Ambalangoda Mask Museum

Sri Lanka handicrafts

Objects carved in wood, made of brass, and silver, decorated with lacquer, handwoven cloth and lace, beautiful reed mats, attractive batiks, pottery, masks, are among the popular Sri Lanka handicrafts made by the traditional craftsmen of Sri Lanka. These are available in the government and private handicraft shops in Colombo, major outstation cities, and towns on the island.


Lace is a technique of producing clothes with various patterns. The method of Lace manufacturing is introduced during the Portuguese colonial period and it is one of the major cottage industries in the colonial city of Galle. Tablecloths, wall hanging and clothes are the main items available under Lace in Sri Lanka. They can be bought in shops mainly in Galle and city vendors of the Galle Fort.

Sri Lanka handicraft- Jewellery

According to the historical information, Jewelry is being produced on the island for more than 2000 years earlier. Various jewellery items are produced using the metals such as Gold, Silver, copper and Brass etc. Today Sri Lanka is a leading jewellery manufacturer in the world and it is one of the major export items of the country. For the people of the island, buying Gold and silver is an investment. They usually buy such valuable metals, when they could save some money and resell them when they need money later.

Sri Lanka handicraft -Woodcarving

Woodcarving is a traditional handicraft practised by the artisans in Kandy and Galle region in Sri Lanka. Various items were created by Sri Lanka skilled craftsmen such as religious Religious and secular objects, Figures, wooden panels, floral designs, wall hangers. Various other objects such as doorway decorations, pillars, windows and doors were also using the art of woodcarving. Moratuwa, the city located  15km from Colombo is most popular for wooden products such as furniture.

It is being mainly practised as a cottage industry in Sri Lanka and the techniques are handed over from generation to generation. Masks are one of the most popular objects categorized under Woodcarving. The types of woods used for manufacturing masks are Ebony, Teak, Mahogany, sandalwood, tamarind, various types of palms and Kaduru.

Lacquer products

This is another cottage industry originated in the Kandyan district.  This is a skilled craft and traditional artisans are scattered around Kandy. Lac workers in the Kandyan region adopt the fingernail technique which is a unique style in creating patterns on items like ashtrays, teapots, ornamental pots, jewellery boxes, which are collector’s items.


Colourful, dramatic fabric designer garments in a wax-resist dyeing technique of Indonesian origin but distinctly Sri Lankan design.

Sokari of Sri Lanka

Those who have lived in or have visited Sri Lanka might have had the good fortune of witnessing various age-old ritualistic pageant or “ritual dramas” conducted with great solemnity and ceremony by the village folk. Of these ritualistic and dramatic spectacles Devil Dancing and Kolam which are performed mainly by masked dancers, are two of the traditional Sinhala dances which have survived to this date in the Western littoral strip of the island (Goonetilaka, 1970).

Yet another variety of rural theatre called Sokari which is ascribed to the cult of Goddess Pattini (Goddess of purity and fidelity), is still performed on rare occasions mostly in the mountainous areas of the country. Even in this form of spectacle two or three characters wear masks as a means of disguise.

Places like Laggala, Hanguranketa, Uda Peradeniya, Hewaheta, Meeruppe, Talatu Oya, and Matale have been famous for Sokari performances. Of late, Sokari appears to have survived in such distant places as Dambulla and Badulla.

Sokari is the name of a woman. She is of Indian origin. She is barren. Sokari comes to Sri Lanka for the purpose of praying to God Kataragama for the born of a child. The story of Sokari and her husband Guru Hamy is the Sokari narrative.

There are several verse scripts on the story of Sokari, popularly known as Sokari Amma (Barnett, 1917; saratchandra 84-94; Nevill, 1954). Although these scripts differ in the details the kernel of the story is the same.

Wamana (dwarf) Figures

Wamana figures or dwarfs are a popular form of sculptures in Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka (9 rules to follow when visiting Buddhist temple Sri Lanka) and it is frequently encountered by people who spend a holiday in Sri Lanka. They are miniature sculptures in the form of the human body. In some areas of the island, they are known as Bahirawa. These are popular sculptures with a religious background in the Buddhist temples. Upon the first sight of these figures, it may make you laugh sometimes, due to its very comical appearance.

