January 2018


Vibrant Hues of Tradition
January 2018




Gurulu mask, sought after for protection against snakes

Within the quiet lanes of Henegama in the Kalutara District, craftsmen and women preserve an ancient art. Fusing tradition with their own vibrant creativity, they sculpture exotic masks.


Words: Keshini de Silva
Photography: Menaka Aravinda and Geeth Viduranga


It was a lazy weekday afternoon when we travelled through the winding lanes of Henegama. A village in the Kalutara District, the area was a fusion of the old and new ways of life. The rays of sunlight glinted off pale objects laid on the heated tarmac. Curious, we stopped, and were amazed to see freshly carved Ves Muhunu - Sri Lankan masks.


We were welcomed into the small workshop with true Sri Lankan hospitality to meet the craftsmen whose creations we saw outside. Nishantha Wettasinghe sat amidst a pile of wood shavings, determinedly working on his next mask. The entire process is by hand. The block of timber is his canvas. With the image of the mask in mind, he wields his tools with experience to carve each exotic piece.


The craftsmen of Henegama mainly use the timber of the Kaduru tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), which is transported all the way from Elpitiya. It is their choice of wood because the kaduru timber does not rot and is easy to cut. Ruk attana (Alstonia scholaris) timber is also used at times, yet is not the preferred choice. The logs of timber are first chopped into a certain category of size. Then with the porawa (axe) the preliminary shaping of the log takes place.

The craftsmen of Henegama mainly use the timber of the Kaduru tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), which is transported all the way from Elpitiya. It is their choice of wood because the kaduru timber does not rot and is easy to cut.


Next is the most time consuming part, sculpting and embellishing. With nimble fingers craftsmen breath life into the wood, giving it shape, raksha features and imbuing it with centuries worth of tradition. Once sculpted and sandpapered, his day's work is done. The next stage is to paint the basecoat with a substance made at home with whiting (chalk) powder. Laid along tarmacs or home gardens, in the tropical heat they are left to dry.

Masks of Modern
The craftsmen of Henegama have quite talentedly and nimbly adapted their designs to suit modern requirements. Their masks now come in mini versions for key tags and refrigerator magnets. Or as larger-than-life versions for artistic displays at leisure venues.


In the spirit of coexistence and village comradery, in Henegama there is a systematic differentiation of tasks. While the skilled craftsmen sculpture the wood, the talented painters of the village give these masks their charismatic and animated colour. It was amidst one such artist's shed that we met Deepika Rupesinghe diligently immersed in her world of art. Her workspace was cluttered with masks by craftsmen from across the village. To paint the detailed thin drawings, these artists use a brush they make themselves with cat hair; to them there is no finer brush. Though masks of the past had a glossy shine, today the matte texture is popular.

These masks may differ from the more elaborate ones of ancient times, yet they retain the bold hues and features of Sri Lanka’s rich heritage of artistry.


In shape, these masks may differ from the more elaborate ones of ancient times, yet they retain the bold hues and features of Sri Lanka's rich heritage of artistry. A popular mask made in Henegama is ‘Mayura Muhuna' - a mask distinct with blue and green colours and inspired by the peacock. The ‘Ginidel' mask is bright with red and orange tongues of flames. The ‘Ratnakuta Muhuna' is characterised with cobras around it while the Gurulu mask is said to be based on a mythical bird believed to banish cobras.


Designs, with frightful features, are based on the traditional raksha (devil) masks used in raksha folk dances. These were performed for the protection of villages in ancient times, each mask associated with dispelling a particular evil. The masks, of Henegama, though different, are associated with the same apotropaic beliefs. These are sought after for homes and workplaces to be displayed for protection against the evil eye.


Though Henegama cannot trace the origins of mask-making in their village, the decades old tradition continues. Their tireless efforts and skill keeps alive the island's artistic legacy.

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    A Mayura Muhuna from Henegama imbued with the bold colours of Sri Lankan art

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    A porawa is first used to shape the timber, while other tools are used for sculpting

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    Mini masks, ideal for keytags or refrigerator magnets

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    The craftsman transforms the timber with raksha features

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    With fine brushes made of cat hair, artists animate the masks with colour

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    A Ratnakuta Muhuna and Ginidel Muhuna laid out to dry

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