The Ambalangoda Mask Museum also includes a workshop and library, with the latter containing a comprehensive collection of anthropological literature regarding mask making and the uses of masks in Sri Lanka.
The mask making tradition is native to the Karava (fishing community) people who inhabit the south-western and western coastal regions of the island nation. The colourful and diverse masks were used not only for decorative purposes but also played a part in traditional rituals and plays. A notable function was the expulsion of malefic demons from individuals through complicated rituals involving special dances and performances; in these ceremonies an array of masks are used to represent the characters in the performance. Sadly over the years the production of masks declined, although they retained their popularity amongst experts and collectors. Today, mask making is a cottage industry, but skilled artisans still demonstrate the artistry and flair which have traditionally marked the craft.
Mask making is a time-consuming and complex procedure which requires a sequence of necessary steps. Typically the craftsman will select a suitable specimen of the kaduru tree (stychnos nux vomica) which is often found in marshy areas near paddy fields. Firstly the felled tree trunks are left to dry in the hot sun so as to drain out the sticky sap. Next, the wood is separated into the required sizes and the basic shape of the mask is created. The pieces of wood are then left on a hearth for about a week so that they may be seasoned by the smoke. After this step many different instruments are used to elicit the exact facial features and expression required. Finally, skilled artisans colour the masks with special long-lasting materials.
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