King Sankapala went to a war, as kings do. His pregnant wife (it’s also what kings do) was left alone.

One day the lonely queen had a sudden craving for a particular kind of mango. As she ate it her maid also wanted the fruit. However, the queen refused to share it. Offended by the refusal the maid cursed the queen. And when the king returned from the war the maid told him that the queen had conceived out of wedlock. The king believed her and chopped the queen with his sword – as kings do to uphold their honour. The baby boy freed from his mother’s body in this gruesome process turned out to be a devil and he grew feeding on her corpse.

But it gets even worse. The devil multiplied into 18 companions who, representing different maladies, wreaked havoc on the kingdom and went to towns and villages throughout the country and beyond. They spread sickness among people. A calamity!

Mask of Deva-Sanniya, Sri Lanka.
Mask of Deva-Sanniya, Sri Lanka. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

There are different versions of this story in Sinhalese tradition and some link it to an ancient city of Vaishali in Bihar state in India, indicating its great antiquity.

The ritual dance Daha Ata Sanniya was created to purge diseases from humans. The dance was performed in the old Sri Lankan custom to relieve the human body from eighteen types of diseases. It is one of the oldest and now very rare parts of the blessing ceremony Shanthi Karmaya. Elaborate costumes and masks are used in the ritual. The masks are known as Daha Ata Sanniya or ‘eighteen diseases’ and represent different characters, each of which personify specific sickness.

Magical healing and therapeutic effects of mask and related rituals are still remembered in the remote parts of the country, but in the past half century the Daha Ata Sanniya ritual was performed rarely. The dancers and spectators may not be fully aware of the potency of ritual transformation. But they, it is believed, benefit from the fact that the devil spreading disease is identified and the sickness ritualistically exorcised.

In 1911 the Australian Museum acquired a complete set of Daha Ata Sanniya masks with two devil masks and some related accessories.