Traditional Sinhalese Exorcism Ritual (18 Sanniya)

There are many rituals in practice in the world which are based on various folk beliefs. The primitive man being unable to understand the natural world thought that an invisible force was instrumental in causing numerous sufferings and illnesses in life, began to perform various rites to propitiate that force to be free from such ill effects. In addition to such rites there were many other rites too performed by him based on the worship of the dead. Such rights were performed with the belief of fulfilling the mundane aspirations of the living through the benevolent effects of the splendor, power and the blessing of the dead. Such rites were among the Sri Lankans too from the ancient times and with the passage of time such rituals, beliefs and rites have developed into various ceremonials rituals performed for various gods, demons and planets. They exist in the form of three main divisions as upcountry, low country and Sabaragamu traditions in terms of various local and provincial dancing traditions. In the low country tradition of dancing there are many rituals of devil dances (yak thovil) performed for demons. The sanniyakuma or the Sanni dance is prominent among them and its genesis which is linked to the Licchavi dynasty is given briefly as follows;

The consort of king Sankhapala of the Licchavi dynasty was named princess Asupala. After the marriage with the princess the king had to go out for a battle with the kingdom of Kuru. Although by that time the queen was pregnant, there was no time for the king to come to know about it. In the mean time the queen had a desire to eat a delicious variety of mango (mi amba) and she told about that to the chief minister. Since it was off season there were no mangoes to be found in the entire city though extensive searches were made. The chief minister who managed to come by a mango which had matured out of season brought it to the queen. At the same time there was a female attendant of the palace who too was pregnant and had the same desire of eating mango. On seeing the queen eating mango she asked for a piece of mango. The queen who was greedy for eating sweet mango ate the entire fruit without giving even its seed  to the servant. The female servant who became very angry decided to take revenge on the queen.

In the mean time, the king was returning to the palace having won the battle and going forward to welcome the king, the female servant poisoned his mind against the queen telling him that the queen was with child having committed adultery with the chief minister during his absence. The king, having seen the queen’s belly believed the story and ordered that she be executed. Despite the repeated attempts of the queen to prove her innocence, the king called the executioners and ordered them to take her to the cemetery and hang her and cut the body into two halves. The executioners took the queen and having hanged her on a pubberiyatree killed her by cutting her body into two halves with the sword. One half of the body fell at the root of the tree and on account of the meritorious karma of the royal prince in the womb, the other half too fell  down and attached to the other thereby giving smooth birth to the prince.  The newly born baby who had nothing to feed on, grew feeding on the flesh and blood of the dead mother. As a result of eating human flesh he got a grotesque appearance. The prince, having grown up determined to take revenge on his father for killing the mother, made 18 lumps of poisonous fruits and leaves of the forest and making 18 Sanni demons entered the city of Licchavi and began to destroy it. It is said that the prince became the chief Sanniyaka or Maru Sanniya and the 18 followers took the form of the Daha-ata Sanniya. It is also believed that after the city of Visala was plagued with the three fears, the Ratana Sutta was recited and the demons were expelled thereby making the city free from the three-fold fears.

There are three local traditions of the Sanni dancing ritual as Bentara, Matara and Raigama. Although the Raigama school of dancing is similar to that of Bentara school it is performed similar to the Gam Madu ritual in terms of the style of dance, decorated costumes and dialogues used. In the Matara tradition ritualistic performances are done in a style of dance with use of dialogues which are unique to that tradition.
Following is the ritualistic pattern observed in the Daha-ata Sanniya or Sanni Dance of the Bentara tradition:

  1. Summoning of the aturayaor the sick man to the bower (pandala)
  2. Beating of auspicious drums (magulbera)
  3. Inviting gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini to the flower bed.
  4. Reciting dishti mantra and raising of the curtain
  5. Rituals of the evening time and placing of atamagala(eight auspicious objects) items at the foot of the sick man
  6. Dancing of pandampada of the evening ritual
  7. Ushering of KaluYaka
  8. Ushering of KaluRiriYaka
  9. Ushering of the three apparitions of Suniyamyakkhini
  10. Ushering of AbhimanaYaka
  11. Peduruupatha, death ritual and the entry of Maruva
  12. Dancing of dekonavilakkusamayama (ritual dance with torch burning at both ends)
  13. Dedication of Kapalapideni (oblation)
  14. Kumara procession or Licchavi dance
  15. Pali dance
  16. Daha-ataSanni dance
  17. Offering of blessings
  18. Transfer of merits to gods and beating of merit drums (pin bera)

The main decoration in a Sanni dance ritual performed around Sanni devils is the Sannividiya or street. It is known by other names too such as Sankhapalavidiya, Sanniyakumvidimalawa, Kapalavidiya etc. In the Matara school it is known as mal maduva or flower shed. There are several verses compiled for Sanni demons who are mainly given offerings in the Sanni dance. In the yagaor ritualistic literature there are two main categories as verse and prose. In the prose category there are invocations, mantras and dialogues and there are many categories of verses also compiled in the four-line metre. These verses composed consisting of three aspects such as the invitation to demons of diseases, dispelling diseases and expelling them are especially created in a manner that includes the stories of the birth of demons of diseases, seeking permission, the diseases caused, the manner of conducting rituals to dispel such  diseases, invoking blessing, expelling etc.

