Sanni Masks

Diseases have traditionally thought to be sometimes caused by yakkas and other evil forces. When it is believed, for example, that a lingering sickness is caused by such forces, the patient’s family used to turn – and still do to a limited extent – to an edura, or exorcist, to perform a tovil, or devil dance, characterised by the wearing of yak vesmuhunu, devil masks. It’s an ancient healing ceremony that treats the cause of the disease not the symptom, a basic tenet of alternative medicine such as Ayurveda.

Demonic participants include the much-feared Maha Sohona “demon of the cemetery”, a giant beheaded in a duel who now possesses a bear’s head, represented by an awesome mask with extended tongue. Maha Sohona is threatened with further humiliation unless he relinquishes his grip on the patient’s health.

Most important are the 18 sanni (“disease”) demons that represent specific physical and psychological ailments visualised in the leering masks. The full complement is rarely represented; only the most likely demons to be causing a person’s affliction are worn. During the exorcism the sanni demons are summoned, offered tribute and requested to leave the patient alone.

Finally, there is the appearance of an exorcist wearing the mask of the chief demon, Maha Kola (“the all encompassing one”), which holds afflicted persons in its mouth and hands and is surrounded by cobras and miniature representations of the 18 sanniyas.

Exorcists are reluctant to dispose of sanni masks fearing they might incur the wrath of the demons. Another belief is that when an exorcism ritual is held in one location, masks in other places begin to vibrate. When not in use, the masks are individually wrapped in red cloth and kept separate.

It is felt that the masks’ visual representation is of significance to modern medicine. In “Sri Lankan sanni masks: an ancient classification of disease” (British Medical Journal, December 21, 2006), authors Dr Mark S Bailey and Prof H Janaka de Silva argue that “the classification of disease used in Sri Lankan sanni masks is still relevant today”.

Stomach diseases that cause vomiting are distinguished from those that produce parasitic worms: Amukku Sanniya, the mask that represents vomiting, has a green complexion and protruding tongue, whereas Gulma Sanniya, which represents parasitic worms, has a pale complexion suggestive of hookworm anaemia.

Conversely, the masks for malaria and high fevers, Gini Jala Sanniya, and for cholera and chills, Jala Sanniya, both have fiery red complexions, although the former “can usually be distinguished by flames across the forehead, reminiscent of the temperature chart from a febrile patient”.

Bihiri Sanniya, the mask for deafness is distinctive as it features a cobra that extends from the nose to envelop one side of the face – tradition has it that snakes are deaf, which is only partly true.

Gedi Sanniya, demon of boils and skin diseases has facial lesions resembling carbuncles; Kora Sanniya, demon of lameness and paralysis has a facial deformity that probably represents a stroke; Pith Sanniya, demon of bilious diseases, has a yellow, jaundice-like complexion.

Knowledge of the intricacy of psychiatric illness is evident in the masks Pissu Sanniya, or temporary insanity, Kapala Sanniya, permanent insanity, Butha Sanniya, related to spirits, and Abutha Sanniya, not related to spirits.

“Hence,” the authors conclude, “the sanni demons do seem to represent disease syndromes, and their masks show clinical features familiar to clinicians today. This classification of disease has considerable merit, especially considering its origin among non-medical practitioners many centuries ago.”

At the next stage the mask dancers representing the 18 Sanni Demons arrive on the scene. Deva Sanniya causes measeles, mumps, smallpox, diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera, Vata Sanniya causes paralysis; Pitha Sanniya causes ailments related to bile; Amukku Sanniya causes stomach pain and vomiting; Naga Sanniya causes pain in the body similar to cobra bite; Ginijala Sanniya causes heat similar to fire in the body; Selesma Sanniya causes diseases as a result of phlegm; cough and sneezing; Kapala Sanniya causes headache; Maru Sanniya causes death; Kadawatha Sanniya breaks the barrier between the patient and the Sanniya; Kora Sanniya causes lame limbs, swollen joints; Bhuta Sanniya causes temporary madness; Kana Sanniya causes temporary blindness; Jala Sanniya causes unbearable cold and shivering; Bihiri Sanniya causes temporary deafness; Golu Sanniya causes temporary dumbness; Veulum Sanniya causes shivering and fits and Gedi Sanniya causes abscesses. The Sanni demons wear the mask depicting the features of the disease they represent and costumes of black and a skirt of leaves and perform the ritual dance. During the continuous dialogue between the demon and the Kattadiya they are questioned on what they did to the patient and the Sanni demon explains the influence on the patient. Sanni demons demand offerings from the patient and after receiving the offerings they agree to leave the patient.
The Sanni masks are more distorted and disturbing. There are 18 of them, each mask an embodiment of a particular ailment, as ‘sanni’ is essentially an exorcism ritual. There is one for vomiting and stomach diseases, one for temporary insanity and one for nightmares.
At the end Prince Maha Kola the chief of the Sannis arrive on the scene. Maha Kola tries to approach the patient but the Kattadiya prevents the attempts. He leaves the place after receiving the offerings. The Maha Kola mask is the most intricate of all the masks. It comprises all the masks representing 18 demons. Finally, Purifying Ritual is performed by the Double Torch Dancer.
The 18 Sanni demons, These Sanni demons are very powerful group of demons, they can make people sick by looking at them.
  • Deva Sanniya Causes measles, mumps, smallpox, diarrhea,typhoid fever, cholera
  • Vata Sanniya Causes diseases caused by air in the body; also paralysis,
  • Pith Sanniya Causes diseases of the bile
  • Anukku Sanniya Causes stomach pain, vomiting
  • Naga Sanniya Vision of this demon causes poison in the body.
  • Ginijala Sanniya Causes heat, similar to fire in the body and burning sensation.
  • Selesma Sanniya Causes headache.
  • Kapala Sanniya Cough, sneezing
  • Maru Sanniya Causes fear of death also death
  • Kadawatha Sanniya Is trying to break down barriers which separate him from the patient
  • Kora Sanniya Causes lame limbs, swollen joints
  • Buhutu Sanniya Causes temporary madness
  • Kana Sanniya Causes temporary blindness
  • Jala Sanniya Causes unbearable cold and shivering
  • Bihiri Sanniya Causes temporary deafness
  • Golu Sanniya Causes temporary dumbness
  • Velum Sanniya Causing shivering and fits
  • Gedi Sanniya Causes furuncles



Twelve mask dancers known as 'Palis' arrive at the location as forerunners of the 18 Sanni demons and arrange the place for the ritual. Palis assigned with different tasks come one after the other. Pandam Paliya carries burning torches, Anguru Dummala Paliya carries (resin powder and charcoal, Kadu Paliya carries a sword, Kalas Paliya carries a flower pot, Salu Paliya carries betel, Dalumura Paliya carries betel, Tambili Paliya carries a king coconut, Muguru Paliya carries a club, Kukulu Paliya carries a cock, Athu Paliya carries branches, Dunu Paliya carries a bow and arrow and Kendi Paliya carries holy water in a pot.

Maha Kola Mask

Maha Kola is the chief of these 18 demons. In a Sanni Yakuma, the specialist calls all the sanni demons that have caused the diseases of the patient. The patient gives them offerings and the demons including their Chief Maha Kola will leave the place.

This detailed masked shows the boss of 18 demons of illness in the Devil Dance. It is known that Maha Kola has grasped on to the victims of illness in his hands and mouth. Maha Kola is standing between the eighteen devils and two snakes. Each demon is known for a specific illness; blindness, cholera, boils and other diseases. 



Maha Kola Mask

 pin images      08aa50cf3ada1e4bbc56228a9abc812b