Masks and Drums of Sri Lanka
Dances of Sri Lanka
By Hemasiri PREMAWARDENE
There are three classical dance forms and several folk
dances in Sri Lanka the classical dance forms are known
as Kandyan dancing Ruhunu dancing and Saparagmu dancing;
Kandyan dancing is practiced in the central hills of the
island, Ruhunu in the coastal or low country areas, and
Saparagamu in the province known as Saparagamuwa, particularly
in the district of Ratnapura, world-famous for its gems.
three classical dance forms differ in their styles of
body-movements and gestures, in the costumes worn by the
performers, and in the shape and size of the drums use
to provide rhythmic sound patterns to accompany the dancing
drum used in Kandyan dancing is known as the GETA BERE,
the drum in Ruhunu dancing as the YAK BERE, and drum in
Saparagamu dancing as the DAVULA (the word BERE or BERAYA
in Inhale means “Drum”) The Geta Bere is beaten
with the hands as is also Yaka Bere, while the Davula
is played with a stick on one side and with one hand on
the other side; the Geta Bere has a body which tapers
on both sides while the Yak Bere and the Davula both have
main distinguishing feature between Kandyan and Saparagamu
dancing, and Ruhunu dancing, is that Ruhunu dancers wear
classical dance forms are associated with the performance
of various rituals and ceremonies which are centuries
old and are based on the folk religion and folk beliefs
going back to times before the advent and acceptance of
Buddhism by the Sinhalese people in the third century
B.C. These rituals and ceremonies reflect the values,
beliefs and customs of an agricultural civilization.
pre-Buddhistic folk religion consisted of the belief in
a variety of deities and demons who were supposed to be
capable of awarding benefits and blessings but also causing
afflictions and diseases. Accordingly they had to be either
propitiated or exorcised with offerings and the performance
of rituals and ceremonies.
repertoire of Dances in Kandyan dancing has its origins
in the ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which is
performed to propitiate the deity known as Kohomba for
the purpose of obtaining relief from personal afflictions
or from communal calamities such as pestilence. Although
this ritual is rarely performed at the present the various
dances associated with its performance could be seen in
the Kandy Perahere, and annual religion-cultural event
which takes place in the city of Kandy in honor of the
sacred tooth-relic of the Buddha housed in the Delude
Malaga, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
repertoire of Ruhunu dancing has its origins in the rituals
of Devol Maduwa to propitiate a deity of the same name,
and in the exorcistic rituals known as Rata Yakuma and
Sanni Yakuma. Rata Yakuma and Sanni Yakuma are associated
with various demons who are supposed to cause a variety
of afflictions and incurable illnesses.
dancing is associated with the ritual known as the Gam
Maduwa, which is performed to propitiate a deity called
Pattini, a female. The purpose is to obtain a good harvest
or to ward off evil or to be rid of and infectious disease.
from the classical dance forms there are also folk dances,
which are associated with folk activities and festivities.
Leekeli (stick dance), Kalageldi (pot dance) and Raban
(a hand drum) folk dances prevalent at the present time.
is also in the low country a dance-drama called Kolam
in which the performers wear masks depicting animals or
people such as kings or high officials, and provides amusement
and social satire. It has been suggested by scholars that
Kolam may have developed from the ritual known as Sanni
Yakuma and had later become a dance-drama independent
of ritual elements.
of Sri Lanka
by Gamini WIJESURIYA
Lanka, and Island close to the Southern tip of India is
noted for its Masks. It is not possible to say how far
back this mask tradition goes in the country, but it is
possible that it is a few centuries old. Masks have been
used in the many rituals performed to propitiate the gods
or demons or to cure some illnesses said to be caused
by demons. Among these rituals, the Sanni Yakuma is quite
important and all demons called into this ritual in order
to be re-quested to heal the patients arrive wearing masks.
In this there are eighteen masks, each one representing
one or more ailments. Today one could count even up to
twenty-two such masks coming in the ritual witch would
prove that many new sicknesses that came to be known later
were also represented by new masks. These masks have so
many similarities that the best way to identify them is
by listening to the description of the Sanni given by
the performers. Certain masks have not changed their form
although someone who is not quiet conversant with them
may give them different names. Earlier in these rituals,
it could be that there was one slightly big mask having
on it a few more masks associated with certain ailments.