In the composition of verses in different metres they are composed adhering to poetic features such as alliteration and rhyme. In the Sanni dance the drum beats used in respect of the respective demons are composed in a manner that suits the portrayal of the characters of the respective demons which cause the diseases.

The main ritualistic performances relating to Sanni demons in the Sanni dancing commence at midnight and at the beginning the story of the Sanni demons is narrated with the Licchavi dance or Kumara Pelapaliya (procession of princes). In the Mataraschool of dance it is known as the dance of Minister Suvanda Mal (Minister of Fragrant Flowers).Thereafter several processions are conducted to invite Sanni demons to the floor. Here the eighteen Sanni demons are invited and it is the practice at this stage to recite the verses meant for the object of offering and bless the sick man by performing the dance of the relevant offering. In the present days prior dances are performed wearing masks. After the entry of the MaruSanniya as the chief Sanni demon of the eighteen diseases, the Daha-ataSanniya is performed.

Depending on the different schools of Sanni dance there are slight variations in the appearance of Sanni demons on the floor. On certain occasions it is possible to observe the use of different names to identify the Sannis. The standard eighteen Sannis considered to be correct are given in the following verse.

ButhaAbutha, Amukku, VediVatath
BihiriBitha Kana Pith GoluMurthuth
DemalaGulma Kora GinijalSeethath
Naga Deva Daha-ataSanniyaveth.

Howeverin the Bentara school certain Witch-Doctors or yakaduras have not included the Bitha Sanniya and in its place have included the Kola SanniyaThe following verse makes it clear:

Butha Abuthada Kana Golu Bihirith
Vatha Guma Jala samanga Amukkuth
Naga Vedida Kora Pith saha Murthuth
Demala eginijal Devaya Kolath

Howeverthe Kola Sanniya is not a Sanniya that reflects symptoms of diseases belonging to the Daha-ata SanniyaIt symbolizes the incident of the advent of the above demons  in the island of Lanka.

It appears that the symptoms of diseases caused by Sanni demons can be compared  with those of the local Ayurvedic systemDances are performed using abstract physical movments in a manner that higlights the ill health situations of the relevan Sanniya accompanied with singingthe drum beat and dialogues portraying the nature of the character imitated.

veststrousersbells and ankletsthere are costumes especially designed for Sanni demons.The string of foliage (athu velamade using  twigs of burulla/gurulla plant obtained from the surrounding environment on the day of the ritualthe waist band prepared out of the piruvataya (piece of clothwhich is five riyanas long supplied by the dhoby (hene mamahave beenadded to the main costmes used in the Sanni dance.

In the designing of hairmoustachesbeards ectworn by performers in the Sanni dancingvery often blackbrown and yellow colours were used in the past.Although they were made out of  materials obtained from the natural environment such as hana (jute)niyanda patta, wetake rootskitul and coconut fibre etcin the pastin the present day artificial fibres are used for that purpose.

As stage items the athu mitiya (bundle of branchesand the walking stick are ued extensiveyWhile a replica of a gun is used for the Vedi Sanniya and a lighted torch (pandamafor the Ginijal Sanniyaa replica of a cobra is used in the Naga SanniyaIn the Deva Sanniya some use a simple replica of a muruthen kada (pingo of meals for Gods)a walking stick and a piruvataya (white cloth).

Dances are performed by actors wearing masks symbolysing the following diseases belonging to the eighteen diseases or Sannis:

Bootha Sanniya (Demon of Spirits)

Coldness of body caused by the disturbance of body wind and bile followed by pain in jointsnightmareyelling and intermittent crying are the main symptoms of this sicknessIn addition to thoseit is considered that other symptoms such as body rashes and the insatiable desre to drink king coconut water are unique smptoms of this ailment.

Abootha Sanniya (Demon of Madness)

This situation affects the mental condition of the sick personIt is caused by the disturbance of physical metabolism owing to unsuitable bodily indulgence,consumption of stale foodsuppression of physical needs for excretionsensual fearanxietyangersadness etcAccording to Madhava Nidhanathe symptoms of Abootha Sanniya are occasional convulsion of the chestburning sensationinsanityperspiration and inadquate  sleep.

mukku Sanniya (Demon causing fits of vomitting)

This Sanniya is caused by excessive secretion and disturbance of bile in the bodyThe symptoms include the feeling of the emenation of heat from the bodyreddening of eyesloss of appetitenauseabibberish and the distortion of the mouth to the right side.

Wedi Sanniya

This Sanniya may be caused by the disturbance of bile and phlegmPain in the eyesabscesses in the earstwisted neckfeeling of heat emanation from the bodydifficulty in speech and benumbed limbs are the common symptoms of this Sanniya.

Vatha Sanniya

In the Vatha Sanniya there are symptoms caused by disturbed body wind such as aimless walkingblood-shot eyesgrinding of teethflatulence,wind-breakingincoherent talkloss of appetite and insanity.

Beetha Sanniya (Demon of Fear)

Occasional insane status caused by feartalking irrelevant thingsfear of being followed by somebodyconstant dark visionloss of appetite and diarrhoea are the symptoms of this diseaseAlthough some identify the name of this Sanniya with Bootha SanniyaBeetha Sanniya shows signs of being afraid of something.

Bihiri Sanniya (Demon of Deafness)

Insane conditonheadacheexcessive phlegm and extreme cold are the common symptoms of this disease while deafness is the inevitable resultThere is a cobra figure carved in the mask in this Sanniya because Witch Doctors beleive that such reptiles have no ears.

Kana Sanniya (Demon of Blindness)

Acute sleepinessurine and excreta block,swelling of bodyinsanityburning sensation of the bodyirrelevant talk and feverishness are the common  symptoms of this disease while acute weekness in eyesight is very common.

In Ayurvedic medicine it is considered that this disease is particularly caused by disturbance in the bileSkin rashes and tumoursburning sensation of the bodyback achecramp in the calfloss of sleepfeverinsanity and incoherent talk in an insane status of mind due to disturbed bile are the symptoms.

Golu Sanniya (Demon of Dumbness)

Babblingconstipationdeafnesssurfeitloss of sleepiness in the nightheadache and burning sensation inside the bodyintermittent feverishness are the main symptoms of Golu Sanniya.

Murthu Sanniya(Demon of Unconsiousness)

The main symptom of this Sanniya is being unconscious from time to timeThere are episodes of long durations of unconsciousness of four or five timesinternal abscesses in the bodymuscle crampsdiseases in the belly and excessive fever.

Demala Sanniya (Demon of Tamil)

Crazinessmadnessgibberishrunning here and theretalking in Tamilfurrowing of the forehead and blackening of the face are the symptoms of this disease.

Gulma Sanniya (Demon of the Spleen disease)

In the Gulma Sanniya caused by gulma wormthe elements of food coagulate and with the passage of time it is mixed with blood and forming into an abscessspreads throughout the bodyAt the advanced stage of the disease there are symptoms suh as diarrhoeaaversion to foodvomittingweakening of the body,  abscesses in the intestinelack of blood circulation to the brain etc.

Kora Sanniya (Demon of Lameness)

Lameness in limbs caused by cramps in the muscles as a result of being a long time in extremely cold water and cerebral inflammation are the main symptoms of this disease.It is also possible to have symptoms of crippled fingers and limbs owing to malevolent effects of black magic associated with spiritualism.Distortion of the mouth is a special feature of the Kora Sanni mask.

Ginijal Sanniya (Demon of Flames)

It is known among Witch-Doctors that symptoms such as burning sensation in the chestreddening of eyesnauseamadnesrunning helter-skelter and intermittent fever are the most common ones in this diseaseIn the mask of this Sanniya designs of flames are carved to symbolize agni or fire and it is the practice for the exorcists  to come to the floor carrying a torch in the hand.

SeethalaSanniya (Demon of Shivering)

Shivering of bodyheadache and pain in the limbsmuscular crampscoldness in the soleimmobility of fingersweak pulsesvomitting and insanity are the symptoms observed in this diseaseThis Sanni is also known as Vevulum Sanniya,Seetha Sanniya and Jala Sanniya.

Naga Sanniya (Demon of Cobra)

Symptoms in this Sanniya are caused due to the poisoning of the bodyThe urge to be in shade owing to the burning sensation of the bodyreddening of the eyesdiarrhoeasecretion of heat water from the eyesears and nosemadnessdifficulty in speech and the all over physical appearance of being affected by poison are the common symptoms of this disease.

Deva Sanniya (Demon of Deity)

Burning sensation in the bodyfast beating of pulsessevere feverflatulence,  indigestionfaintness and the bulging of eyes are the symptoms of this diseaseThe main symptoms of chicken-poxmeaslesmumps etcwhich are considered by some as diseases of the gods too are indicated in the dialogues by the dancers.

In order to imitate the respective characters of each of the Sanni demonsmasksmouth-piecesdentureshairmoustaches and beards etcare used by the Witch-Doctors.  Very oftencolours like bluegreen yellowbrownblack and ash are used in painting of the masksturned outgenerally out of Nux-Vomika (kaduruwood which are used to symboize the symptoms of the respective Sanni diseases.Masks known as keta muhunu in the art of mask making are used very often and they are made in such a manner that the entire face of the dancer is covered when the mask is wornThese masks are also known as masks cut in a bulkSuch masks are created unique to the respective schools of arts and highlighting the main characteristics of the respective diseasesThe Sanni masks which are used with separate identities by craftsmen of different schools indicate specific features unique to each category as follows:

  • In the Bihiri Sannni mask there is a serpent hood on its right side
  • In the Amukku Sanni mask the mouth is portrayed in a distorted manner with a slant to the right
  • In the Kora Sanni mask the mouth is slanted towards the left
  • In the Amukku Sanni mask the mouth is distorted towards the right
  • In the Naga Sanni mask serpnt hoods go up both ways or upwards from the centre of the forehead and a replica of a cobra is used in the dance
  • In the small maks used for the Kola Sanniya to indicate the advent of the eighteen Sannis to Sri Lanka (Kadavath tharanaya)on both sides of the serpent hood there are two parts of the thiringithala design on the two sides.
  • In the Kana Sanniyasome enter the dancing floor with the pupil of the eye painted in white to indicate blindenessAt the end of the performancethe white patch is wiped off and dialogues are used to indicate that the person is now free from blindness.
  • In the Deva Sanniyadepicting the figure of God there are two fangs curved upwards from the mouthIn the Matara school there are tiny Sanni masks carved in the crown on the head of the mask.
  • In the Ginijal Sanniya there is a special design of flames on the upper part of the head to symblize flames.

There are eighteen Sannis on both sides with nine masks on either sideIt is the common practice today to use a mask with a thiringithala design and a serpent hood because of the difficulty in wearing  it due to its sizeIt is a specal feature to feature Raja Mulu Kola Sanniya made in the form of a bali figure on both sides of the eighteen Sannis.Although it is numerically referred to as Daha-ata Sanniyain the present day there are twenty Sannis with Vedi Sanniya in the Matara tradition and Maru Sanniya in the Bentara tradition.

It may be noted that the masks relating to the Sannis depicted in these stamps have been selected in order to portray them in an attractive manner in stamps by taking into considertion the three traditions of BentaraMatara and Raigama.

InstructionsProf Lionel BentarageUniversitry of Aesthetic Arts

 Traditional Sinhalese Exorcism Ritual Stmps ( 18 Sanniya) - 2018 

The Philatelic Bureau of the Department of Posts has issued 18 new postage stamps in the denominations of Rs.15.00 and 3 Miniature Sheets on August 08, 2018 depicting the masks and the events of the Daha-ata Sanniya (The Eighteen Diseases).

Date of Issue 08th August, 2018
Denomination Rs.15.00 x 18
Catalogue No:

CSL 2284 – Bootha Sanniya
CSL 2285 – Abootha Sanniya
CSL 2286 – Amukku Sanniya
CSL 2287 – Wedi Sanniya
CSL 2288 – Vatha Sanniya
CSL 2289 – Beetha Sanniya
CSL 2290 – Bihiri Sanniya
CSL 2291 – Kana Sanniya
CSL 2292 – Pith Sanniya
CSL 2293 – Golu Sanniya
CSL 2294 – Murthu Sanniya
CSL 2295 – Demala Sanniya
CSL 2296 – Gulma Sanniya
CSL 2297 – Kora Sanniya
CSL 2298 – Ginijal Sanniya
CSL 2299 – Seethala Sanniya
CSL 2300 – Naga Sanniya
CSL 2301 – Deva Sanniya

Stamp Designer

Kumudu Tharaka Peiris

Stamp Size:

41mm x 30mm

Sheet Composition: 20 stamps per sheet




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  2. KariyawasamTissa – “ Daha Ata Sanni yaga vigrahaya” S.Godage Brothers – Chatura PrintersWellampitiya 2001.
  3. FernandoK.S– “ Sanni Yakuma hevath daha ata sanniya” –Department of Cultural AffairsGovernmenet PressColombo (no year indicated)
  4. BentarageLionel and WeerasingheHemachanda  “ Daha Ata Sanni samvada” An author publicationS&S PrintersColombo -
  5. SarachchandraDr Ediriweera – The Folk Drama of CeylonDepartment of Cultural AffairsGovernment PressColombo – 1968
  6. SomathilakaPalitha – “ Maha Yak Kavi Potha” – Modern Books CompanyNugegoda – 1964
  7. The Art of Mask Making in Sri Lanka, The National Trust Sri Lanka, Goonarathne Offset Ltd Colombo.

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