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Dances, Masks and Drums


There are three classical dance forms and several folk dances in Sri Lanka, the classical dance forms are known as Kandyan dancing, Ruhunu dancing and Saparagmu dancing. Kandyan dancing is practiced in the central hills of the island, Ruhunu in the coastal or low country areas, and Saparagamu, particularly in the district of Ratnapura.

The three classical dance forms differ in their styles of body-movements and gestures, in the costumes worn by the performers, and in the shape and size of the drums used to provide rhythmic sound patterns to accompany the dancing.

The main distinguishing feature between Kandyan and Saparagamu dancing, and Ruhunu dancing, is that Ruhunu dancers wear masks.

The classical dance forms are associated with the performance of various rituals and ceremonies which are centuries old and are based on the folk religion and folk beliefs going back in time before the advent and acceptance of Buddhism by the Sinhalese people in the third century BCE. These rituals and ceremonies reflect the values, beliefs and customs of an agricultural civilization.

Apart from the classical dance forms there are also folk dances, which are associated with folk activities and festivities i.e. Leekeli (stick dance), Kalagedi (pot dance) and Raban (a hand drum).

There is also in the low country a dance-drama called Kolam in which the performers wear masks depicting animals or people such as kings or high officials, and provides amusement and social satire.

Masks of Sri Lanka

It is not possible to say how far back this mask tradition goes in the country, but it is possible that it is a few centuries old. Masks have been used in many rituals performed to propitiate the gods or demons or to cure illnesses said to be caused by demons. Today one could even find up to twenty-two such masks. There is one mask which could be found in the Munich Museum, Germany. There is evidence that the Mahakola Sanni mask could be found in the Naparastek Museum in Prague. It is said that on the abdomen of the demon there is the British coat of arms, could be because the country was ruled by Britain.

The more important and very widely used masks are from KOLAM which is folk theatre. Kolam is pretty old, but it is still not possible to say when it really started. There are many Kolam texts available and one of the earliest copies are available in the British Library. Kolam scripts vary from time to time and it appears that more new masks have been introduced. One such mask is that of a Devil Dancer, now in the collection in Leipzig, Germany.

There is another folk theatre known as Sokari in which also a mask is used. The masks do not last long like the masks from the rituals or the Kolam, which are made out of well-seasoned wood, treated and painted.

Drums of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been having many types of drums in use from ancient times, and reference to these are found in some of the classical literature e.g. Pujawaliya, Thupawansaya, Dalada Siritha etc. Although there had been about 33 types of drums, today we find only about ten and the rest are confined only to names. Sri Lankan Drum Tradition is believed to go as far back as 2500 years.

Drums were originally used for pleasure and later for rituals, came to be used in the Buddhist Temples for main ceremonies. At a later stage, Drums were also used as a mean of communication.

Ana Bera - This drum was used to inform the people about orders from the King.

Vada Bera - This drum is played when a criminal is taken for beheading.

Mala Bera - This drum is used in a funeral procession.

Rana Bera - This drum is used by the army when going out to meet the enemy.

Geta Bera - This is the main drum used to accompany dances in-the Kandyan or the Hill Country tradition.

Yak Bera - This drum normally accompanies the dances from the low country, especially the mask dancing connected with rituals and the folk play Kolam.

Davula: This drum is used in most of the Buddhist ceremonies all over the island.

Thammattama: This is also referred to as the Twin Drum. This drum is played with two sticks.

Udekkiya: The smallest drum among the local drums. This is played with one hand.

Dakkiya: This is used mainly for rituals.

Bummadiya: This is the only drum made out of clay. During harvesting, people are seen playing this drum accompanied by singing. The drum is in the shape of a pot.

Hand Rabana: Rabana is about one foot in diameter and is made out of wood. Some performers keep revolving the rabana on the tip of their fingers while others play it accompanied with singing.

Bench Rabana: This is the biggest of the drums used in Sri Lanka. The special feature of this drum is that it is played at a time by two or more people. This drum is commonly used for New Year festivals and there are many special rhythms played on them. It is mostly played by women.