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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 Mask – 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 Mask – These are used to treat illnesses while there are 18 sanni masks in use.
* Kolam Mask– This type is used mainly in dramas while popular kolam masks are Lenchina and Jasaya.