he Kolam theater of Sri Lanka emerged from shamanic healing and purification rituals to become a popular form of culturally embedded entertainment. The stories behind Kolam drama merge Sinhalese folk traditions with Buddhist Jataka stories, which tell of the former lives of the Buddha.  A Kolam performance begins with ritual addresses to gods and the Buddha. What follows is a prologue showing brief stock, mostly comical, scenes from traditional Sri Lankan society.  Finally, a king and the queen in very large masks enter with their retinue, whence they watch the dance.  The performance ends with the dance, typically involving Gara demons, Nagas (cobra demons) and the Garuda (a Naga-eating god-bird) who were eventually reconciled by the Buddha. The performance is intended to purify the village and to spread prosperity.

This mask represents Nagakanya, the Hindu “daughter of the snake” adopted into Buddhist mythology to represent guardians of treasures such as sacred teachings.

For more on the masks of Sri Lanka, see Alain Loviconi, Masks and Exorcisms of Sri Lanka (Paris: Éditions Errance, 1981).


Naga Kanya.  Kolam dancer’s mask headdress has a large cobra head with an extended hood Stock Photo

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