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Sri Lanka

Sanni Yakuma

Ritual of the Sanni demon


It is a dusk-to-dawn performance by a group of dancers in front of a person afflicted with one or more diseases. The artists representing demons wear masks and colorful garb and dance to the tune of drums and incantatory singing.

Reasons for selection

Sanni Yakuma represents the oldest and the most colorful of the Sri Lankan low-country healing rituals. The entire performance combines traits of sorcery, psychiatric therapy and light banter in a series of stylised dances.

Area where performed

Mostly, though not exclusively, performed in the South-Western coastal areas of the Island.

Essential elements of the performing art

Dance, Music, Theatre

Detailed explanation

The long and, often strange, sickness of a person provides the rationale for organising the Sanni Yakuma ritual. It is believed that when a patient does not respond to normal medical treatment he has come under the spell of a demon.

The ritual unfolds in three stages: 1)Afternoon session for making offerings to Buddha and deities, 2)Evening programme begins with summoning the demons to dance before the patient. As the midnight approaches the dances assume a frightening character. One scene simulates disemboweling of a corpse by a blood-thirsty demon called Riri Yaka. 3)The tension is immediately removed by the hilarious performance of the jester-like pali dancers who enter the floor next and make offerings to the various Sanni demons whose evil spells are believed to be responsible for numerous diseases affecting the village-folk or an individual.

Where and when performed
Yakuma ritual is performed at a wide stretch of land in the village. Since the performance lasts only one night the huts from which the dancers enter the floor are thatched with tree leaves which gives out an demon-infested jungle-like appearance.

There is no particular time to stage Yakuma. It is performed when the village elders determine that only a ritual of this type can bring relief to someone suffering from a prolonged illness.

The origins of this ritual is buried deep in ancient mythology. It has that Sanni is the son of a King whose mother was killed by the father. Sanni then took revenge on his father and the society in general by creating 18 demons, each spreading a major disease. The demons are, therefore, named after the major ailments affecting the human body.

Publication and textual documentation

Ancient documents based on the script written on ola leaf are available at Peradeniya University Library.

Audio documentation

not yet available

Visual documentation

not yet available

Institution/organisation involved in preservation and promotion

does not exist

Data provider

Dr. R. A. Ariyaratne
Sri Palee Campus of the University of Colombo
Address: Wewala, Horana, Sri Lanka