Colourful wooden masks that belong to the traditional mask industry of Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Traditional Masks

Masks became a necessity in our day today with the pandemic situation. But wait! This article is not about those surgical masks that protect us from viruses. Instead, this article is about the wonderful traditional masks from Sri Lanka! Yes, we are ready to share with you all about the traditional mask industry in Sri Lanka.

As you already know, Sri Lanka is a small island with an incomparable culture. This culture consists of many great traditions and customs. This ancient mask industry, which is a significant traditional craft, holds a special place with regard. This industry has passed down for generations, and still it remains strong as an important factor that reveals to the world the grandeur of the Sri Lankan heritage.

Keep reading to know more interesting facts on Sri Lanka’s mask industry!

The Unique Traditional Masks from Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan traditional masks are unique with interesting shapes and color combinations. Therefore, the locals who value traditional arts and crafts, as well as the tourists who love the Sri Lankan culture buy and collect these traditional masks. Apart from that, these masks are a major factor for various rituals and dance performances. Besides, there are beliefs that such masks have healing and protective powers. So, owing to these reasons, there is a good demand for Sri Lankan traditional masks. Hence, there are some villages, especially in southern Sri Lanka that still keep producing masks as an industry. So, it is certainly a unique cultural craft heritage in the country.

History of the Traditional Mask Industry in Sri Lanka

The traditional mask industry has a long history in Sri Lanka. In fact, there are beliefs that masks originated in Sri Lanka in the 15th century in accordance with the devil-worship back then. In recent history, masks have had strong links with several dance and ritual performances based on folk beliefs. Such performances are predominant in the south of Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, there are also claims that Sri Lankan masks have an influence from the mask industry in the South Indian state of Kerala. However, the raw materials used for the masks in these two countries are different.

Besides, the craft of masks has been exclusive to certain families of the country. They protect and maintain it as a tradition within their families. As a whole, the traditional masks came along a long way with Sri Lanka’s theatre and dance traditions.

Production of Traditional Masks in Sri Lanka

There’s an interesting production process behind the Sri Lankan traditional masks.

The talented artists of Sri Lanka handcraft these wooden masks. They use a specific set of raw materials for the production of these masks. The main material that they use is the wood of the ‘kaduru’ tree. It is the ideal wood for the masks as it is lightweight and easy to carve.

It is important to prepare the wood accordingly before starting to carve. So first, the artists dry the wood trunk in sunlight and cut it into a rough shape of the mask. Next, they smoke these rough shapes for about a week, making them ready for the final shape. Next, the artists carve the mask, highlighting its significant aspects. All these steps ensure the endurance and the protection of the final product.

Before applying any colors, the carved mask is smoothened with natural products. Thereafter, the craftsmen paint these masks using unique color combinations. Besides, the patterns they paint on these masks give them the unique look that can amuse any. They mix certain oils with the colors to sharpen its look and for its preservation. Also, the craftsmen use a certain set of tools to create these traditional masks.

So, this process actually takes a lot of patience and practice to color the carefully carved masks. However, it is noticeable that most of the raw materials for the production of masks are from nature. Thus, it is clear that the traditional mask industry of Sri Lanka has a bond with nature.

Artistic Features of the Sri Lankan Traditional Masks

There are several distinctive features of Sri Lankan masks that make them so authentic. Indeed, that is what makes them so valuable!

Since these masks are mostly used for traditional theatrical and dance performances, they carry the faces and expressions of characters in a very dramatic manner. Therefore, there are grotesque features in these masks such as misshapen mouths, bulging eyes, and masks influenced from animal features. Besides, the use of bright colors is a highlighting feature of the Sri Lankan traditional masks.

Bright colors like green, red, blue, yellow, orange, white, and black are common among these masks as such colors contrast each other well. Experts reveal that the use of such colors sharpen the expression of the character and induce horror and comedy. Furthermore, such colors indeed attract a lot of attention to the mask. So, all these reasons, make Sri Lankan traditional masks a special aspect of the country’s exceptional heritage.

