Attractive Masks of Ambalangoda

Mask making is a popular tradition in Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankan mask artisans indulge in this, on the southwestern coast of this island country. Ambalangoda is the headquarters, there is a museum here. The actual making is done in the workshop

Attractive Masks of Ambalangoda
Mask of Ambalangoda

            We had spent almost a week on the southwestern coast of Srilanka. During my stay at Taprospa Footprints one morning I was scouring through a coffee table book, about must-see places around Bentota. An artistic colourful object caught my attention. It was Mask Village of Srilanka - Amabalangoda. Visit to this place had somehow missed from our itinerary and did not want to miss it. Masks of srilanka have their own cultural resonance and symbolise an art form.      

             A scenic tuk-tuk ride of 24 km along the coast brought us to the beautiful town of Ambalangoda, famous for colourful masks & puppetry. Srilankan wooden masks have a long tradition.

About Mask and More

First native durable wood called Kaduru Strychnine tree, Strychnos nux-vomica with suitable texture, which is easy to work. It is dried next to a fireplace, to remove moisture in it Later the artisan roughly shapes, into hollow,  to required form of the mask. The face is smoothened with the skin of a sea fish known as thalapat and later with a leaf with rough surface known as motadeliya. Then he goes on with the precision work, carving skillfully, the contours and ornaments, before he does the finishing. Finally, the masks are painted and undergoes several process according to a given specification by painters. Finally to protect the colour and look lively a mixture of resin and tree oil Valichchia is applied on the mask.

           Each mask has its own meaning, just as the performance in which they are used.

           Hand-painted for traditional dance dramas in vibrant eco-friendly natural bright colours. The masks carry varied identities and diverse characters enacted in the dance drama performances. Varieties of Masks are found in Bali, Tibet,  Nepal and Bhutan. History indicates that mask making spread its tentacles from Gods own country - Kerala to Ambalangoda and continues to symbolise as a  representation of the country’s art and tradition.

Mask Museum

The Mask Museum at Ambalangoda, containing the museum’s main space, a workshop and a small library loaded with anthropological material on masked performances, has been a popular cultural stop in Sri Lanka since 1987. Officially named Ariyapala & Sons, it reflects the efforts of a family to preserve the traditions of masks and dancing over the course of five generations. The family has single-handedly undertaken the task of recreating a complete collection that depicts the rich tradition of the coastal country — a total of 120 unique masks. Due to the lack of space, can’t, unfortunately, all be displayed in the museum. It’s a free, magical ride to the South coast’s past, supplemented by the in-depth commentary of the English-speaking guides and enhanced by dioramas, giving a visual display of how they were used in performances.

Evil Spirits  and Sanni Yakuma

               Sri Lankan masks can be categorised broadly into - Ritual mask, Devil-Dancing Masks, Dance-drama masks and Pageant masks. The masks portray a range of Gods, demons, devils, animals, birds, snakes, kings, queens, old, young, gluttons, servants, young heroes, and even abstract forms and shapes.
The Ritual Mask is used to ward evil spirits and to cure any ailments. These veneers known as the Sanni are devilish in appearance with bulging tusks and astounding eyes. They are bright and gaudy in colour and have jaws that are movable. There are 30 types of Sanni masks with the significance to remove various illnesses. 

               From deafness to cholera and the fear of death, about 18 physical and psychological diseases were attributed to the local demons, which are known as sanni in Sinhalese tradition, and these were exorcised by 18 equivalent masked dances, called ‘sanni yakuma’. 

Most importantly, each mask is linked to a particular folktale and characters with which carvers have to imagine and mentally connect — a task that often requires a much wider traditional and philosophical education and understanding.

Devil-Dancing Masks or the Rakshasha masks are huge, carved out of light wood painted in bright yellow, fiery-red, and grass-green combination. The face is covered with entwining snakes with hoods appearing above the head. In some masks, large tusks extend out from the corner of the mouth. High crowns are worn and the ears are adorned. The faces are painted with bright colours and smoothened with spathe of breadfruit flower known as del saueren

Pageant masks are extremely large; made of light wood or paper pulp, they are used, as indicated, in pageants and processions are more than 5 ft in height and cover almost the whole body.

Kaleidoscope of Colours

              The various colours used in these masks represent different emotions, moods, body parts, characters, tradition and thoughts.  ‘The Ceremonial Dances of the Sinhalese ’ written by Otaker Pertold gives insight about the various colours used in the masks and their significance. Firstly White: was used for faces of nobles, Gods, Goddesses, celestial beings, and for teeth, fangs, eyeballs, and for the plumage of birds. 

             While Light Yellow is used for supernatural beings,  and  Bright Yellow is used for the golden faces of Gods and the faces of disease curing demons. Whereas Muddy Yellow is used for the demons of disease, and hunters. Pink depicts kings, high-castes, supernatural beings, semi- demons and Europeans. Black indicates wild men, evil devils, , low castes, and Moors. Blue represents   old, foreign, ‘non-Aryan’ aboriginals, tribesmen, and their deities, foreign demons, the devil, and Lord Vishnu

Comical Folklores of Kolam 

             Kolam masks were designed to perform comic folk Kolam dances in the West and South-West region of the country — and the Ariyapala Wijesuriya family is among the few that has maintained this tradition in the region. Legend says these masks were created to entertain the pregnant wife of King Maha Sammaha, the first king of human beings, for which purpose they were sent, along with lyrics, to the royal palace by God Vishvakarma himself - the God of Craftsmen. In order to stay faithful to ancient mythologies, every dance includes the masked King & Queen, who overlook the scene. Albeit benevolent, Kolam masks can be equally, and hilariously, grotesque. The dances also reflect a more down-to-earth side of Sinhalese tradition, narrating the lives of royal servants.
Raksha masks are the final facet of the Kolam ritual, and they are a tribute to the Rakshasas, a race that earlier ruled Sri Lanka and could assume 24 different forms. Unfortunately, only a few of those are performed — among them, the Cobra (Naga Raksha), the Bird (Gurulu Raksha) and, spookily enough, the Demon of Death - Maru Raksha
                  At Ariyapala Mask Museum you can catch a glimpse of the expert mask craftsmen busy carving elegant masks in their workshops. You can find masks symbolizing all the vibrant characters, demons, gods, heroes & villains who appear in traditional mask dances.
You can find some namely Peacock mask, Cobra Mask, Jala Mask, Gini Jala to name a few for sale in the shop. Prices are decidedly high, but though cheap reproductions are abundant across the country.
The museum opens up mysteries, legends, & attitude of mask dances. You can even learn art of mask making. If you chance to like a mask you can buy it for yourself.

You can also be a part of the weekly live mask dance performance at Bandu Wijesooriya  School of Dancing. The once a week performance begins with a kolam dance, then follows several ritual dances, a village folk dance, & end up with some short impressive Indian dances.

                In a short visit, I was captivated by these interesting folklore and of gorgeous masks. Finally picked one Gini Jala fire mask as a souvenir and stepped out.