Ambalangoda Mask Museum is situated near the city of Ambalangoda and Ambalangoda beach and it is one of the major tourist attractions in Southern Sri Lanka. The mask museum is included in most Sri Lanka road trips that cover southern Sri Lanka. The whale watching tour, Galle one day tour, Madu Ganga river safari and Bentota beach are several tours that include this valuable museum. It is about 1 km from the city centre of Ambalangoda to the mask museum.
If you are staying in a popular beach resort on the west coast or southern coast you can easily visit this tourist attraction from your beach resort. It would take only about 1-hour drive to get there from most places in southern and west coast hotels.
Origin of masks in Sri Lanka
The masks varied according to the country, culture and environment. The social and environmental background differed according to geographical and ethnic composition. The Sinhalese wear masks during devil dancing, Kolam dancing and sometimes in Sokari dancing.
Masks are also worn during certain episodes in Devol Madu ceremonies in nadagam and street processions. As regards the Sinhala masks one cannot ignore its relationship with India. When the masks originated, is still a question to be answered, even though no one knows when it was invented the historians opine that masks were in use for many centuries. It is true that the masks gave concrete form and shape to the face in a convincing manner.
The Sinhala masks may have developed for a variety of reasons perhaps on the basis of Indian prototype. For example among the jungle tribes of South-East India masks represent demons and the earth goddess. These, too, resemble somewhat superficially the masks of Africa and New Guinea. It may be of interest to note that elaborate demon masks are not known elsewhere in India.
Literary and archaeological sources show that the cult of yakshas, rakshas, nagas and garudas had been very popular in India until the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. By a gradual process, Hinduism absorbed most of these spirits and godlings as manifestations of Siva and Kali. Those who could not be so absorbed were incorporated into another group of supernatural beings called gandharvas, kinnaras, apsarasas and ganas.
Eastern India where the Hindu influence is minimal is inhabited by tribal groups such as Gonds, Baigas, Murias, Pardham, Agaria and Bhuriyas. Among these tribal groups masks seems to be associated with their spirit cult. These were the yakkhas and yakshinis associated with the hills. Then there were the monstrous devouring demons called Rakshasas. Of a gentle and kindly nature were Nagas and Naginis, male and female semi-human serpent spirits of water.
Yet another class of spirits were the Pretas, the spirits of the dead and Vetalas who are evil spirits animating corpses. Such were the beliefs of the pre-Aryan tribe people from Afghanistan to South India. Sri Lanka is so close and perhaps even connected by land could not have failed to be influenced by such beliefs about spirits and demons of one kind or another.
The masks would have been used by the early Sinhalese in much the same and for very much the same purpose as in India. Strangely enough, the pre-Aryan aboriginals, the Vedda of Sri Lanka, do not seem to possess any masks of any description. They only believe in a host of ancestors spirits. But during any ritual or ceremony of invocation of prayer no masks are worn.
The development of Hinduism came to be arrested after the introduction of Buddhism (248 BC) in Sri Lanka. Very little room was left for earlier beliefs to be active. Since Buddhism did not interfere with existing beliefs and practices some of the pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices continued. It is a strange fact that the pre-Aryan tribal groups of ancient Sri Lanka.
The Beginning of the Ambalangoda Mask Museum
The museum was inaugurated in the 1980s with the support of the government of Germany. This traditional mask museum is sponsored by the ministry of foreign affairs of Germany, Linden-museum Stuttgart and the museum for voelkerunde, Berlin. The owners of the museum are the well-known family known as Wijesooriya family. They were in the mask carving and tradition arts and crafts for many generations.
The museum showcases the rich traditional culture of mask carving on the island and it is a treasure of traditional Sri Lankan culture and arts. The museum is a great contributor to preserve the traditional form of art and crafts in the region. Ambalangoda is the centre of mask carving in Sri Lanka; it also has a reputation, being an important place for ancient rituals such as Kola, Devil Dances. Even today, a large number of families carries on the mast carving as a cottage industry and it is one of the most important income generators for the people in Ambalangoda.
The museum was established in the home of master craftsman Ariyapala Wijesooriya. Today the lower part of the building occupies the mask museum and research centre while the upper floor is dedicated to a shopping area, where the masks and other souvenirs are sold.
The museum is consisting of a large number of very valuable masks and some of them are more than several centuries old. Other than the traditional masks, one can learn the different types of masks being used today and their usage in the day to day life of the people. In addition to the mask museum, there is a research centre on anthropology enabling people to carry on studies in the traditional dancing of Sri Lanka, folklore, devil dancing and rituals and folk arts and crafts. Therefore, it is a valuable learning centre for students and scholars who are interested in traditional masks and their tradition.
The mask museum attracts a large number of national and international tourists as well. The museum is located near many beach holiday destinations on the west coast of Sri Lanka. Ambalangoda, Bentota beach, Beruwala, Kalutara, Galle, Unawatuna and Matara are the most popular holiday spots within easy reach of the mask museum. The museum can be explored in a day excursion from any of the beach hotels on the west coast.
Usually, Ambalangoda mask museum is one of the places of attractions visited by tourists who make Galle one day tour from the west coast beach resort. The Galle one day tour includes many interesting places with Ambalangoda mask museum. Tour operators such as Seerendipity tours offer the Galle day excursion several times a week and you can arrange a private excursion at any time of the week.
The traditional forms of arts and crafts are being neglected due to the embracing of new technology by the present generations. Therefore the number of traditional artists such as Kolam dancers, devil dancers, and mask craftsman are on the downward trend and show a continuous decrease of local traditions for the last several decades. Therefore the mask museum of Ambalangoda and the research centre are supposed to preserve this valuable heritage by protecting it for the future generations.