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 .
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.”
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 (www.craftrevivaltrust.org) 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 …!!
More on the rituals and history of the amazing Mask culture next week.. watch this space 😉