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Policies and Actions

Sri Lanka

National level agency/organisation dedicated to preservation and promotion of traditional/folk performing arts

- Ministry of Human Resources Development, Education and Cultural Affairs

- Committee for Research and Exhibition of the Dance Division at the Aesthetic Studies Institute of the University of Kelaniya

- Research Division of the Music Division at the Aesthetic Studies, Institute of the University of Kelaniya.

- Fine Arts Educationists Association of Administrated by Professor Mudiyanse Dissanayaka at the Aesthetic Studies Institute of the University Kelaniya

Prominent NGOs working in this field


Brief chronology-history

Traditionally the preservation and promotion of cultural activities were considered the sacred duty of the rulers of the country. When the political control of the country was passed on to the heads of three European powers (Portuguese, Dutch and British) succession the state patronage was withdrawn and the forms of indigenous art and culture were reduced to state of limbo.

It was only after the attainment of independence that a concerted effort was made to revive and preserve the forms of local culture. For the first time, Arts Council was set up in 1952 and legislation was enacted to regulate the activities of the Council. But this legislation does not spell-out mechanisms to preserve the indigenous fine arts.

The promotion of the folk culture was, therefore, left to the Socio-Economics dynamics of the ensuing period. The change of government in 1956 marked a watershed in this process. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs which was set-up in 1956 did much to restore and revive the forms of indigenous fine arts.

What is appalling is that more than forty years after this Ministry came into being no central organization has been established to record and preserve the relevant data for the benefit of the future generations of people. As a result the best collections of recorded versions of folk art are found among the individual connoisseurs of art and the media organizations.

During the Sri Lankan Kingdom period, the Lankan system of dancing and drumming was officially alloted to the experts in this field on a grading capacity by the Kings. As a result, even in the present day there are groups who continue this art of traditional dancing belonging to the up-country, low-country and Sabaraganiuwa regions by heritages of dance generations up to the present day. While dancing and drumming is continues without a break by members of groups who have been protecting traditional dance forms in the temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy; the Devalaya, these arts are being presented by them from generation to generation.

The art of shaving or cutting of masks in the low-country tradition and the art of puppetry in coastal areas are being preserved by generations who are exponents in this field. While manufacturing of instruments used dancing and creations of dancing costumes and the creation of puppets and costumes used for them are being carried on by those belonging to the particular generation also continue to impart the knowledge to their offspring.

Because of the reason that these groups of artistes involved in the field of art akin to them face financial difficulties and because it is difficult for them to earn a living by trying to preserve the art, the present situation could well change in the future. Since the financial crisis existent at present has been an obstruction to the generation of artistes who strive to preserve the art, they have been compelled to neglect their indulgence in the art and have instead taken to other money-earning activities. This in fact is the present-day situation.

Currently all traditional dance techniques prevalent in Sri Lanka in Mahanuwara, Kegalle and Kurunegala Districts and Matara, Galle, Tangalle in the southern provinces as well as in Bentara, Ambalangoda, Horana in the Kalutara District are being publicly performed, and art also in use today. The artistes engaged in the various traditional dance techniques have built up organizations through which they teach the techniques in which they are expert as well as by presenting them in public performances.

Similarly in well-known temples and Viharas where the sacred offerings are made ( Thevava ), the artistes involved have banded themselves into small coteries and through these means conduct classes for teaching traditional dance techniques as well as participating in Peraheras (parades) and public performances.

Legislation in this field


Category/types of performing arts

-Folk dance

-Folk rituals with dance and music
The Sri Lankan traditional dance forms are known as Udarata (Upcountry), Pahata Rata (Lowcountry) and Sabaragamuwa using the names of the areas connected therewith in prehistoric times before the advent of modern medicine, here existed in the human societies of the times ceremonial rituals performed to cure illnesses. These ceremonial rituals (Anti Karma) came to be associated with Devas (Celestial beings), Yakshas (Demons) and the nine plates ( Nava Graha ). There are many differences in the execution of the dance rituals. Each ritual has its beginning in a legend or mythical story. Given below are the traditional ceremonial rituals and dance forms that have prevailed from past times up to present day.

Up-country tradition of the ‘ Kohomba Yak Kankariya ' Kohomba-Devil dancing occult ceremony
In prehistoric times the western system of medicine was not know and ceremonial dance rituals were performed as a part of the medical practices in healing diseases or illnesses. The origin of the ‘ Kohomba Yak Kangkariya /Kohomba Kanhkariya' is attributed to the time of King Panduvas who reigned after King Vijaya, and is said to have been performed to allay the fear arisen in the king's mind following a dream of a tiger.

