Ambalangoda Mask Museum

Ambalangoda Mask Museum Ultimate Showcase of Sri Lankan Masks

Sri Lanka harbours a few dozens of museums and the most popular museum is the Colombo museums with the largest collection of artefacts, which is also the most visited museum in Sri Lanka. Museums are scattered all around the island. However, most numbers of museums are to be found in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, in the UNESCO world heritage sites such as Anuradhapura, Kandy and Sigiriya.

Museums in Sri Lanka can be categorised into a few categories such as historical museums, natural museum, art museums etc. I have visited most museums in Sri Lanka, and every museum I visited charges its visitors except Amabalangoda mask museum. This is the most striking fact I find about mask museum.

I believe it is totally OK to levy a fee on visitors to any museum because maintaining a museum is a huge affair and it cost lost of money. However, this privately owned mask museum does not charge anything from the visitors. It is a clear sign that the owner of the museum has no commercial motivation to keep it going, but educate the visitors on rich Sri Lankan masks carving heritage.

Next to the mask museum is a souvenir shop, where the visitors can purchase souvenirs on their visit to the museum, perhaps the profit they make selling souvenir might help them to maintain the museum. However, everyone that visits the shop does not purchase a souvenir, therefore making a complimentary donation to the museum might be a generous idea.

Is it worth visiting the mask museum?

You must be contemplating if it is worth visiting the mask museum? I believe it worth visiting the mask museum. The museum is dedicated to masks and show hundreds of masks from all ages. Most of them are many hundred years old and they have historical and cultural and folklorish importance. There is no other museum in Sri Lanka with such a large collection of masks.

Ambalangoda Mask Museum ultimate Showcase of Sri Lankan Masks

Ambalangoda Mask Museum is situated in the city of Ambalangoda and Ambalangoda beach. The mask museum is one of the major tourist attractions in Southern Sri Lanka and included in most Sri Lanka tours to the south coast. The mask museum is included in most Sri Lanka road trips that cover southern Sri Lanka.

It is easy to reach the Mask museum from Colombo and west coast as well as south coast beach resorts. The whale watching tour, Galle one day tour, Madu Ganga river safari and Bentota beach tour are several tours that include this valuable museum. All of them are one-day trips from Colombo. It is about 1 km from the city centre of Ambalangoda to the mask museum.

If you are staying in a popular beach resort on the west coast or southern coast you can easily visit this tourist attraction from your beach resort. It would take only about 1-hour drive to get there from most places in southern and west coast hotels.

Variation of Sri Lankan masks

The masks are varied according to the country, culture and environment. The social and environmental background differed according to geographical and ethnic composition. The Sinhalese wear masks during devil dancing, Kolam dancing and sometimes in Sokari dancing (folklore).

Usage of masks in Sri Lanka

Masks are also worn during certain episodes in Devol Madu ceremonies in Nadagam and street processions. As regards the Sinhala masks one cannot ignore its relationship with India.

When the masks were invented? Is still a question to be answered, even though no one knows when it was invented. The historians opine that masks were in use for many centuries. It is true that the masks gave concrete form and shape to the face in a convincing manner.

Usage of masks across the world

The Sinhala masks may have developed for a variety of reasons perhaps on the basis of Indian prototype. For example among the jungle tribes of South-East India masks represent demons and the earth goddess. These, too, resemble somewhat superficially the masks of Africa and New Guinea. It may be of interest to note that elaborate demon masks are not known elsewhere in India.

Literary and archaeological sources show that the cult of yakshas, rakshas, nagas and garudas had been very popular in India until the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. By a gradual process, Hinduism absorbed most of these spirits and godlings as manifestations of Siva and Kali. Those who could not be so absorbed were incorporated into another group of supernatural beings called Gandharvas, Kinnaras, Apsarasas and Ganas.

Eastern India where the Hindu influence is minimal is inhabited by tribal groups such as Gonds, Baigas, Murias, Pardham, Agaria and Bhuriyas. Among these tribal groups masks seems to be associated with their spirit cult.

These were the Yakkhas and Yakshinis associated with the hills. Then there were the monstrous devouring demons called Rakshasas. Of a gentle and kindly nature were Nagas and Naginis, male and female semi-human serpent spirits of water.