In the Munich Museum, Germany is a mask of this type.
This could be the forerunner to the big MAHAKOLA SANNI
mask we know today which carriers in addition to the mask
for the performer, eighteen other masks and a figure of
a demon. The mask in Munich has only nine masks. The Mahakola
Sanni mask is too big and it was certainly a very difficult
task for a performer to dance with it. It may be that
this mask was later used just to decorate the place at
the entrance to the area where the ritual was performed.
There is evidence for this if one were to examine the
Mahakola Sanni mask in the Naparastek Museum in Prague.
On the abdomen of the demon, there is the British coat
of arms. People considered the showing of the British
the coat of arms even at places of worship, quite acceptable
and in order at the time, may be because the country was
ruled by Britain.
more important and very widely used masks are from KOLAM
which is folk theatre. Kolam should be pretty old, but
it is still not possible to say when it really started.
There are many Kolam texts available and one of the earliest
copies are available in the British Library. This is copied
on paper. Kolam has a very clear script and characters
are introduced in one particular order. This may however
vary in a modern day performance. Every character in Kolam
is given a mask and everyone is introduced by the leader
before he enters the arena. In a Kolam performance, all
performers were males. At the beginning the place is cleaned
and the King and Queen arrive to witness the performance.
They have very large and beautiful masks to wear and these
are also quite heavy. The King and Queen have to sit through
the performance, so it is not so difficult for them. However,
the King is given a sward into his hand, which he usual
uses to keep his big mask in position. The performance
really begins after the arrival of the King and the Queen.
There are the soldiers, animals, Rakshas (superior to
the normal Demons) who are introduced and later there
are many stories that are enacted. Kolam scripts also
vary and from time to time and it appears that more new
masks have been introduced. One such mask is that of a
Devol Dancer, now in the collection in Leipzig, Germany.
It is not possible to find any reference to this mask
in any Kolam script.
masks of the demons of Rakshas are quite interesting.
An important feature is that they all have cobras on them.
There is the mask of Garuda, the eternal enemy of the
Cobra and one could see a cobra inside his beak. The Gara
Raksha has three cobras over his head while the number
of cobras on the Naga (Naga means Cobra) could be from
six to twenty or even more. As the performance begins
in the presence of the King and Queen, it was natural
that his courtiers and minor officials also had to be
there. An examination of the Kolam script would show that
some of these officials are treated with a bit of sarcasm.
There are the Mudliar (a high official responsible for
the administration of a province) the Arachchi, village
Headman his assistant and Policeman, Kolam is a very humorous
play and there are many episodes played on to provoke
laughter among the audience. Among such are the struggle
of the old Nonchi who is trying to take home her husband
Ana Bera who has had a little too much to drink and the
soft corner the Mudaliar and his assistant had towards
the beautiful Lencina, the wife of the washerman, JASAYA.
Into this episode of Jasaya and Lencina, another woman
Prancina is introduced, to prove to Jasaya
also having his mind on another woman.
is another folk theatre known as Sokari in which also
a mask is used, but this is not taken very seriously as
this particular one is usually turned out of arecanut
leaf or some paper. The masks do not last long like the
masks from the rituals or the Kolam, which are made out
well-seasoned wood, treated and painted.
is becoming increasingly difficult to find Kolam or Sokari
performances in Sri Lanka today and this is mostly due
to changing values and also beliefs. Earlier it was more
a community affair where villagers all got together to
organize a performance contributing towards it, some with
labor and some with money. Performances were usually held
after harvesting and one performance could have lasted
two to three nights. Today a performance lasts only a
few hours and even the people who come to witness there
do not have the time to sit through them for nights. Attempts
have been made to use the stage for these performances
like the Sanni, but the real atmosphere of a ritual seem
to fade away from such performances. Masks from the Kolam,
however could be used more effectively on stage as most
of these masks were even originally used for entertainment.