Types of Sri Lankan Traditional Masks

According to the features of the traditional masks, they belong to three groups. They are as follows.

  1. Raksha masks
  2. Sanni masks
  3. Kolam masks

Raksha masks have demonic features. There are 18 different kinds of Sanni masks, and they are mainly used for the rituals related to treating illnesses. Moreover, Kolam masks are character masks used for traditional dramas.

Dancing Traditions that Use Traditional Masks

There are three major dance traditions in Sri Lanka. Among them, masks are mainly incorporated with ‘Pahatharata Natum’ or low country dance.

One reason for this can be that low country dances are very ritualistic with mainly two contents as devil dance and deity dance. Furthermore, low country dance is the dance tradition in Sri Lanka with the most number of different costume styles. For these devil dance and deity dance performances, the dancers wear particular masks to depict the characters they are performing. For example, in the ‘kolam’ dance performance, dancers wear masks of royals, demons, and humans in accordance with the character they are portraying. Then, in ‘Daha Ata Sanniya’, dancers wear 18 different types of grotesque masks to appease evil spirits and exorcise 18 types of illnesses.

Pahatharata style dance performances are very vivid and colorful due to the use of these traditional masks. The reasons for the use of masks in low country dances are to intensify the character portrayal, to provoke sarcasm and horror, and for vividness. Low country dances are mainly inherent in the down south of Sri Lanka, in areas like Ambalangoda, Benthara, Galle, Matara, and Hambantota. On the other hand, traditional masks are also mass-produced in the Southern province of Sri Lanka. So, it can be noticed that there’s a strong link between low country dance and traditional masks.

Present Status of the Traditional Mask Industry in Sri Lanka

Traditional masks have been a thriving industry in Sri Lanka for centuries. Still, it is no secret that the traditions face drastic changes along the lines of modernization and globalization. Therefore, now many Sri Lankans don’t believe in ritualistic performances and evil spirits. But fortunately, traditional dancing is still reputed and much appreciated in the country. So, low country dance uses traditional masks for its performances.

Further, occasionally there are thovil and traditional theatre performances that use these masks. Thus, such conventional dance and theatre have a huge contribution to the prevalence of the traditional mask industry in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, families who engage in the mask industry consider it as their responsibility to maintain the industry.

Besides, traditional masks are often used as a symbol to represent Sri Lankan heritage to the world. Hence, traditional masks have gained a good market in the tourism field of the country. Many tourists love to explore this unique craft and its production process. So, there are certain places, especially in the Southern province of Sri Lanka, that create opportunities for the visitors to study the insights of the traditional mask industry.

Also, tourists can buy traditional masks and even small replicas of them as souvenirs from boutique shops. So, owing to these reasons, foreign tourism has created a great space for the traditional mask industry in Sri Lanka. However, the number of craftsmen who engage in the mask industry is reducing day by day as the small income that one can gain from the industry is not sufficient for their living. Yet, there are still famous locations in the country that create this valuable craft.

Ambalangoda, the Home of Traditional Mask Industry in Sri Lanka

When talking about the traditional mask industry of Sri Lanka, we can never ignore the town of Ambalangoda. It is probably the most famous center for mask production and collections of antique masks, here on this splendid island.

Ambalangoda is a coastal town situated in the Galle district, Southern province of Sri Lanka. It is located 123 kilometers away from Colombo, the commercial capital of the country. Of course, this charming town on the southwest coast is popular among tourists for numerous tourist activities. Still, the mask industry is still the most sought-after attraction in this beautiful town of Ambalangoda.

Ambalangoda crafters make sure to use the best raw materials and follow the exact procedure in the creation of masks. That is simply the reason why Ambalangoda masks are so reputed and valuable. Also, it is easy to find the essential raw materials for masks in the Ambalangoda area. Besides, as a southern town, it also has a strong bond to the low country dance and other ritualistic performances. So, all of these reasons have created a great background for the mask industry in Ambalangoda.

