Mar 26, 2014

Craft Tour: Mask Making in Sri Lanka

For me, the meaning of travel has changed over the years. While it used to be “excursions” at school, it was “sight-seeing” in the teen years. I no longer delight in visiting the touristy landmarks just for that cliched photograph in front of it, but try my best to get a flavour of local customs, arts, crafts and cuisines while travelling. Time usually does not permit, but I try to squeeze it into the itinerary and it usually leaves me with a more open mind, and a greater appreciation of the place and its people.

The idea is not just to buy crafts as “decor accessories” to adorn some random shelf at home. I also get a high on watching artists at work, seeing art supplies strewn around, savouring the smells of the craftroom (of wood, paints, etc.) and just absorbing the positive energy that emanates out of creating art.

And so, a super-short beachside vacation planned in Sri Lanka HAD to be peppered with visits to a mask making factory and a 140-year old Batik artist’s home.

Now if you and I are on the same page, Ambalangoda in South Western coastal Sri Lanka is one of the destinations you can bookmark if you are planning a visit to the island nation and would like a flavour of local, traditional crafts. I must say that the predominantly grotesque demon masks with bulging eyes didn’t look appealing to me at first sight.




However a glimpse into the stories behind these masks, and watching the carving and painting process in one of the workshops, made me respect this age-old craft.

The masks are painstakingly carved of Balsa wood, painted bright with vegetable or chemical dyes and used in traditional dance dramas, folk plays, pageants and processions.

The master carvers apparently have traditional formulae for carving different types of masks. The entire process (for us laymen) is this ... sawing wood into blocks > measurements, applying the formulae > hollowing out the wood as per design > smoking for weeks > demarcating main features > smoking, drying > chiselling as per design > smoothening > painting.

Craftsmen at work in the chiseling stage


The main tools of the trade are hand saws, chisels, knives, abrasive leaves or sandpaper, paints/vegetable dyes.


Art supplies

Wood shavings, tools, and a vintage radio to lighten the mood


Oh, and not all of the masks looked evil, you know.

Traditionally, the demon lookalikes were used in driving away illnesses and in exorcism.
There are the theatrical Kolam masks which are used in folk plays which are distinctly different – they portray kings, queens, men and animals.



The whole story of mask making which used to be practiced in the hinterland villages sounded deeply mystic to me. One little story of queens satisfying their pregnancy cravings of watching mask performances seemed particularly delightful to me.

It is a completely different scene in contemporary Sri Lanka. Mask dances are performed only for tourists and mainly in the beach resorts. Mask making which used to be a deeply ritualistic process is now only a means-of-livelihood for some families on the coastal regions. And masks are now highly marketable handicraft products for art collectors and tourists.

Time takes its toll on traditions; however this craft still remains ever in demand. And it added colour (vibrant primary colours, mind it :-) to my otherwise blue-green beachside vacation. 

28 comments:

  1. You are such a hard core art lover and artist Ambika. That comes across so strongly in your posts. I always find deep rooted passion such as this very heartening :)
    I am not into creating art work myself but I regularly visit your blog just to get rubbed off by your passion for art and to see the beautiful creations you share :)
    I've been enjoying your Art Exploits series too!
    Keep it going!!

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    1. That's awesome to hear, Aarthi, thank you SO much! :-) Good to know that my blog strikes a chord with you... and will definitely keep it coming!

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  2. Ambika your post has come at the perfect time... I'm in the process of planning a short holiday to Sri Lanka and Ambalangoda is on my 'to do' list because I heard its a great place to visit for local crafts... Thanks for sharing this... really enjoyed it and now I really can't wait for my holiday :)

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    1. Shalini, I look forward to seeing Sri Lanka through your eyes as well!

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  3. i have two sri lankan masks on my wall at home and really enjoyed reading more about them.

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    1. Ujwala, thank you for dropping by!

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  4. I love the Sri Lankan masks !!! Infact I added one to my inspiration wall in my home office and love how it brings an exotic feel to the place. The vivid colors and details make me want to own it all;)Lovely post as always Ambika.....have a wonderful week !!!

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    1. Shruti, I want, want to see your home office, now that I heard you have an inspiration wall there. I hope you post on it soon :)

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  5. Nice Ambika. You said you attended a workshop, did you atleast get to paint one if not go through the whole process?
    And yes when it comes to travelling, I do agree being on the road less travelled in the literal sense is much better than being clicked on the advertised tourist spots!

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    1. Hey Ritha, I wasn't clear I guess, the workshop is the work-shop where the craftsmen work. Its not something that I attended :)

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  6. Beautiful post...another one coming soon,isnt it ambika:)-

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  7. Wow! Such beautiful masks. I have masks from Indonesia and Africa.

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    1. Would love to see them, hope you post it soon :)

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  8. I love collecting masks even though I have run out of wall-space in our apartment.

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    1. Hehe, Hoarding manaics like us would need too spacious an abode that we can think of, I guess :D

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  9. some arts, some traditions, some crafts are more beautiful than modern gadgets...

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    1. Absolutely, there's nothing to replace traditional art and crafts. Only hope it gets passed down to more generations to come

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  10. The Woodcarving factory is quite an experience... Nicely captured :) loved reading it. Brings back memories.

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    1. Thanks Somu, I am sure it must've been a great experience for the woodworker in you!

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  11. Wood craft is very famous of Sri Lanka. We can spent some memorable days in Srilanka.

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    1. Yes Gihan, a beautiful place with a lovely culture

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  12. They are beautiful, takes me back to my vacation in Thailand and seeing all the lovely masks there depicting mythological characters, good and evil.. and some of them hang now very proudly on my home walls, every time I look at them I remember something nice about that trip!

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    1. Good to know that! Its so important to bring back souvenirs from our journeys right. I think it keeps us grounded amidst day-to-day routines

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  13. These marks are simply gorgeous.. I've seen these guys at work on my breif trip to Sri Lanka.. I was totally impressed by how quickly they do this wood work..

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    1. Exactly Patty, its a impressive craft. I wish to learn woodcraft someday, and these guys inspired me!

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  14. Anonymous3:52 PM

    Could you please tell me where is this?

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    1. Anonymous 😊 This is Ambalangoda in Sri Lanka

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