A Dying Tradition
Mask making is a popular tradition in Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankan mask artisans ply their trade along the Western, South Western and Southern coasts of the island. Of these, the Ambalangoda area on the South Western coast of Sri Lanka is renowned for its talented artisans. Ariyapala and Sons is an important landmark in the town of Ambalangoda that famed for its history and expertise mask carving and culture. And the best place to get your fill of mask lore is the Ambalangoda Mask Workshop and Museum is Sri Lanka.
About Ariyapala & Sons
This institution which has remained in the Wijesuriya family for five generation serves as a cultural center with a small library, mask workshop and mask museum. The center was named after one of the Wijesuriya family ancestors Ariyapala Wijesuriya Gurunnanse who was one of the most famous master craftsmen of Sri Lanka.
With the disappearance of the traditional beliefs that form the basis of the Sanni Yakuma (devil dance) and the increase of digital media causing a lack of interest in traditional plays (Kolam Dance) the Sri Lankan traditional mask culture has practically disappeared. Once treasured by museums and private collectors, mask carving is on the decline with the only remaining aspect being a cottage industry focused on tourism.
Of the formerly famed old families of mask master craftsmen, only the Wijesuriya (Wijesooriya) family continues to uphold the tradition of mask making and cultural plays. In addition, in order to create a lasting footprint for Sri Lankan heritage they have taken upon themselves the task of making all the 120 Sri Lankan traditional mask designs.
Birth of a mask
The actual mask carving is done in the workshop. The artisans follow the procedures as below…A good Kaduru tree (Strychnine tree, Strychnos nux-vomica, also known as poison nut. It has soft, easy to carve wood) is selected and felled. The trunk dried to drain the sap and then when completely dry measured and cut into pieces. The basic shapes of the masks are carved using a mallet, chisels and various other tools and in accordance to measurements in ancient scriptures wood is then smoked on racks in a large hearth to prevent future damage from insects. The seasoned wood is carved into elaborate faces and expressions and smoothed.Afterwards the masks are painted in colours as mentioned in the scriptures with paints treated in the traditional way for durability.
The mask museum has many displays of masks and other items such as primitive tools used to make masks. Though the entire 120 masks cannot be displayed due to lack of space, two entire collections belonging to the Sanni Yakuma ritual, and the Kolam Dance are displayed here.
The mask library is the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka. It has anthropological records on the history of mask making and the traditional performances for which masks are used in Sri Lanka. It is a treasure trove of knowledge for history lovers and has to be visited
Ambalangoda and its mask museum are fun and unique places to visit with sunny white beaches and interesting cultural quirks.