According to the Hindu mythology, wamana represents the avatar of God Vishnu. He was born as a wamana during the period of Mahajugi. But in the tradition of Sri Lanka, it is described in a different manner. It is not an object of veneration for Buddhist. The traditional belief is that the wamana figures attract the wealth and happiness to the place where they abode. But, some people believe that one can be born as a wamana due to the sin committed in the previous birth.

According to the Sri Lankan tradition, they are divided into two categories namely Sanka and padma. It can show big differences between the different parts of the country. In some places, they represent the gentle looking figures with a passion for the world. In some occasions, they may seem totally different and show very rough and stubborn looking figures. These qualities are indicated by the facial expressions of the figures.

These figures can be seen in different shapes. Some of the figures are wearing a Jatawa (a piece of cloth worn around the head) while some figures have unorderly hair. Some of the wamana figures at Lovamahapasada and Isurumuniya are nicely decorated with colourful costumes. Wamana figures at Mihintale are representing the performers of a pageant. They are carrying the drums, flutes while some of them are rhythmically dancing and wearing traditional dancing costumes. They can be representing the performers in a procession while all the figures are heading in the same direction in a raw.

Wamana figures of Polonnaruwa are greatly differed from the wamana figures of Anuradhapura due to the south Indian influence. Wamana figures of watadage in Polonnaruwa are not wearing any costumes and shown as naked figures while they have large rounded eyes. Some of these figures in Mihintale wearing necklaces made of coins. There are several wamana figures in the same spot, which are carrying a heavy weight on the shoulders. Wamana figures of Biso Maligawa of Anuradhapura are the most elegant figures found on the island.

Wamana figures are made of many different materials in the past. Wood, clay, granite, sandstones, limestones had been the most used materials. Most of the remaining figures from the early days are made of durable materials such as granite, clay or wood.

The art of wamana figures was slowly diminished after the Polonnaruwa period and artisans have used the figures of children instead of wamana, during the Kandyan period.

Kolam dancing

Kola, Kolam in Tamil means adornment, shapeliness colour, embellicolourt, ornament. ‘Kolum tulal’ is a special temple dance in Kerala. The Tamil words and meaning convey 2 ideas viz: – disguise or dance. The original Kolam story was in Tamil according to the historical Manuscripts, which mentions “usiratanan” and “kalingun rajuge” from the historical evidence available it would seem that the Sinhalese have borrowed this form of entertainment from South India during the Early Portuguese time. This is a masked dramatic performance restricted to the rural areas. It is an open-air show. The audience sits around a screen like the structure of cadjan created for actors to go in and out. At the entrance are two drummers, a Horana player and a couple of singers. The master of ceremonies reads the texts.

It may be possible that there was a form of entertainment resembling Kolam during the medieval Sinhalese time. The Sinhalese did not approve dancing. In the Devales Tamil girls performed the temple dancing. But the earlier records mentioned that Sinhalese as a nation like the ancient Romans seemed to have looked down upon the profession of the dancers and actor. Dancing was performed as a religious ceremony in the Devales. But the dancers were not of the Sinhalese race.

Although the Sinhalese looked upon the dancing and acting as an ignoble art the masses found Kolam a most popular form of entertainment. Kolam flourished in the southern province and the main centres were at Bentota and Ambalangoda. Later it spread throughout low country littoral areas. By the time this form of entertainment became a great deal of borrowing from “tovil” and “bali” had taken place. Even the demon and devil masks were worn. In due course, these two formed a regular feature of Kolam dancing. The handbooks mention them. The description in the texts betrays borrowing from demonological episodes. In some areas, certain characters like karoya karavana rala and Lenchina did not don masks.

As with most forms of art the Indian tradition attributes the origin of Kolam dancing to a sage or original king. Kolam dancing was first performed at the behest of the King Maha Sammata. This was to satisfy the Queen’s longing during pregnancy. The masks were made overnight by Sakra as a present to the king. Some texts mention that Indra was responsible for presenting the masks. Later, a religious bias was introduced by incorporating Buddhist Jataka stories to the existing myths, legends, and other stories.

