The masks you’ll see at Ambalangoda (and elsewhere around the island) were originally produced to be worn by performers in low-country (southern) dances, either in devil dances or kolam. Many Sri Lankans still believe that diseases and illness can be caused by demons, and the purpose of the devil dance – more strictly known as an exorcism ceremony (bali) or healing dance (sunni yakuma) – is to summon up the demons who are causing a person sickness, make offerings to them and then politely request that they leave their victim in peace. There are various groups of demons – five yakka demons, twelve pali demons and eighteen sanni demons; each is believed to be responsible for certain diseases, and each is represented by its own mask, which is worn by a dancer during the exorcism ceremony (all 35 individual masks are sometimes combined into a single enormous medicine mask). Devil dances are still occasionally performed in rural villages, although you’d have to be very lucky to see one.
The origins of the kolam dance-drama are popularly claimed to date back to the mythical Queen Menikpala, who while pregnant developed a craving to witness a theatrical performance. Vishvakarma, the god of craftsmen and artists, is said to have given the king the first kolam masks and the plot of the entire entertainment. The traditional kolam performance features a sequence of dances held together by a rather tenuous plot based around the visit of the pregnant Queen Menikpala and her husband, King Maha Sammatha, to a village. The performance traditionally comprises a medley of satirical and royal dances, featuring characters such as the king’s drunken drummer, a lecherous village clerk, assorted village simpletons, a couple of propitious demons, a lion and, of course, the royal couple themselves. Unfortunately, complete kolam performances are no longer staged, so it’s impossible to experience this unique Sri Lankan medley of folk tale, demonic superstition and history (laced with a touch of Buddhism) – though you can at least still enjoy the masks.
As well as kolam and devil dances, the south is also home to a range of populist folk dances – though nowadays you’re more likely to see them performed in one of Kandy’s nightly cultural shows (see Kandyan dancing and drumming) than anywhere in the south itself. Popular dances include the stick dance (leekeli), harvest dance (kulu), pot dance (kalageldi) and the ever-popular raban dance, during which small raban drums (they actually look more like thick wooden plates than musical instruments) are spun on the fingers or on sticks balanced on the hands or head – an experienced performer can keep as many as eight rabans twirling simultaneously from various parts of his or her body.