The Devil Dance Ritual

The Devil Dance Ritual

This spectacular curing mask consists of a demon’s face topped with cobra heads, surmounted by a towering display of the heads of the 18 spirits of gruesome afflictions.


The Devil Dance Ritual

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As promised, here’s more on the Mask Culture that is as ancient as some of the most primeval traditions known to anthropologists. The picture you see of this spectacular curing mask consists of a demon’s face topped with cobra heads, surmounted by a towering display of the heads of the 18 spirits of gruesome afflictions.

The Demon dance(or Sanni Natima) is a practice whose antecedents go back to the pre-Buddhist era, an elaborate disease – curing ritual (Tovil) conducted by the Shaman or ‘edura’ to take on and drive away the disease causing demons (Sanni) . The ceremony which is still performed in parts of southern Sri Lanka is supposed to synthesize ancient Ayurvedic principles of disease causation with psychological manipulation to rid a patient of deep rooted fears and promote healing through the mind. To the beating of the ‘bereya’ drums the shaman or ‘edura’ summons the demons or Sanni Yakku and orders them to leave the body of the patient. As Bandu Wijesooriya explains in his book “The Shaman knows which of the Sanni Yakku (disease demons) have possessed the patient and they are summoned during the ritual for the patient to make offerings to them and appease them.”

The Sanni are a family of 18 (Daha-Ata Sanni) each representing an ailment, and the masks are designed to depict the afflictions, both physical and mental.

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Blindness, Paralysis, bubonic plague, malaria, epilepsy, there’s a sanni with individual names and identities for every ailment. The British Medical Journal in an article about the sanni classification of disease, marvels at the level of sophistication in depicting various diseases. “Stomach diseases associated with vomiting are distinguished from those associated with parasitic worms. The mask that represents vomiting diseases usually has a green complexion and a protruding tongue , whereas that representing parasitic worms usually has a pale complexion that could reflect hookworm anemia . The complexity of psychiatric illnesses is reflected in the variety of masks that represent insanity, which may be temporary or permanent and related to spirits or not. The mask for deafness usually includes a cobra (traditionally considered to be a deaf animal) that may extend from the nose to cover one side of the face .The name of the demon for epidemics means “divine,” presumably because disease on such a large scale was thought to have a divine origin.” the article says .
In his book ‘Deities and Demons, Magic and Masks’ Dr Nandadeva Wijesekara explains the connection of the healing ritual to Ayurveda. “Treatment of illness caused by spirits is the fourth division of Ayurveda. It is called bhuta chikitsa. When a person falls ill the Ayurvedic physician is consulted. But if the patient does not respond to normal treatment the illness needs “bhuta chikitsa.” According to the Sinhalese belief system the spirit can cause illness by casting an evil look (disti), or by possession (avesa).

At Looted Temple In India, Locals Unwittingly Worship a Fake

Prestigious museums are guilty of displaying stolen antiquities that they buy from dubious dealers without cross checking patently fake documents . Priceless treasures are shipped out and sold to private collectors and museums around the world. take a look at CHASING APHRODITE for more on the illegal trade in antiques




Earlier this month we revealed that a 900-year-old Indian sculpture at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (above) was stolen from an Indian temple and sold to the museum in 2004 by Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.

We now have current pictures of the Vriddachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, where a modern replica (below) is today worshipped in place of the stolen piece.


Both the ancient and the modern sculptures represent Ardhanarisvara, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. According to Vijay Kumar, an authority on Tamil Nadu temple sculptures, the current sculpture was installed in 2002 during a temple ritual. A local elder told Kumar that the original was stolen sometime in the 1980s. The replacement statue appears to be modern, Kumar notes, because of the position of the right hand: “Iconography stipulates that the hand lay flat on the head of the bull…But the sculptor who…

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The Magic of Sri Lanka’s Ceremonial Masks

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IF this is your first visit to Sri Lanka,   chances are at some point you will make your way down the very scenic coastal route towards Galle.  And, like all good tourists if you’ve done your homework, the guide books will point you in the direction of Ambalangoda, the home of the Mask makers.  Stopping at workshops you’ll see carvers turn ‘kaduru’ (stychnos nux vomica) tree trunks into an array of ferocious demons with bloodthirsty tongues spewing fire, eyes that bulge and pop and finely crafted multiple snakes coiled around their heads.  So take your pick – The Peacock Mask for peace and harmony, the Cobra Mask to ward off the evil eye or the Fire Mask for friendship.  Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll find that these souvenirs of island exotica boast of an ancestry that rivals the fantasy fiction world of the Harry Potter series.


A visit to the Mask Museum in Ambalangoda is a great introduction to the magical and mysterious saga of the masks. It’s a story steeped in exorcism, sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and demon dancing – a constant source of fascination to ethnographers and anthropologists attempting to piece together and document these primeval traditions in Sinhalese culture. Central to their explorations is the cosmology of around 120 Masks that are variously demon, human, animal or celestial beings – each with a distinct identity, a specific role and a well defined personality. They belong to three broad categories – the Rakshas, whose function is to ward off the evil eye or attract good fortune, the Kolam masks which are part of a tradition of folk theatre, and the Sanni masks, a throwback to the practice of a ritualistic exorcism of disease through a stylized dance or Sanni Yakuma  .

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The oldest and perhaps the most elaborately carved masks at the museum are those of King Maha Sammata and his Queen (seen above) . The perfectly proportioned, 200 year old masks are the pride and joy of museum curator Badrananda Wijesooriya. He and his late brother Bandu Wijesooriya are sixth generation carvers who have kept the family tradition going with much commercial success. He says the masks are made in keeping with age old methods that have stood the test of time. The wood used is the lightweight ‘kaduru’ making them easily wearable during nightlong ceremonies and rituals.  The wood is cured and treated for termites before the carving can begin. The brilliant, almost jewel – like colours are extracted from natural sources the traditional way. “Burnt coconut husk is ground up to make black; the colours come from leaves, stones and other natural dyes… “Says Badrananda.


In his book ‘Traditional Sinhalese Masks’ Bandu Wijesooriya describes how an ancient verse handed down through generations guides the process starting with the correct proportion for each mask. Every feature has meaning and demands of the carver a holistic understanding of the philosophy and culture of his environment. The master carver writes, “A mask carver must start his work after entering mentally the character he prepares to depict in the mask. If a mask is meant to depict a fierce character, the carver must have that character in mind. When he carves the eye of the mask, the carver’s eyes also tend to automatically show the same features.”


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As mask workshops in and around Ambalagoda enjoy a revival, traditional craftspeople are busy brushing up their skills.  Mask makers say the end of the war has brought tourists back and carving and producing masks is once again a viable activity.  But while the business of mask making is booming, only a handful from the real treasure trove of the original masks used by actual practicing Shamans remains in the country.


The Colombo Museum in the capital has around a 100 and the Mask Museum at Ambalangoda just about 15 or so of the authentic Sanni, Yakku, Raksha and Kolam Masks which bear the signs of usage in rituals.  The bulk of these have made their way to museums overseas and into the hands of private collectors across Europe and America . Exquisitely crafted   examples of late 19th and early 20th century Masks are highly sought after in the antiquities market and at prestigious artifact auction – houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.  The Craft Revival Trust (   a UNESCO funded nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and documenting the artistic and cultural heritage of South Asian nations, lists on its website around 30 museums and a number of private collections where at least 1500 of the  finest specimens of this ancient art lie …!!

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More on the rituals and history of the amazing Mask culture next week.. watch this space 😉