Sri Lanka: Kandyan Devil Dancer

Kandyan devil dancer (front)
Handmade male masked dancer

General description Male Kandyan devil dancer standing on a small brown wooden block (handmade).

Dimensions: 25.0 cm x 13.0 cm x 13.0 cm

Date when acquired: 1960s

Original Date: 1960s

Source: Bought in Kandy, Sri Lanka by my father



Light brown material (cotton?) sewn over padding around a wire (?) frame.


The dancer is wearing a white turban-like cotton hat with folds on the top of the head. He has on the multi-tiered flounced skirt-like

Kandyan devil dancer (back)
Back view of the doll showing its dynamic positioning on its wooden plinth

pleated cloth typical of these dancers. The cotton skirt has three tiers with blue, yellow and red zigzags embroidered at the edge of the respective tiers. Holding the skirt up is a leather belt with five triangles hanging down from the front. Above each triangle is a round red disc and on each of the triangles are three black beads. Under the skirt, he is wearing a pair of leggings with flounces around the ankles. On top of these is a pair of “harvesters”. The doll has a red silky top on with short sleeves. The top is covered with gold (now tarnished) embroidered crosses and zigzags around the neck and the sleeve edges. There are individual black and white beads and sequins sewn on to the top. The back is plain.

Close up of mask showing beaked bird-like or dragon image


The dancer has on a bird-like mask with wings on each side of the beaked face and a snake rising over the forehead. It has bulging white eyes with black pupils. The mask is painted in black, white, red and green in a feather-like pattern.

Around his neck is a necklace made up of two rows of round orange beads with a zigzag arrangement of green beads between them. Looped around the lower row of orange beads is a row of white beads.

He has a fly whisk (chauri) in his left hand and a sort of drum stick in his right hand. The chauri is apparently held by attendants to the gods, indicating that this may be one of his functions.


devil dancer
Belt and top of skirt

Background information

Kandy, the town where this doll was bought is an important centre for dance in Sri Lanka. There are four types of Kandyan dance: pantheru, naiyaki, udekki and ves. These classical forms of dance, which flourished under the Kandyan kings (15th to 19th century), are all only danced by men. Kandy dance is today considered the national dance of Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, devil dancing is performed as part of a thovil or exorcism ceremony to free a person or place from demons or malignant spirits. It is a healing ritual rather than a form of entertainment and it can also be considered a form of theatre as it involves improvised dialogue. Devil dancing is found predominantly in the south of Sri Lanka. The dancers belong to a low-caste community specialised in this art form. Each of the devil dancers has a variation of the costume of this doll, with its own carved wooden demon mask, colourful embroidered long-sleeved jacket (though this doll has a short-sleeved top) and pleated, swirling skirt. In some dances, the dancer is bare-bodied with a simple costume of a white cloth skirt and embroidered neck cloth. Brass bells are often worn as anklets around both ankles. The jingling and jangling of the bells accentuates the dancer’s rhythmic dance movements. Normally, these anklets are attached to the second toe of each foot.

The leaping and twirling dances are accompanied by drummers who beat out loud complex rhythms on the geta bera, a tapering double-ended drum. The full ritual usually lasts through the night until the morning, with the dancers chewing betel nut and drinking coca cola to stay awake. The dances can, however, also go on for many days. There are two well-known thovil ceremonies held in Sri Lanka, the Maha Sohon Samayama (a ritual to exorcise Mahasohona, the demon of the graveyard) and the Gara Yakuma (a ceremony to drive away a group of devils known as Garayaku). Which devil dancer this doll represents I do not know.

Masks have played an important part in magico-religious rites to prevent and to cure disease throughout the world, but the so-called “disease mask” has been most developed among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. There are apparently 19 distinct rakasa, or disease devil masks. All of them have a ferocious aspect with startling eyes. The mask on this doll has the bulging eyes but is not really that ferocious. The devil dance masks are said to all have a dragon-like appearance. This one appears more bird-like to me. Looking at YouTube, there are a number of devil dancing videos shown but most of them are without masks. Whether or not this is a modern development of this ceremony I have not been able to find out, though it appears that the healing function of the ceremony is still being actively used.

Masked dancers also take part in various processions, ceremonies and other types of Sri Lankan dance. Sri Lanka has many dance forms and almost all of them originate from an elaborate ritualistic dance called the Kohomba Kankariya which enacts the mythical tale of healing provided to King Panduvasudeva (504 BCE to 474 BCE; an interesting account of this is given by L. B. Senaratne at The Kohomba is again danced only by male dancers wearing a costume much more elaborate than the one seen here on this doll. The costume is known as the Su-seta abharana (or 64 ornaments) and is considered to be sacred. It is interesting how close dance, healing and religion are in Sri Lankan culture.

Source(s) of information

Wikipedia,,, (all accessed 4th January, 2012);, and (accessed 30th January, 2012).




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