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Vesmuhunu (Devil Masks) of Sri Lanka

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Mask used in Rituals 

In an Island famous for worshipping demons believed to be living in trees and mountains, devil masks are in popular usage for ungodly practices. Masks used in various dramatic rituals in Sri Lanka can be classified as mythological, demonic, animal-spirit and human figures. Oldest of them are animal and demonic ( or animal-cum-demonic, human-cum-demonic). The significance and designs of mythological masks are associated with iconography of the folk religions of the historical period. On the other hand, the significance and design of the human masks have been evolved in recent time. 

The authentic masks and masking traditions of Sri Lanka are extraordinary cultural phenomenon and a significant contribution Sri Lanka has made to the Asian cultural spectrum. It is indeed a puzzle as to how the Sri Lankan masks have a short history in an ancient civilization that has to date traces of hunter-gatherer type of society. The present-day Veddas, who are considered to be the primeval ancestors of the Sinhalas, have preserved various ritual ceremonies and ritual practices involving mime, facial and body painting. Some of these practices are directly connected with ancestor  worship as evidence from the na-Yaku  cult. These attempts at invoking the supernatural, are evident in other part of the world were hunter •gatherer societies still exists. 

Five categories of masks in Sri Lanka     

In the context of different usages of masks, researches have classified Sri Lankan masks are,

1 religio-magical

2 ritual-cum-spiritual

3 secular-cum-ritual

4 exorcistic

5 exocistic with ritual overtones 

The categories 1 and 2 are related to ancestor cult, faith, curative and sustenance masks, while the category 3 is related to hunting, warfare, fertility (agricultural) and memorial service masks. The category 4 are masks used are in Rites of Passage (initiation, funeral, secret society), including totems and emblems. There are occasions when the above classifications tends to mix-up. Sri Lankan masks can not be studied under the above category. But the entire ceremony is cathartic and dramatic in effect. Sri Lankan masks exists basically in three contexts in the ritual, in the ceremonial dance and in professional displays and festive occasions. 

The exorcists or curative rituals are commonly known as tovil , and include Sanni/Daha ata sanni, in which masks are extensively used: god rituals are known as Gammadu and Devolmadu where a pantheon of deities are invoked either to bring prosperity or to dispel contagious diseases, where masked dances are few and far between. There exist two other demon dance ceremonies called Mahasohon Samayama and Gara-yakuma, the former is connected with the belief in a gruesome and hairy monster of gigantic proportion, called Mahasohona, the demon of the graveyard and the letter is associated with a group of   demons referred to as Garayaku. 

In mask practices, the most important of the thovil varieties the cycle known as Sanni where disease-causing demons are symbolize through masks. But the most elaborate masks are of the kolam variety. It is more like an opera, having a central theme an a series of episodes enacted by dances wearing masks of different sizes, culminating in the dramatic presentation of a story. 

Sanni has has Sinhalese connotation of an aliment or disease. These are believe to arise out of the morbid states of the three humours-areal humour, bile and phlegm, which are cause by a set of demons, each such demon is called Sanni-yaka, but in his birth story is called Raja-mulu Sanni yaka. 

The sanni masks except that of the chief demon belong to a variety commonly known as kata munu and belong to the similar variety. In a sanni ceremony there are two types of masks, sanni masks and pali masks. Although a sanni ceremony is a healing ritual, it is more like a theatre. Since there is much dialogue in the various scenes, the sanni masks are carved with adequate provision for the mask-wearer to talk at length and have his voice heard loud and clear by the audience. 


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