Lanka has an answer for it all, from ancient Ayurvedic treatments to Sri Lankan traditional village devil dancing. These elaborate village rituals for dealing with health issues are said to predate the acceptance of Buddhism by the Sinhalese people, which occurred in the third century B.C.

With the relaxation of FCO advice and the opening up of the whole island to tourism for the first time in 26 years, Sri Lankan Tourism launched “Visit Sri Lanka 2011” on Monday November 9, 2009 at the worlds biggest travel industry event World Travel Market in London.

Journalists and travellers were fascinated to discover that there is a lot more to the island than just the picture postcard beaches. In the various presentations they learnt not only about new tourism hot spots and business investment opportunities, but were particularly fascinated by the quirkier island traditions such as the Sri Lankan mask traditions. They were interested not just in masks as colourful tourist souvenirs or essential house hold decorations but rather what lies behind these often garish and over the top pieces, which are still actively used for visual shock treatment. Used not only in daily medicinal rituals, but also at festivals round the island, and even adorning the local currency.

In Sri Lankan folklore, passed down from generation to generation, the village people still believe that to drive out deep rooted sickness one of the18 separate masks must be selected and used in an elaborate devil dancing shock treatment ceremony. The aim of this elaborate ritual is to dispel and protect you from the demons that have caused your ill health or psychotic un-hinged behaviour.

One of the amazing things about Sri Lanka is that many people still firmly believe diseases and illnesses can be caused by demons entering the body during a period of weakness or extreme trauma. Traditional village doctors have been using this elaborate form of exorcism known as the devil dance (bali) or healing dances (Sanni Yakuma) for centuries. Whilst using different kinds of demonic looking hand carved and painted masks they go into trances to expel what they describe as different kinds of evil spirits. They do this by first summoning up the demon that is causing the persons sickness, then making special offerings of spicy rice and curry to them and then kindly asking the bad spirit to leave the afflicted person in peace.

Ambalangoda on Sri Lanka’s South West coastline is not only the historical home of mask making, but also an epi-centre for all types of woodcarving and traditional crafts. Here you will discover if you venture into the maze of back streets a thriving artisan industry of fourth and fifth generation mask makers, shops full of every type of mask and for those with an historical interest, two excellent museums. At Ariyapala Traditional Mask museum there is an interesting mix of antique masks and enormous life size puppets depicting the tyrannical last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha and his queen. Puppets are something the town is also famous for.

One of the guides working in Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum explains “that are five Yakka demons, twelve pali demons and eighteen sanni demons, each responsible for a different kind of disease and as such each one requires its own individual mask to fully cure the afflicted patient.” The professional after consultation with the patient’s parents or close relatives will pick a mask relevant for dealing with the particular disease in question and this will also define the type of ritual healing dance and how long it lasts.

Unlike doctors that will come and see you during the day, these devil-dances always take place in the dead of night with men possessing special healing powers wearing not only masks, but also frightening body attire. This ancient therapeutic ritual lasts an average forty-five minutes in a scary dance formation that will leave even the non-believer unsettled. For the more serious complaints the devil dancers will perform through out the night and as dawn rises they pray for the release of the afflicted person’s soul. The healers’ after seeking blessings for the person pray for good spirits to enter the body.

But masks are not only for healing, in Kandy Kolam masks are different again from the medicinal healing masks, used every night in folk theatre behind the Temple of the Tooth and in other parts of the country during festival time. The origin of Kolam comes from South India (Kolam is the Tamil word for costume or disguise) masked dance-dramas with over 100 different characters dating back to the times of the mythical Queen Menikpala, who whilst pregnant developed a craving to witness elaborate theatrical performances. The Kolam plays are social satires exploring a variety of themes from everyday life, nature.

Since the war ended new theatrical masks are being created for new plays. Some of these ritual masks can be observed in village plays or at Sri Lanka’s most famous festival, the Kandy Perahera held every year in August. These nightly processions commence outside the holy Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha. Each troop of masked dancers combines elements of mime, and carry out folk rituals for ten days to the beat of the demonic-drum. These spectacular processions, which include masqueraders dancing through the streets, and whirling through the air, juggling lit torches and from time to time blowing flames into the crowds. Some of the most acrobatic dancers somersault to frightening heights; landing inches away from your feet, before back flip jumping and rejoining the procession.

Whether it’s unmasking Sri Lankas ancient traditions, exploring the recently re-opened East or lounging about on a beach. The high level of interest at this years World Travel Market is a good indicator that Sri Lanka is not only back on the travel map, but one of the most popular holiday choices for 2010/11.

National Museum Colombo has an excellent mask display with detailed historical descriptions
Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum & Ariyapala Traditional Mask museum.
Both museums are open daily 8.30am-5.30pm. Donations only.

The museums have sections covering Kolam dances and Sunni Yakuma healing practices. They have a great range of masks to buy from and daily working workshop, which you can observe each stage of creating the masks first hand.

Mask Dances
1.In Ambalangoda this can be organised through the Bandu Wijesurya School of Dance. If you don’t have much time it is still nice to pop in and see student practising from around 3pm onwards.
2. The best Kandyan Kolam dancing is held every night in Kandy behind the Temple of the Tooth. The one and half hour performance starting at 6pm costs 300 rupees ($3 approx) and includes devil and fire dancing, traditional drumming and array of amazing masks and costumes. Just make sure you are not sitting in the front row of the auditorium or risk possibly being singed by the fiery dances in the last act!

