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The story of 18 Sanniya Masks (Daha Ata Sanniya Masks)

The Daha Ata Sanniya masks are essential accessories of ancient dance rituals in Sri Lanka, also known as devil dance. Its purpose is healing and blessing through a performance in which 18 kinds of maladies, inflicted by devils, are purged from the human body.


This ritual has a very long history in Sri Lanka and oral tradition, linking it with the ancient city of Vaishali in Bihar state in India, suggests its great antiquity. The Daha Ata Sanniya dance was practiced as part of the blessing ceremony Shanthi Karmaya in the times of ancient kings in the southern and western parts of the country. The Daha Ata Sanniya dance is vibrant, vivacious and full of colour. But it was preformed rarely in the past century as the logistics and cost of staging it are high.


Mask-making also has a very old tradition in Sri Lanka. The masks or decorative facial wears are used for different reasons, including the tourist market where the hand crafted masks are very popular. Masks were and are used in dramas, dance performances and in rituals linked to ancient faiths. It is believed that the masks have healing power and can be used to cure various disorders.

The masks crafted in Sri Lanka are typically made from a balsa wood, known as kaduru (Nux vomica), which is easy to carve, durable and light. A coastal town Ambalangoda in Southern Province of Sri Lanka is a renowned center for manufacturing wooden masks and puppets.


The Daha Ata Sanniya (eighteen diseases) provides one of the oldest classification of diseases as noted in the British Medical Journal. These include eighteen mask-characters associated with different aliments, the large mask at the top is known as the Maha Kola or the all-encompassing one. The rest of the masks are as follows:

  • Buta – derangement, distortion and listlessness of limbs
  • Jala – vomiting and dysentery
  • Gulma – swelling of the abdomen and lack of appetite
  • Kana – blindness
  • Kora – lameness
  • Bihiri – deafness
  • Vata – flatulence
  • Slesma – phlegmatic disease
  • Kola – pneumonia
  • Maru – wallowing and contortions in the eyes
  • Amukku – tilted head and trembling of the limbs
  • Golu – dumbness
  • Vevulum – shivering and fits
  • Gini Jala – burning sensation, headache and fatigue
  • Pissu or Kapala – madness and delirium
  • Demala – madness and distortion of the body
  • Naga – swelling of the faces and peeling of skins
  • Deva – epidemics and infectious diseases