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Mask - Sri Lanka: E19295
Mask representing the devil Garrah-Yakka - a character from the set of masks (over 100 years old) associated with devil dances in Sri Lanka. Devil dances were staged to relieve people from sickness, as it was believed a devil was responsible for ailments. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

The Daha Ata Sanniya masks are essential accessories of ancient dance ritual in Sri Lanka, also known as devil dance. Its purpose is healing and blessing through a performance in which 18 kinds of maladies, inflicted by devils, are purged from human body.

This ritual has a very long history in Sri Lanka and oral tradition, linking it with the ancient city of Vaishali in Bihar state in India, suggests its great antiquity. The Daha Ata Sanniya dance was practiced as part of the blessing ceremony Shanthi Karmaya in the times of ancient kings in the southern and western parts of the country.

The Daha Ata Sanniya dance is vibrant, vivacious and full of colour. But it was preformed rarely in the past century as the logistics and cost of staging it are often prohibitive.

Mask-making also has a very old tradition in Sri Lanka. The masks or decorative facial wears are used for different reasons, including the tourist market where the hand crafted masks are very popular. Masks were and are used in dramas, dance performances and in rituals linked to ancient faiths. It is believed that the masks have healing power and can be used to cure various disorders.

The masks crafted in Sri Lanka are typically made from a balsa wood, known as kaduru (Nux vomica), which is easy to carve, durable and light. A coastal town Ambalangoda in Southern Province of Sri Lanka is a renowned centre for manufacturing wooden masks and puppets.

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

The set of Daha Ata Sanniya (eighteen diseases) include eighteen mask-characters associated with different aliments:

01. Buta - derangement, distortion and listlessness of limbs
02. Jala – vomiting and dysentery
03. Gulma - swelling of the abdomen and lack of appetite
04. Kana - blindness
05. Kora - lameness
06. Bihiri - deafness
07. Vata - flatulence
08. Slesma - phlegmatic disease
09. Kola - pneumonia
10. Maru - wallowing and contortions in the eyes
11. Amukku - tilted head and trembling of the limbs
12. Golu - dumbness;
13. Vevulum - shivering and fits
14. Gini Jala - burning sensation, headache and fatigue
15. Pissu or Kapala - madness and delirium
16. Demala - madness and distortion of the body
17. Naga - swelling of the faces and peeling of skins
18. Deva - epidemics and infectious diseases