With a recorded history of nearly 2500 years and an unrecorded history of at least the same period, Sri Lanka is home to many legends.
For centuries, the island remained a forgotten and an unknown place till, as time went by, it was re-discovered: first by merchants and later by settlers who discovered a country steeped in mysticism and folklore. In historical accounts, the line between supernatural and natural elements is often blurred, and the mystical and the magical weave seamlessly in and out of the stories that craft the country’s past.
Even in this day and age, the days of yakas and spirits are long gone, but for the most part, Sri Lanka is still a country caught between the times. People living in rural areas still spend their life looking out for Mohini (the only female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu) and exorcisms, rituals, and beliefs in the mystical still thrive in many corners of the island.
Many people in rural areas still have a simple explanation for illness: demons. Eighteen of them in fact, all hell-bent on possessing people and making them sick. Who needs a doctor to diagnose a stomach bug? From deafness to cholera and the fear of death, eighteen physical and psychological diseases were attributed to the local demons, which are known as sanni in Sinhalese tradition, and these were exorcised by eighteen equivalent masked dances, called ‘sanni yakuma’.
The evil so expressively depicted in Sri Lankan masks was exorcised in three ritualistic steps: a specialist would lure in a demon with offerings, upon his arrival, the ‘doctor’ would make him promise to leave the patient’s body — until, finally, he was politely sent away, performing one last dance. In Sri Lankan dance, these demons would each be depicted through eighteen wood-carved faces, accompanying the chief of Sanni himself, depicted in the traditional Medicine Masks (Maha Kola).
These disease-causing demons however, happen to be the small fry. Ruling over them all is their supreme leader, the King of all demons, the Maha Kola Sanni Yaka. Believed to be the worst of the whole lot, this formidable yaka is a force to be reckoned with. According to legend, he was born during the time of the Buddha, when a Queen, condemned to death by her husband on suspicion of adultery, gave birth before she was executed. The child grew up into the dreadful demon Kola Sanniya, who wreaked havoc upon his city in seeking vengeance from his father. It is this demon who created the eighteen minor demons of illness to aid him in his quest for revenge.
Devil Dancing, which is the ritual used to exorcise the demons in one’s body, is one of six interwoven folk traditions on the island, four of which incorporate masks. Sri Lanka possesses Asia’s greatest mask culture—equaled in complexity, style and variety only by the ‘transformation’ mask tradition of central America.
Whispered stories still indicate that the devils are still alive and well in their traditional, Deep South haunts. They haven’t been completely steam-rolled—just bulldozed into a corner where, in the coming decades, they will make their last stand.