The earlier stories and legends dealt with demons, devils and nagas. There is a view that Kolam dancing was a pantomime. But this is not quite tenable. There must have been dialogue even as in devil dancing. Without the talking part, much of the burlesque effect would have been lost. The ribald repartee appeared to the audience most. The witty, sometimes obscene exchange of repartee around village characters enhanced the entertainment value. Even in the devil dance the dialogue at times borders on the obscene. This practice may have suggested the necessity to include this type of dialogue from the commencement of Kolam dancing. According to Callaway singing was a modern feature.

The origin of Kolam dancing

There is a view that Kolam dancing originated from an ancient fertility cult of some kind. But most historians believe that it is not the usual fertility cult associated with ancient agriculture societies. One can interpret some scenes as being related to the fertility of women. Two facts seem to support such as view. One is the legend about the origin of Kolam itself, the fulfilment of a longing during pregnancy. The other is the presentation of a scene, where a pregnant woman describes her anxieties, fears and pleasure of childbirth. The present woman herself appears on the stage and expresses the fears and pains of labour. Later the woman returns to the stage with an infant son in arms.  She expresses joy at seeing the face of the newborn. Later much didactic material has been added. Buddhist Jataka stories are religiously edifying and the anecdotes from village life are hilariously entertaining.  The masks lost their original magic, and religious significance as time progressed. They assumed more and more secular functions in the folk drama, processions and shows.

There are several texts of Kolam dancing. Not all of them agree on the subject matter. Some have more episodes and some less. The British Library copy has 53 characters. The Colombo Museum Ola Manuscripts has the number of verses as in the text printed in 1935. The printed text of Salaman has an added feature. It includes adoration to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha and Brahma to bring peace to the patients. The patient mentioned here is the pregnant woman.  Then follows of Isvara, Natha, Kataragama, Rama, Kali, Dedimunda and Pattini, other scenes follow. The drama ends with Mahasona and Daka yaka and finally concludes with the blessing.

In another version of Kolam performance ends after episodes of wild dancing in a final scene where gods appear together with the king, queen and ministers and pronounce on the people. According to Raghavan proper Kolam should begin in the presence of the king and queen and thereafter the mythological scenes, demon characters, Jataka scenes etc, should follow.

Entertainment and amusement are the highlights of a Kolam dance performance. The actors wear masks without exception. The dresses worn by them suit the rank, position and class of each character in their normal life in society. Village life in all its variety and true character is portrayed. The language used in the dialogue is simple, forceful and striking. The village anecdotes remain unforgettable. The dialogue is impromptu. The allusion and insinuations to local events and characters, though delicate and almost bordering on obscenity, form a part of the fare to be expected.

Kolam dancing was more popular with village folk than any other dramatic performance of a later period. The characterization and expression of moods and ways of life are depicted with skill. Emotions and actions are conveyed as natural and real. Weaknesses of certain characters are well brought out. Typical life in the village is described in words and actions to convey real feelings. Physical characteristic is to be seen in the masks. Old person’s faces appear quite real with fallen teeth, wrinkled skin on face and forehead. The fearsome and the awful; the innocent and the simple; the witty and the gay are some of the feelings enhanced in their appeal by the spicy conversation. In this respect, Sinhala masks resemble those used in Japanese No dancing. The faces of the king and queen are charming and suave with dignity and majesty. “Exaggeration is employed to stress the tragic and comic aspects. The beauty lies in the conventional patterns which are an ancient and very seldom. Many have high merit as sculpture as Hindu art”.

James Callaway has remarked that amusement is the ostensible object and the Sinhalese take much delight in them, the indelible impressions of the most degrading forms are produced in the youthful minds. The entertainment value of the mask is undoubtedly present in Kolam dancing. But the subject matter has developed by the addition of more episodes from the Jataka tales. In the earlier plays, the episodes were limited to Sankapala, Bimsara and Pinguttara. Later gam-kolama, hewa kolama, andabera kolama, maname kolama and sandakinduru kolama etc were added.