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.
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).