Yet another class of spirits were the Pretas, the spirits of the dead and Vetalas who are evil spirits animating corpses. Such were the beliefs of the pre-Aryan tribe people from Afghanistan to South India. Sri Lanka is so close and perhaps even connected by land could not have failed to be influenced by such beliefs about spirits and demons of one kind or another.

The historical facts about Sri Lankan masks

The masks would have been used by the early Sinhalese in much the same and for very much the same purpose as in India. Strangely enough, the pre-Aryan aboriginals, the Vedda of Sri Lanka, do not seem to possess any masks of any description. They only believe in a host of ancestors spirits. But during any ritual or ceremony of invocation of prayer no masks are worn.

The development of Hinduism came to be arrested after the introduction of Buddhism (248 BC) in Sri Lanka. Very little room was left for earlier beliefs to be active. Since Buddhism did not interfere with existing beliefs and practices some of the pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices continued. It is a strange fact that the pre-Aryan tribal groups of ancient Sri Lanka.

Role of Ambakngoda in Sri Lankan mask industry

Ambalangoda is the centre of mask carving in Sri Lanka; it also has a reputation, being an important place for ancient rituals such as Kola, Devil Dances. Even today, a large number of families carries on the mast carving as a cottage industry and it is one of the most important income generators for the people in Ambalangoda.

Origin of the Ambalangoda mask museum

The museum was inaugurated in the 1980s with the support of the government of Germany. This traditional mask museum is sponsored by the ministry of foreign affairs of Germany, Linden-museum Stuttgart and the museum for voelkerunde, Berlin. The owners of the museum are the well-known family known as Wijesooriya family. They were in the mask carving and tradition arts and crafts for many generations.

The museum showcases the rich traditional culture of mask carving on the island and it is a treasure of traditional Sri Lankan culture and arts. The museum is a great contributor to preserve the traditional form of art and crafts in the region.

The museum was established in the home of master craftsman Ariyapala Wijesooriya.  Today the lower part of the building occupies the mask museum and research centre while the upper floor is dedicated to a shopping area, where the masks and other souvenirs are sold.

The museum is consisting of a large number of very valuable masks, some of them are more than several centuries old. Other than watching the traditional masks, one can even learn the different types of masks being used today and their usage in the day to day life of the people.

In addition to the mask museum, there is a research centre on anthropology enabling people to carry on studies in the traditional dancing of Sri Lanka, folklore, devil dancing and rituals and folk arts and crafts. Therefore, it is a valuable learning centre for students and scholars who are interested in traditional masks and their tradition.

Mask museum as a tourist attraction

The mask museum attracts a large number of national and international tourists as well. The museum is located near many beach holiday destinations on the west coast of Sri Lanka. Ambalangoda, Bentota beach, Beruwala, Kalutara, Galle, Unawatuna and Matara are the most popular holiday spots within easy reach of the mask museum. The museum can be explored in a day excursion from any of the beach hotels on the west coast.

Usually, Ambalangoda mask museum is one of the popular places of attractions visited by tourists, who make Galle sightseeing tour from the west coast beach resort. The Galle one day tour includes many interesting places with Ambalangoda mask museum. Tour operators such as Seerendipity tours offer the Galle day excursion several times a week and you can arrange a private excursion at any time of the week.

The traditional forms of arts and crafts are being neglected due to the embracing of new technology by the present generations. Therefore the number of traditional artists such as Kolam dancers, devil dancers, and mask craftsman are on the downward trend and show a continuous decrease of local traditions for the last several decades. Therefore the mask museum of Ambalangoda and the research centre are supposed to preserve this valuable heritage by protecting it for the future generations.

Do I have to pay entrance fees at Ambalangoda mask museum?

There are no entrance fees at the Mask museum of Ambalangoda. Not only the museum is free to visit but also there is a free guiding service for all visitors. Therefore the visitors are able to learn about the masks and its benefits for the community. You should really visit this place if you are interested in traditional dance forms and folk dancing because it showcases a large number of traditional masks and the way they are been used.

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