There’s a high demand for traditional masks from Ambalangoda, both in the local and international markets. In fact, Ambalangoda crafters have been recognized by famous personalities such as the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s son. He had been amazed by the crafts in Ambalangoda during his visit there.

Simply, Ambalangoda is home for the most vibrant and authentic masks of the country. So, it is indeed the place to go if you want to see the best traditional masks in Sri Lanka. There are a few families in Ambalangoda who maintain this craft as their legacy and livelihood. Their immense contribution in preserving this traditional mask industry is indeed appreciable!

Mask Museum in Sri Lanka

Did you know there’s a whole museum dedicated to traditional masks in Sri Lanka? Yes, you guessed it right! It is situated in Ambalangoda.

Ariyapala Masks Museum is a popular landmark in Ambalangoda. In fact, it is located on the main street of Ambalangoda town. There is an entrance fee to the museum. Still, paying that small amount is worth it, as it provides you an insight into the glamorous Sri Lankan traditional mask industry, while creating opportunities to study the history of the mask industry, and also the production process of the masks.

You can find a varied and unique collection of traditional masks here. While most of the artifacts are related to masks, there are several other traditional crafts and historical exhibits here as well. Therefore, the Ariyapala Masks Museum is a great portrayal of the mask tradition and the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. So, indeed, it is well worth a visit!

There is also a mask workshop adjacent to the Ariyapala museum. Here, you can observe how the talented Sri Lankans create masks with natural raw materials. It is an exciting experience to see how just a plank of wood gradually comes to life in the form of a colorful and special mask.

After exploring the museum, you can also buy a traditional mask from the souvenir shop in the museum. It will be a memorable keepsake from your Sri Lankan trip and a valuable donation for the mask industry.

Future of the Traditional Mask Industry in Sri Lanka

It is hard to state that people use traditional masks for purposes like driving away evil spirits and curing illnesses in the present. Therefore, masks are mostly used now-a-days to maintain the authenticity of the traditional performances.

Of course, the tourism field too had created a good demand for the mask industry. Yet, the global pandemic had a major impact on Sri Lanka’s tourism which also affected traditional industries that depend on tourism.

On the other hand, the mask industry required wood, and now there are strict rules and regulations around using natural resources. So, there is also a lack of materials for the production of masks.

Owing to these reasons, the craftsmen who engage in the traditional mask industry faced several hardships over the past few years. Since it’s harder to engage in the mask industry for a livelihood in a situation as such, many artists seem to be giving up the craft.

Also, as mentioned earlier, the mask industry mainly runs as family businesses in Sri Lanka. Because of the low income, new generations of these families are reluctant to engage in the mask industry.

Obviously, these are not good signs for the future of the mask industry. Hence, there’s a high chance of traditional masks being added to the history in the recent future.

However, Sri Lanka is a country that gives much value to its cultural heritage and traditions. So, we hope that the craftsmen in Sri Lanka would do their best to flourish this industry. Still, we believe that the government authorities such as the Department of Ministries should take necessary actions to preserve this unique heritage. If not, these Sri Lankan traditional masks are surely going to be a rare sight in the near future!

The Bottom Line

Sri Lanka is famous as a unique country in the tourism field. Of course, one reason for this popularity is the country’s incomparable culture and heritage. The traditional mask industry is an important aspect that has a strong association with this factor. Indeed, the traditional masks in Sri Lanka are simply wonderful, and you won’t be able to see such unique and vibrant masks anywhere else in this world. In addition, there are interesting historical and folk stories behind these masks. So, it will be an interesting experience to go through these collections of masks and also witness traditional masked performances. That’s why traditional masks are often used as the face of tourism in Sri Lanka. So, make sure to learn more about these amazing masks while you are in Sri Lanka. Happy and safe traveling!