The old practise was to perform the ceremonial dance ritual complete with offerings, parades, rallies for three whole days. Today in rural areas the ‘ Kohomba Yak Kangkariya ’ is performed to obtain cures for illnesses and productivity and prosperity in agricultural matters. The performance of this dance ritual is more popular in the Mahanuwara, Matake, Kegalle and Kurunegala dictricts.

It is customary to perform the ceremony in the open air under a hut which is built anew and is spacious. The decorations are effected with natural flowers, leaves, fruits, tender coconuts fronts, plantain trees, plantain splinters as well as leaves of medical plants. The ceremony includes Tom-Tom (drum) beating, various dance items, dialogue-stanza recitals and parades conducted in dance routines.

Sonniyam Yagaya '(Ritual of the spell) or ‘ Sooniyam Kepilla ' (Elimination of the spell) as founded in the low-country tradition
Menikpala Devi, the Royal Consort of King Mahasammata fell seriously ill with eczema caused by a visitation of evil by Vasavartti Mara. This dance ritual was performed to cure the disease and is known as ritual of the spell ( SooniyamYagaya ) or elimination of the spell ( Sooniyam Kepilla ). This ceremonial dance ritual ( Santi Karmaya ) is also known today in the Kalutara, Matara, Galle and Bentara districts as a ‘Devil-Dancing' ceremony ( Yak Thovil ).

Preparations for this ceremony are made in an open-air hall, plantain tree trunks, plantain tree cores, natural varieties of flowers, herbal trees, creepers are used in decoration as well as in erecting the different sections in the dance ritual such as paths ( Vidi ), beds ( Yahan ) and elevated seats ( Ayik ). Three full days are employed for this ritual. The procedure is to conduct it during the night-time.

The ceremony comprises of different dance routines, chants, drum-beats and dance-parades. Today, also in Matara, Tangalle, Galle, Bentara and other places in the southern province including parts of the Kalutara District, the ceremony is performed to ward off illness and bring prosperity to the people.

Lamp Hall (Pahan Maduwa) in the Sabaragamuwa Tradition
This ritual is performed with the primary objective of warding off illnesses, obtaining agricultural prosperity and a benediction to the country around eight in the night and to conclude it the following morning in a newly constructed hall in the open-air after fulfilling the traditional offerings dance parades, rites and duties connected therewith for a full three days. Plantain sprinters, plantain tree cores, young coconuts fronts, herbal trees and creepers are used in the decoration of the hall. The ceremony is performed today in the Ratnapura, Kalawana and Badulla Districts with various dance, drum, dialogue and dance-parade routines.

-Folk music

-Folk mask play

-Folk drama

-Puppetry/Puppetry ( Rukada ) Dance Routine
The Puppetry Art Dance Form is well-known in the Matara, Galle, Bentara, Kalutara Districts. With the puppetry, art form is associated with dance routines, singing and drumming. There are very skilled artistes including the Matara Mirisse Udupila Rukada Kala Sangamaya. These artistes are engaged in conserving this dance art form and in developing it. The puppet dance sequences make use of Buddhist Jataka tales for their themes. The Sri Anura Kala Sangamaya which is being run by Mr. Nelin Gamvari descending from a line of traditional puppeteers of Ambalangoda as well as the Saranga Rukada Kala Sangamaya run by Mr. G. Premin who is also a descendant of a family of traditional puppeteers of Ambalangoda.

-New year festival competitions and variety entertainment

-Religious play (Christian/Buddhist)

-Temple processions (Sinhala/Buddhist)

-Folk recital of poems (verses associated with various stages of agriculture)


Does not exist

Audio・visual documentation collection

Folk/Traditional Art Units of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, and Sri Lanka Rupavahini (TV) Corporation.
(form: slide, audio cassette, film reel, video cassette)

Library Section, Department of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya
Albert Crescent, Colombo-7

Music Research Section, Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya
Albert Crescent, Colombo-7

Aspects of traditional/folk performing arts in education

Certain aspects of traditional fine arts are taught under the subjects of music and dance in the primary and secondary curriculum. The same is true of the teaching programs at the University level. The Institute of Aesthetic Studies affiliated to the University of Kelaniya is principal Institution devoted exclusively to the teaching of degree level fine arts courses. But unfortunately, due to conflicts between the students and the authorities, its activities are progressing at a snail's pace.

Other major institutions involved in formal education of traditional/folk performing arts:
-Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Bingirya
-Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Giragama
-Madhyama Lanka Nrtya Mandalaya, Amunugama, Gunnepana
-Sesatha Kalaayathanaya, Aruppola, Kandy, Watapoluwa
-Deshiya Kalaayathanaya, Chittapadgala, Werellagama

Data provider

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

(Revised in July 2004)
Ms. R. W. G. Waidyawathie Rajapaksa
Senior Lecturer
Institute of Aesthetic Studies
University of Kelaniya
Address: 21 Albert Crescent, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka