Kolam Natima – Pranks, Social critique and Religious Ritual?

  • Kolam: masquerade, disguise, carnival, fantastic appearance 
  • Natima: dance
Bildet kan inneholde: kunst, tilpasning, musikk instrument, tromme, begivenhet.
From the Ambalangoda Masks Museum. Photo: Øivind Fuglerud

A Kolam performance is full of absurd exaggeration and comic dialogue. Ordinary people recognize themselves in the situations and characters in the performance. The mask dance, Kolam Natima, is an art form from the south-western part of Sri Lanka.

Bildet kan inneholde: hodeplagg, kunst, begivenhet, pels.
From the Ambalangoda Masks Museum. Photo: Øivind Fuglerud

In Kolam we see the world through the eyes of the villager. The masks give life to characters from daily life:

  • the village headman, arrogant and vain
  • the tom-tom-beater, poor and oppressed
  • the Muslim, the village butcher
  • the old married couple, afraid of demons and wild animals
  • the returned soldier, wounded and sick from the war against the British and
  • the young beauty, married to an impotent old man.

Observing from the side-lines, is the king, Maha Sammata, the first king of humans. He represents the epitome of good government - divine rule in harmony with the order of existence. He is not part of the actual performance. His large mask is placed in the position of the observer.

The demons of the underworld also have important roles to play in Kolam: We meet the general of the army of demons, Purnaka, the snake-demon, Raga Naksha, and others.

Bildet kan inneholde: tekstil, erme, kunst, gjennom, midje.
From the Ambalangoda Masks Museum. Photo: Øivind Fuglerud

Kolam Natima is about the daily lives of ordinary people where comic  situations alternate with tragic ones. The plot plays out between the worlds of the gods and the world of the demons - in the in-between place allocated to humans.

Today Kolam performances rarely last from dusk-to-dawn, but the tradition lives on in shorter plays.

Masks and measures

The masks are carved according to specific measures, passed on through verses called Ambum Kavi ('carving-verses'). About Maha Sammatha's king mask the Ambum Kavi tell:

The mask of Maha Sammatha is five Vijathas high. The shoulders are three Viyathas and three fingers in breadth. Two sides of the head are decorated with a scroll work or a liyavel creeper design. These sides are called Thiringi Thale. On the head a lotus in full blossom is carved.

Fra Ambalangoda Masks Museum. Foto: Øivind Fuglerud

'Viyatha' is an old measurement equal to the hand of an adult man. 'Thiringi Thale' is a design depicting sansara, th endless succession of births in which human existence is trapped.

Bildet kan inneholde: hvit, svart, kunst, organisme, skrift.
Maha Sammatha (1) The human aspiration of attaining freedom through nirvana (2) Sansara, the succession of re-births (3) The birth of Buddha (4) Thavthisa, heaven (5) Nirvana

From the the museum treasure trove

Photo: Ann Christine Eek  © Museum of Cultural History

According to the museum catalouge, the majority of the Kolam masks were purchased from Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg in 1885.

Many of the early collections in European ethnographic museums in Europe came from private collectors who acquired, exhibited and traded in exotic objects for profit. Some went further, and imported and exhibited exotic people. One of the most famous was Carl Hagenbeck, founder of the Hamburg Zoo. He wanted to  show the animals in their proper surroundings.  So he also brought people from different cultures to his park - among these, a group of Sami people from Finnmark in Norway.

We know that a group of Kolam dancers stayed with Hagenbeck in Hamburg. Possibly the masks in the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo come from these dancers.

Play of the Gods 

The stories performed in Kolam Natima belong to Sinhalese folk tradition. As an introduction to the play the narrator tells the following story in verse form: 

The First Queen of a great king was pregnant when signs of evil forces appeared: Her face withered, her nipples turned green, and she lost her appetite for healthy food. Soon she was attacked by "dola-duka", a strange craving affecting pregnant women. More than anything she desired to see a masked dance. But at this time, there were no such dances in the country. The king was at a loss and his terrified advisors had no advice to give.

Finally, the king went to bed without eating. Sakra, the king of Gods, took pity on him and sent the god,Vishvakarma to help. Vishvakarma made a set of masks and placed them in the king’s garden together with the script to a mask-play. The next morning the king’s gardener found the masks and alerted the king. The king told his men to study the script and then perform a mask-dance. The queen was satisfied and her cravings disappeared.

Bildet kan inneholde: hode, tinning, kunst, tinning, begivenhet.
From the Ambalangoda Masks Museum. Photo: Øivind Fuglerud

When the narrator has finished this introduction, the mask-play left by Vishvakarma is performed. The god Vishvakarma has since been regarded as the protector of woodcarvers.

Bildet kan inneholde: hvit, virveldyr, stående, skrift, kunst.
'Vishvakarma; lord of the arts, master of a thousand handicrafts, carpenter of the Gods and the builder of their divine palaces; fashioner of every jewel, first of craftsmen by whose art men live and whom, a great and deathless God, they continually worship'  (Mahabharatha)

Arts and Crafts in Sri Lanka


Masks are deeply connected to Sri Lankan folk-lore and take on a functional role where they are used in healing rites and rituals. Known popularly as devil dances, some are dance-drama performances that tell an elaborate story and is enacted by experienced dancers and actors wearing these masks.

One of the most popular and ancient acts is the 18 Sanni that are thought to represent diseases or ailments caused by yakkas (devils). Eighteen masks carved to represent the torment felt through these diseases are worn by an exorcist and a tovil, a devil dance, is performed. Other popular mask dances or dramas are Kolam and Raksha, one a comedic performance and the other masks mainly used in festivals and processions. 

Ambalangoda is known to be the heart of mask carving with many shops dotting the roadside as you drive along this coastal town. If you happen to pop into one of the stores, you will be able to see how these masks are carved and painted with brilliant colours and take one along as well.


Long ago handloom was reserved exclusively for the royalty and the renowned in the country and special villages were designated to practice the craft. However, now Handloom is generally found around the island as a self-employed or entrepreneurial activity where this skill which has been passed down from generation to generation has been revived and practised.

Among handloom products in Sri Lanka are, curtains, cushion covers and other household decorative items, saris and garments as well as everyday items such as books and bags.

Handwoven fabrics, with their vibrant colours and simple or elaborate patterns, have become a favourite among shoppers.


Dumbara weaves, a unique work of art once found only as decorative pieces and mats are now seen integrated into the modern world; it can now be seen infused with designs of wall hangings and decorative items, bags and purses, rugs and carpets along with household utilities such as table mats and sheets.

The art is said to have originated in the village of Thalagune Uda Dumbara, where still a handful of Dumbara weavers—descendants of the ones who practised the craft during the Kandyan era still remains carrying on the legacy. The skill is well guarded within the few families that hold the secret to this amazing art.

The designs found on the Dumbara weaver’s products are specific to the Sri Lankan culture and reflect the traditions within its intricate weave-work. 


Lacquer work (Laksha)

These skillfully made traditional handicrafts are a very popular choice amongst tourists and seekers of tokens depicting Sri Lankan culture. Originating in central Sri Lanka, the knowledge of lacquer making has spread throughout the island over the centuries. 

The base product for the traditional lacquerware is a wax derived from a species of insects, which is imported from India. Whilst the age-old methods are used by some, new tools and procedures introduced with time are preferred by the others in the making of these complex and exquisite designs.

Colourful and bright walking sticks, handles of flags and hand-fans, bowls, vases, containers and decorative items made with lacquer work are seen island-wide.


Making of traditional drums 

The traditional drums, or Bera, is undoubtedly part of the Sri Lankan culture. 

The special skill and craftsmanship required for the making of these drums are possessed by a numbered few—communities across Kurunegala and Hodiyadeniya in the Kandy district. 

The body of the drum is fashioned mostly out of Jack tree, and the skin is made out of an animal hide. After long hours of divided work within each group, the keen and detail-oriented drum makers present beautifully shaped and designed drums with the right sound.

Drum making is also largely practised in Hikkaduwa located in the Southern region of Sri Lanka.

The palmyrah tree is used widely in Sri Lanka to make a diverse range of products from the sweet ‘Hakuru’, a type of jaggery (the produce of concentrated palm sap) to handicrafts items such as baskets and bags. 

Hakuru is a local favourite, especially among those who are fond of sweets and an authentic Sri Lankan meal spread is rarely seen without a serving of jaggery. A long and patience-testing procedure is required to prepare the Hakuru. The sap tapped from the ‘Kithul Palm’ trees are cleaned, strained and fermented to perfection over a span of hours. A particular skill is required for the process to deliver Sri Lanka’s favourite dessert.


Products made out of brass have been used in everyday life in Sri Lanka. Brass products are either wrought or cast and adorned with carvings or designs. Some of these products include artefacts used for religious purposes such as oil lamps, as well as household utilities including boxes, baskets, chairs, trays, containers, locks, hinges and vases. 

It is very likely that you will come across some of these products being sold on the pavements of Colombo.


Jewellery making

Looking back, we see that jewellery has always been embedded into the culture and heritage of Sri Lanka. In ancient times, silver, gold and gem-adorned bangles, necklaces and rings among other ornaments were considered a mark of royalty and privilege, whereas today, jewellery is available for purchase for any who fancy a piece of perfectly crafted jewellery. 

At present, jewellery made in Sri Lanka—either traditional in design or modern and up to international standards, is a very well reputed and sought after merchandise worldwide. Compared to how jewellery was created generations ago, modern technology and tools have at times been incorporated now, into the making of the jewellery, where one can see age-old traditions and designs infused with modernity.

Sri Lanka, famed for precious and semi-precious stones, especially blue sapphires, is a sure choice when it comes to purchasing jewellery.


Beeralu lace

Lacemaking, a pastime caught on from Portuguese and Dutch women during the colonial times, has now developed into a reputed household industry, mostly around the South Western Coast of Sri Lanka. Lacemaking households can be seen in Weligama, Galle, Matara and Hambantota. And it is indeed quite fascinating to see how the hands dexterously handle the tools to create intricate patterns, something that you should not miss if you happen to come across a household engaged in the art of making beeralu lace and perhaps even have a go at it if they allow. 

A skill that is almost exclusively found amongst women, these lace-making techniques are found as trimmings on dresses, curtains, table spreads, garments and covers for pillows, cushions and chairs.

Cane crafts are found within certain areas in Sri Lanka, such as Bibile in Monaragala District, Polonnaruwa and Weweldeniya in the Gampaha District where cane is grown. Cane is used to make tables and chairs, baskets, containers and decorative and household items.

Cane stalks are bent and wound into different shapes while being heated, and it is known to last for up to 15 years or more. A favoured local product, cane woven products are found in almost every household.


Clay (pottery)

One of the oldest lines of craftwork in Sri Lanka, pottery is still popular in this modern day of steel and plastic. 

Clay pottery mainly consists of a spinning wheel with soft clay placed on top, ready to be moulded into the required shape and the follow-up steps such as keeping the shaped pot in a brick oven to solidify the figurine. 

The clay pots with their rustic look, solid texture and historic background are perhaps, what draws most towards its charm. In addition to clay pots, terracotta figures, vases and other utensils are made from clay pottery as well. One of the most famous areas for clay pottery is Molagoda, a small village situated along the Colombo-Kandy road.

Wood carving

The traditional handicraft of wood carving has been around in Sri Lanka for centuries. 

Various collections of wood carved products sold in Sri Lanka include ornaments and jewellery pieces, figurines, sculptures, lacquer products, boxes and toys.

Carved wooden furniture and household items are also a popular buy amongst locals and foreigners alike. To purchase or even to get your own customized wood carving or set of furniture drop by any woodshop in Moratuwa.



With roots tracing back to Indonesia, the creation of Batiks have earned a title role in the definition of Sri Lankan handicrafts. Its intriguing designs and combinations of hues offer an in-depth look into the picturesque landscapes, flora and Kandyan era designs from which most design inspirations are sparked.

Each stage of the production process of the Sri Lankan Batik is done by hand and it is fabricated entirely on pure cotton or silk fabric.

Mostly used in sheets, paintings, wall hangings and decorative items, Batiks have also taken over the fashion industry, resulting in various looks with Batik fabrics.

Coir products

The production of coir rope and products have been in play for countless years in Sri Lanka. The production process is comprised of several intricate stages involving the soaking and processing of the coconut husk, extraction of the coir fibre following the separation of the coir and then finally being twisted and spun into rope. 

Though traditionally, the coir rope is spun completely by hand, the large-scale manufacturing of coir products, influenced greatly by the increase of imports has implemented machinery to aid in the creation.

Popular coir products include carpets, mats, brooms and brushes to name a few.


The Sinhalese term ‘sesath’ translates to ‘white umbrella’. 

The sesath is considered an auspicious object which has been in the Sri Lankan heritage for numerous years, and a symbol of respect, status and privilege. It is believed that the origin of sesath can be traced to the arrival of Arahat Theri Sangamitta to the country from India.

It comprises of multicoloured woven palm leaf strips which are sewn onto the mica and palm base of the umbrella, which is attached to a lacquered pole. Today, the sesath is also available as a decorative item and can be purchased in handicraft stores.


Many of the locals buy and hang masks in their own houses for the goodness and to get the God’s wishing to the house. Foreigners also somewhat believe the believing of the Masks hanging in their houses. More than that foreigners buy masks for their uniqueness and traditionalism that a mask contains. The colors and the expressions the masks get the foreigners attraction. The Ambalangoda Masks Museum has many of the very old, original traditional masks and they do present the history and the details of the masks to the visitors to the museum. This massively supports to increase the foreigners Masks awareness and the marketing.

And there are Masks dancing shows organize for the foreigners at Ambalangoda. Foreigners get more attract to masks once they see the Masks dancing done wearing Masks. Its make them more understandable of the meaning of different kind of masks as well. Masks Industry has been one of the main sources of foreign currency to the Sri Lanka. And it opens the door for many job opportunities. The job opportunities start from the Kaduru tree suppliers, the other painting material suppliers, craftsmen, masks painters, sellers, masks dancers, tourist guides and shipping lines etc.


Masks manufacturing and the selling is mainly depend on the tourism. Though there is a local market open for the Masks industry, the most of the selling and the profits are from the foreign market. In the other hand, the tourism totally depends on the country situation. According to the statistics on tourists arrivals (data from the Airport Surveys and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority); there has been a significant increase of tourist arrival during the peace period starting from 2002. But unfortunately with the war in 2008 to 2009; it shows a considerable drop on the tourists’ arrivals which affected the Masks Industry.


The raw materials used for Masks Industry are mostly from the villages itself and not available in any other country to import. According to the facts gathered from the Masks Manufactures in Ambalangoda, they do have a separate set of workers who supply the Kaduru wood to the manufactures. But according to the facts from the manufactures it self, it was raised the concern that now a days, the supply is slightly meeting the requirement. The manufactures gave the reason as; the suppliers don’t grow the Kaduru tree purposely for their business and they cut the existing Kaduru trees in the area and then supply. Hence the manufactures already have the concern of not having enough supply to meet the demand.

As per the manufactures, they don’t have any alternative wood also to use for Masks Carving. The craftsmen that involve in Masks industry are mostly from the tradition and they don’t have much of higher educational background as well. As per the facts from manufactures, most of the craftsmen join the masks carving just after giving up the school and they don’t have any suitability and education or financial strength for higher education. Manufactures don’t see this as a drawback as they are doing the Masks Carving job at their best. But manufactures have seen the facts that now a days, it is very less number of people give-up the school at least before their Advance Level and most people go for the higher education or other careers and the trend of craftsmen joining the industry on Masks carving ahs been very minimal. Up to the painting of masks it has to be Male employees who do the work on most of the time it is Female employees who work on the final part of paining the masks.

As per the facts from the Manufactures they do have a separate outsourcing craftsmen who supply the completed Masks it selves to the masks manufactures or to the Mask selling people. These outsourcing craftsmen do the buy or find the raw materials by them selves and do the masks carving and sell to the manufactures or the selling outlets directly according to the demand. And one important point that manufactures mentioned about this out sourcing craftsmen are, their main income source or their main occupation is not the masks carving. They do have some other income sources and they do the Masks carving on need basis or on demand basis as another source of income. urther, manufactures mentioned this Masks outsourcing method was initiated and started during the War period.

As the tourism decreases, the Masks Industry also decreases and hence most of the craftsmen were asked resign from the large manufactures and then these craftsmen started looking for other occupation and they did the Masks carving if there is any demand only. They are still continuing this and as per the facts, in year late 2009 to 2010 they have more involved in Masks Carving with the increase of tourism which is resulting more masks demand.


According the information gathered from the manufactures, there has not been a significant support from the government to the Masks Industry. In 1980 decade there has been events organized by the Government for the Masks industry publication around other countries and during that time the Government has given sponsorships to the Masks Manufactures and traditional Masks Dancers to visit different countries and participating on commercial activities. Masks is a subject which can be included in the university subjects and make the new generation aware of the value of the industry. This way they should be able to get much more visibility towards to the Masks Industry and specially the Masks Dancing. Masks Dancing is a very demanding among the foreign countries and that should be promote as a one of the main foreign income source to the Sri Lanka.


As per the facts given by manufactures, Tourism is the main success factor of the Masks industry development and ways and simply increasing the tourist awareness and attraction to the Masks is the key point that can help on Masks Industry development. Mean time, additional to the Traditional Masks manufactures, there are many small size business masks manufacturing beginners also popping up and having or giving them the opportunity to for publicity and marketing through out by events organized by the government such as exhibitions in Sri Lanka and other countries, and opening up contacts and connections for the local sellers to the foreign markets also would be very helpful for the Masks Industry development.

The Yakkun Nattannawa was translated by way of ascertaining the sentiments and usages of the Singalese in their system
of demonology and is submitted to the public in order to promote correct views on the subject, and to stimulate to missionary
exertion. The Translator gratefully acknowledges the liberality of the Oriental Translation Committee, to whom
this and the following poem were presented as an expression of interest in their proceedings, and under whose auspices they
now appear.
Prevalent as devil-worship is among Brahminists and Budhists, it should be distinguished from planet-worship and masquerades.
The ceremonies and songs relating to the former are contained in a large volume, in which directions are given for worshipping
the planets, the Zodiac, and five thousand five hundred stars. That system pretends to avert the influence of the planets as
indicated by astrology ; and is called Bali Arinnawa. They are represented by figures in relievo, mostly in the human
form, wrought in a striking manner on a screen of split bamboo ten or twelve feet square. 

Happily, theHappily, thehistory and doctrine of Budhism are popularly illustrated by Mr. Upbam in his valuable work on that subject ; in which alsoare Notices of the Capuism or Demon-worship, and of theBali or planetary incantations of Ceylon ; embellished with fortythreelithographic prints from original Cingalese designs. Thecontents are founded principally on manuscripts and drawingsin the collection of Sir Alexander Johnston, late President ofHis Majesty's Council and Chief Justice of Ceylon, to whomthe volume is handsomely dedicated, whose interest in everything connected with Oriental literature cannot be estimatedtoo highly, and whose plan for the emancipation of slaves inthat island deserves universal adoption. Seldom do we observean inquiry so abstruse, antique, and multifarious, conductedwith such acuteness and judgment. The reader will findhimself entertained and instructed in the most delightful manner,and rise from the perusal of the work with quickenedsympathy for the miseries of the three hundred millions whofollow such awful delusions, and renewed thankfulness for theblessings of the Christian revelation.

 The Goddess Pattinne (Pattinnee Deviya)

Kalu Kumaraya

10 Fascinating Cultural Masks from Around the World

Putting on a mask is a transformative experience. It allows us to be someone we’re not for a moment, changing both how we see ourselves and how we behave outwardly. Many of us know this feeling from Halloween in America, but it’s a universal feeling shared across cultures throughout human history.

While some masked ceremonies have died out over the years, others cultures have held onto their traditions. Learn the meanings behind some of the most fascinating masks from around the world and find out where and when you can see them.

1. Venetian Carnival Masks


Worn during Carnival in Venice, these world-famous masks date back to the 13th century.  The origin of the masks is unknown, but some theories suggest that they were donned in rebellion to the rigid society of the times. Venetian masks range in quality, size and material, from cheap papier mâché eye masks to porcelain face masks with long noses or elaborate feathers. Venetian masks were originally made by skilled craftsmen called the mascherari. Today they can be purchased as shops throughout Venice to wear during the 11 days of Carnival, which happen in January or February, depending on where Easter falls.

2. Mexican Day of the Dead Masks

Dia de los Muertos masks represent calaveras, or skulls. The celebration originated as a way to honor the deceased and acknowledge death as a natural part of life. The festivities are on November 1st and 2nd throughout Mexico and Latin America, with celebrants wearing skull-shaped masks or face paint and colorful costumes and hats.

3. Chinese New Year Masks

On the biggest holiday of the year in the most populous country in the world, various masks are worn during week-long celebrations to ring in the new year. Made from materials including stones, metal and leather, these colorful masks are designed to display the moods and emotions associated with the festival. The masks represent the deities, spirits and fabled animals that Chinese New Year mythology originated from.

4. Brazilian Carnival Masks

Similar in style to Venetian masks, Brazilian masks are also worn in celebration of Carnival during the week before lent. Their origins, though, are vastly different. Brazilian Carnival first occurred in the 17th or 18th century in Rio de Janeiro, but masks weren’t observed until the 19th century. Lower-class parading revelers, called Cordões, wore these masks in contrast to the more organized and lavish parades held by the aristocratic and working-class people. It’s the Cordões’ parties, where samba was also born, that the street parties in Carnival as we know them today more closely represent.

5. Filipino Dinagyang Masks

Celebrated in Iloilo City on the fourth weekend of January, Dinagyang revelers wear dazzling masks made of colorful materials, including feathers, beads and sequins. The festival brings music and dancing in the streets with participants wearing full-body costumes or body paint along with the exquisite masks.

6. African Festima Masks


Festima is the festival of all festivals for mask lovers. Officially dubbed the International Festival of Masks and Arts, Festima is a centuries old tradition celebrated in several West African countries, including the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Mask making is an ancient custom in Africa, and Festima is celebrated to protect the tradition. Festima masks made of wood, straw, leaves and textiles represent animals and ancestral spirits. Many locals believe that mask wearers embody the subject of the masks.

7. Bahamian Junkanoo Masks


The origins of this festival may be hotly debated in the Bahamas, but one thing’s not debatable: Junkanoo masks are amongst the most ravishing in the world. Junkanoo masks range greatly in design, size and color, but they’re generally very colorful and part of a full-body costume. The masks are shown off in street parades during choreographed dances that last all evening on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

8. Austrian Krampusnacht Festival Masks

In parts of Austria, there’s a dark side to Christmas. Krampusnacht festival masks are based on their namesake, a mythical horned demon figure called Krampus. As folklore goes, Krampus contrasts St. Nicholas by punishing misbehaving children. In early December, Krampusnacht celebrators adorn handmade, wooden Krampus masks and goat or sheepskin suits to the dismay – or delight – of onlookers who are simultaneously celebrating St. Nicholas day.

9. Venezuelan Dancing Devils of Yare Masks

Diablos Danzantes, or dancing devils, are the theme of the masks worn in this festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil in the city of San Fransisco de Yare, outside of Caracas, Venezuela. Diablos Danzantes masks resemble winged dragons and vary in size based on how long a confradiaor group, has been participating in the festival. The masks, which have been worn since the 1700s, are meant to represent the confradia’s order in the devil’s hierarchy. They often take all year to craft by hand.

1o. Japanese Shimokita Tengu Matsuri Mask

Shimokita Tengu Matsuri is also known as the long red-nosed goblins festival, which describes the design of the masks on parade floats and festival-goers alike. The long red nose on the mask is a portrayal of a bird’s beak, and the facial features resemble a human, following the mythological Tengu, a bird-like anthropomorphized creature in Japanese folklore. Shimokita Tengu Matsuri is held in Tokyo over three days in late January and early February. The festival centers around a parade, drum performance and the throwing of edible, roasted soy beans into the crowd.

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