* * * *
of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been having many types of drums in use from
ancient times, and reference to these are found in some
of the classical literature e.g. Pujawaliya, Thupawansaya,
Dalada Siritha etc. Although there had been about 33 types
of drums, today we find only about ten and the rest are
confined only to names.
in use today are:
Geta Bera (Bera Drum)
2. Yak Bera
10. Dandu Beraya,
Sri Lankan Drum Tradition is believed to go as far back
as 2500 years.
examination of the village society in olden times would
reveal that drums were used on special occasions during
the life span of people, from their birth to the death.
Drums, which were originally used, for pleasure and later
for rituals, came to be used in the Buddhist Temples for
the many ceremonies. At a later stage, Drums were also
used as a means of communication. The Davula, Thammattama
and the Bench Rabana have an important place in matters
of communication. Some of these functions are:
1. Ana Bera - to inform the people about orders from the
2. Vada Bera - drums played when a criminal is
taken for beheading,
3. Mala Bera - drums used in a funeral procession
4. Rana Bera - drums used by the army when going out to
meet the enemy.
Bera: This is the main drum used to accompany dances
in the Kandyan or the Hill Country tradition. This drum
is turned out of wood from Ehela, Kohomba or Kos tree.
The drum tapers towards the ends and on the right side,
the opening is covered with the skin of a monkey while
the opening on the other side is covered with a cattle
skin. The strings that are used tighten the sides are
from a deerskin. A student who begins his training in
the use of the Greta Bera has to practice twelve elementary
Bera: This drum is referred to by many names among
which are the Ruhunu Bera, Devol Bera and Ghoskaya. This
drum normally accompanies the dances from the low country,
especially the mask dancing connected with rituals and
the folk play Kolam. The drum is turned out of wood taken
from the Kohomba, Ehela, Kitul or Milla trees. This is
a cylindrical drum, fairly long and is played on both
sides with hands. The openings on the two sides of the
drum are covered with the stomach lining of a cow. The
strings used to tighten the sides are from cattle skin.
A student has twelve elementary exercises to learn to
play this drum.
This drum is used in most of the Buddhist ceremonies all
over the island. This drum is cylindrical, but much shorter
than the Yak Bera. An important feature of this drum is
that one side is played with the hand while the other
side is played with a stick. The sides are covered with
cattle skin and the tightening is done with a string made
specially for the purpose. These are also twelve elementary
exercises to be followed by a person learning to use the
This is also referred to as the Twin Drum. This drum is
played with two sticks. The tow drums are of different
sizes and while the right one produces a louder sound,
the left one produces a looser sound. The drums which
have only the top side covered either with the skin of
the cow or a buffalo. The wood used is from Kos, Kohomba
and Milla trees. They used special sticks to play drums
and the wood is from a creeper known as Kirindi.
The smallest drum among the local drums is the Udekkiya.
This is played with one hand the sound is controlled by
pressure applied on the strings. The drum is lie the hour
glass and is made out of wood from Ehela, Milla and Suriya.
The drum is painted with lacquer. The openings are covered
with skin from the iguana, monkey or goat.
This is similar to the Udekkiya, but bigger. This is used
mainly for rituals. The drum is hung on the shoulder of
the player and the sound is controlled by applying pressure
on the strings.
This is the only drum turn out of clay. The single opening
is covered with the skin of goat, monkey or iguana. The
drum is hung on the shoulder of the player and it is played
with both hands. During harvesting, people could be seen
playing this drum accompanied by singing. The drum is
in the shape of a pot.
Rabana: Rabana is about one foot in diameter and is
turn out of wood from Kos and Milla. The skin used is
that of a goat. Some performers keep revolving the rabana
on the tip of their fingers while others play it accompanied
with singing. This is played with one hand only.
Rabana: This is the biggest of the drums used in Sri
Lanka. The special feature of this drum is that it is
played at a time by two or more people. They use both
hands. This drum is commonly used for New Year festivals
and there are many special rhythms played on them. It
is mostly played by women.
Ranga Dance Ensemble - Sri Lanka
IFOM 1992 (Brochure)
First Annual Dance Festival of Sri Lanka
Process of Sri Lanka
C. Clarke Center for Modern Technologies
- Hector Ekanayake: "Underwater