A leering demon with protruding tusks shares wall space in the museum here with snake-bedecked evil spirits who spread diseases and benevolently smiling ones who provide the cures.
The brightly painted masks, carved according to closely guarded family patterns, are the products of a lively Sri Lankan cottage industry that has roots in ancient times and today survives the nation’s ethnic conflicts.
Few tourists come to Sri Lanka without carrying away at least one of the traditional masks, but sales are off sharply these days because of the government’s war with Tamil guerrillas in the north.
Many masks decorate Sri Lankan homes. Museums in Colombo, the capital 50 miles north of here, and scattered southern villages preserve others for public viewing.
6 Generations of Carvers
In this coastal town, the Wijesooriya clan has produced master mask carvers for six generations.
Cataracts on both eyes prevent Ariyapala Wijesooriya, the 88-year-old patriarch of the family, from wielding mallet and chisel any longer.
But his son, Bandusena, 48, and grandson, Rakmal, 12, continue the carving tradition.
“Our masks are not just for show,” says Bandusena. “From ancient times until now, they are used in our festivals, in our traditional dances and for healing.”
Pandula Endagama, an anthropologist at the Colombo Museum, says references to mask dancers appear in Sinhalese literature of more than 2,300 years ago.
Concentrated in 3 Sites
Today, he said, the master carvers are concentrated in Ambalangoda, the town of Matara on the southern coast and the town of Horana in the west.
Curative dances are still performed, even in the cities, Endagama said. Demons representing diseases ranging from fevers to coughs and blindness are brought in, appeased by the family of the ill person with ritual offerings and then driven away.
“Colonial powers tried to suppress the tradition, but it survived,” Endagama said. “There is probably a scientific basis, maybe a psychological one, for it, but no one has worked to find out what it is.”
The masks of Ambalangoda and elsewhere are made from the local kaduru tree, which grows along rivers and on the edges of Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous rice paddies.
Enamel Usually Employed
The better masks are seasoned near a villager’s kitchen fire for three months or more before they are painted, usually with enamel.
Inexpensive masks can be found for $5 or less. The Wijesooriya family’s famous 18-demon mask, which wards off 18 different sicknesses represented by a series of tiny evil faces, sells for more than $100.
Bandusena Wijesooriya says sales to tourists have fallen by more than 80% since war broke out in the north of Sri Lanka five years ago and frightened many visitors away.
But he and his 25 carvers maintain their business with sales to museums, mainly in Europe, and to foreign collectors. He also runs a school to keep the ancient mask dancing art alive.
“So, too, I hope, will my son and his son and his son,” Bandusena said.