Traditional masks of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka traditional tovil mask
Sri Lankan tovil mask.  National Museum Scotland

In Sri Lanka traditional masks are not just show-pieces or curios to decorate apartments. Here they still have meaningful existence in rituals and performances. Masks worn during so called demon dances are called tovil masks. During a tovil ceremony the dancer has to impersonate the demon and to converse freely with the exorcist. So many of the masks worn in these ceremonies are only half-cut masks and do not cover the entire face and head. They are light and easy to talk through.
There is a specialized group of tovil masks called sanni masks. Many Sri Lankans believe that diseases are results of demonic activity and 18 demons that cause sicknesses are represented by the sanni masks. Among the 18 deseases are following: delirium, abdominal pain, blindness, lameness, dumbness, deafness and insomnia, paralysis, cold shivers, disease of the stomach, fainting, high fever.

Sri Lanka traditional sanni mask
Sri Lankan sanni mask depicting the demon of deafness. The British Museum

Sri Lanka traditional sanni mask
Sri Lankan sanni mask.  National Museum Scotland

The sanni masks portray the symptoms of the disease on the one hand and the devilish features of the character on the other. The mask of dumbness, for example, has a gaping mouth and the demon causing high fever is depicted with red eyes and flushed mouth. An interesting mask used in the sanni ceremony is that of the Maha Kola Sanni Yaka, the leader of the sanni demons. This mask displays all the sanni demons at once.

Sri Lanka traditional mask kolam
Sri Lankan kolam mask. The British Museum

There is another type of masks worn in the rural theatrical performances called kolam. Kolam dances are held nowadays for amusement and fun on ceremonial occasions. All the characters in this performance wear masks. There are around 40 kolam masks depicting royalty, villagers and animals.

Sri Lanka traditional mask kolam
Kolam animal mask. The British Museum

Masks are usually made of light and durable local wood. After the wood is hollowed from inside it is kept on the kitchen shelf to dry. The longer it is there the better. It is said that if the wood is kept on the shelf for 6 months the mask will last 150 years.

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