What to look for
All hand made masks whether for medical, theatrical or house hold use are made out of Sri Lanka balsa wood Kaduru and painted with vegetable dyes similar to ones used on the rock paintings of Sigiriya. These masks come in all sorts of different characters, sizes and prices ranging from a small mask at 300 Rupees ($3) to 80,000Rupees ($800) for the larger collector pieces that take up to two months to make. One of the best free style village mask artists is Mandula the chief of Peraliyas’s son in law, who creates stunning traditional ‘18 sanni,’ devil dancing mask’ that have 9 smaller faces on each side and are used to exorcise different types of diseases from tooth ache to madness. You can find him through the chief of Peraliya near the village turn off.

New masks

Since the war ended new theatrical masks are being created for new plays. Some of these ritual masks can be observed in village plays or at Sri Lanka’s most famous festival, the Kandy Perahera held every year in August. These nightly processions commence outside the holy Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha. Each troop of masked dancers combines elements of mime, and carry out folk rituals for ten days to the beat of the demonic-drum


Presidents in focus

By Rathindra Kuruwita
The photographer to presidents, Sudath Silva, will celebrate 25 years as an official photographer to the State on November 20 at the National Art Gallery with Rajatha Dekma, an exhibition of rarely seen photos of the four most recent presidents of the country.

“This November marks my 25th year as a State photographer and I have been the official photographer of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he said. “I have taken thousands of photographs of these presidents, but most of them have never been seen by the public. So I decided to exhibit over 300 photographs, out of which most have never been seen,” he added.

Although some of the photographs on display are ones taken during official tours and functions, there are many others taken during private functions or at home. The collection does not only focus on the presidents, but also their family members as well as their close associates. “Some photos were taken at official functions, for example, when a president is sworn in, or when they address the nation, although these photos have been published before, I think these are important moments that should be included in an exhibition about presidents. But some photos taken during holidays or with family and friends are very candid,” he added.

According to Sudath, some photos are very special to him, because they are associated with either great moments in the lives of the subjects and the nation or with great tragedies. “For example, there is the last photograph taken of President Premadasa, before he was assassinated,” Silva said.

The exhibition will be opened by President Rajapaksa on November 20 at 10 am, and will be open to the public from 2 pm. It will go on till November 22.


Anura Krishantha @ VAFA 13
Anura Krishantha will display his works at the VAFA alumni show @ VAFA Gallery.no 38 New Jayaweera Mawatha, Ethulkotte. Anura has moved away from what has hitherto been his main motif chairs and tables to explore new areas.

Anura Krishantha studied art at the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts, which is run by the Sri Lankan artists’ group Theertha. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, he produces work that references Sri Lankan society and culture. Ordinary furniture, such as tables and chairs, are a running motif in Anura’s work, but compared to the kitschy, poppy, and playful approach he took in his early work, he has gradually shifted to a more violent tact. The five chair works that Anura is showing in this exhibition can’t be used for sitting down, and are decorated with wreaths of flowers for the dead, guns and nails, and camouflage patterns. According to the artist, the chairs represent authority and control. Perhaps he is suggesting that this type of status achieved through violence and conflict, will not last forever.


K S Sivakumaran
More than a century ago a scholar and a humanist was born (1905) in hitherto distanced Yaalpaanam. Who was he? He was the father of the filmmaker Chandran Rutnam.

The latter is half Thamilian and half Sinhalaya because his mother was Evelyn, a Sinhala lady. It was a happy marriage between people from two communities that spoke two different languages. In the memory of Evelyn Rutnam an institute for Inter-Cultural Studies was established in Yaalpaanam. More about it little later presently let’s learn about James Thevathasan Rutnam. I have culled material on him from a Felicitation Volume published in 1975 by the Yaalpaanam Archaeological Society. Thanks to the Editor Prof. Karthigesu Indrapala.

Writes K I: : Though a person possessed of rare combination of talents, it is as a scholar that he made his mark…Scholarship was his first love and he returned to it after turbulent years in politics and business…Nourished by the nationalist ideas of Ponnambalam Arunachalam and having cut his political teeth under the benign care of that firry rebel A E Goonasinha as a member of the latter’s angry band of young men in the Young Lanka League and later in the Ceylon Labour Union, Rutnam joined the Progressive Nationalist Patty founded by S W R D Bandaranaike and others in 1925… He was the Principal of St. Xavier’s College in Nuwara Eliya…If he had established his credentials as a modern historian through his publication, his monograph on the controversial Polannaruwa Colossus disclosed that he could be equally at home with archaeologists and ancient historians...One has only to read his sensational writings on the Bandaranaike and Jayawardene families to know him as a genealogist.”

Basil Perera writes” His earliest contributions wren to “Young Lanka”, organ of the Young Lanka league. Then he was the leader writer to the “Ceylon Independent” and correspondent inter alia to the “Morning Leader” and the “Ceylon Daily Mail”... H D Jansz classed him among the three best writers in English prose in the island. He has founded the Evelyn Rutnam Institute for Cultural relations in memory of his wife from whose death in 1994 he never fully recovered. They were such a devoted wife”

Let me conclude with what the late S P Amarasingam, editor of “Tribune” wrote on Evelyn Rutnam:
“Evelyn Rutnam who moved unobtrusively, in every circle, never losing the common touch, presided at a home in Cinnamon gardens, Colombo, which was known to her friends as Freedom Hall where the white and the black, the brown, and the yellow, the gay and the reserved the loyalist and the rebel, all met on a footing of equality and broke bread together.”