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Sanni yakuma, sometimes known as Daha ata sanniya, is a traditional Sinhalese exorcism ritual. The ritual consists of 18 masked dances, each depicting a particular illness or ailment affecting humans. These 18 dances are the main dances of the Pahatharata, or low country, dancing form, which is one of the three main dancing forms of Sri Lanka.[1][2] The ritual calls the demons who are thought to affect the patient, who are then told not to trouble humans and banished.[1]

Maha Kola mask


It was believed that illnesses were brought on humans by demons and these beliefs and rituals could have prehistoric roots.[3][4] According to folklore, the 18 demons who are depicted in the Sanni Yakuma originated during the time of the Buddha.[N 1] The story goes that the king of Licchavis of Vaishali suspected his queen of committing adultery and had her killed. However, she gave birth when she was executed and her child became the Kola Sanniya, who grew up "feeding on his mother's corpse". The Kola Sanni demon destroyed the city, seeking vengeance on his father, the king.[5] He created eighteen lumps of poison and charmed them, thereby turning them into demons who assisted him in his destruction of the city.[6] They killed the king, and continued to wreak havoc in the city, "killing and eating thousands" daily, until finally being tamed by the Buddha and agreed to stop harming humans.[7]

Each of these demons are believed to affect humans in the form of an illnesses,[8] and the Sanni Yakuma ritual summons these demons and banishes them back to the demon world after bringing them under control.[7] Although it is unclear when the ritual began, it has been performed in the southern and western parts of the country since ancient times.[9]


The name of the ritual comes from the Sinhala word sanniya meaning disease or ailment, and yakuma meaning demon ritual.[8] In Sri Lankan culture, exorcism rituals are known as tovil. The Sanni Yakuma is possibly the best known exorcism ritual in the country.[10] It is a mix of traditional beliefs regarding spirits with Buddhism.[11][12] Before performing the healing ritual, the lead performer known as the yakadura determines whether the patient is affected by a demon, and schedules the ritual for an auspicious day and time, usually from dusk to dawn.[13] The Edura or Yakadura is the Shaman healer and is usually a fisherman, drummer or farmer.[4][14] It has two main stages, namely the Ata Paliya and Daha Ata Sanniya.[15] The dancers are dressed in colourful attire and masks, and perform swift and complex dance steps and spins accompanied by rhythmical drum beats.[16] Rather comic and somewhat obscene dialogues take place between the drummer and the demon on stage, in which the demon is humiliated.[15][17] For example, Moore and Myerhoff (1977) describe the following dialogue translated from Sinhala:

Drummer: Where are you off to?

Demon: I am off to Maradana by a first class express bus.
Drummer: ...What was it I saw you doing only yesterday? You pissed near the sacred bodhi tree, then shitted on the temple grounds after which you stole a monk's robes. What else have you done? ...
Demon: You peretaya![N 2]

Drummer: Aah – you are only a mad demon – beneath contempt.

Ata Paliya

Ata Paliya is the name given to the eight dances in the first stage of the ritual. Before the dances begin, the Yakadura prepares some offerings for the demons, which will be given to them by the patient. The Ata Paliya depicts eight palis who bless the patient. This includes the Suniyan Yakshaniya who appears thrice as a beautiful damsel, a pregnant woman and a woman carrying a baby. This is followed by Maruwa (death) and demons called Kalu Yaka, Vatha Kumara and Kalu Kumara. The other palis are known as Anguru Dummala Paliya, Kalaspaliya and Salupaliya.[18]

Suniyan Yakshaniya A demigoddess, 3 time as;
a beautiful damsel
a pregnant woman
a woman carrying a baby
Maruwa death
Kalu Yaka black Demon
Vatha Kumara apparition for rheumatism
Kalu Kumara Black prince (a demon)
Anguru Dummala Paliya charcoal apparition
Kalaspaliya pot-bearing apparition
Salupaliya Shawl apparition
blessings of goddess Pattini

Daha Ata Sanniya

Although the Daha Ata Sanniya is part of the Sanni Yakuma, the name is sometimes used to refer to the ritual itself. This is the stage when the sanni demons make their appearance one after the other. The demons who first appear frightening when they enter the stage in frenzied dances are then shown as comic figures through enactments, with them being humiliated and forced to do various things. The Kola Sanni demon enters last, who is depicted as a non Buddhist demon. In the end, he is made to obtain the permission of the Buddha and accept offerings from humans, and agrees to stop troubling them.[19] In the end, the dancer appears before the patient after removing the mask.[20]

Although there are only eighteen demons, there is a variety of sanni masks that differ from place to place.[12] However, the eighteen most commons masks (and names of the demons) are as follows:[21]

Demon Associated ailment
Amukku Sanniya Vomiting and stomach diseases
Abutha Sanniya Non–spirit related insanity
Butha Sanniya Spirit related insanity
Bihiri Sanniya Deafness
Deva Sanniya Epidemic diseases
Gedi Sanniya Boild and skin diseases
Gini Jala Sanniya Malaria and other high fevers
Golu Sanniya Dumbness
Gulma Sanniya Parasitic worms and stomach diseases
Jala Sanniya Cholera and chills
Kana Sanniya Blindness
Kora Sanniya Lameness and paralysis
Maru Sanniya Delirium and death
Naga Sanniya Bad dreams about snakes
Pissu Sanniya Temporary insanity
Pith Sanniya Bilious diseases
Slesma Sanniya Phlegm and epilepsy
Vatha Sanniya Flatulence and rheumatism

Current status

The Sanni Yakuma is still performed today, particularly along the south coast, though more often as a cultural spectacle than an exorcism ritual. However, it is not widely performed because of the high costs involved and also because of its long duration.[9][18][22] The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami also has affected its survival.[23][24] Though the coastal regions came under colonial influences as well as prior foreign influences, the art was best preserved in the south-west coast.[4][14]


  1. However, this story is given differently in Buddhist sources, and describes the Buddha saving the city from a plague through the chanting of the Ratana Sutta. See Vaishali (ancient city)#Visits of the Buddha to Vaishali.
  2. Peretaya refers to preta, and is used here as an abusive term.



  1. "Traditional Dances of Sri Lanka". Info.lk. Archived from the original on 2010-01-11. https://web.archive.org/web/20100111075403/http://www.info.lk/srilanka/srilankaculture/srilankatraditionaldancing.htm. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  2. The Last of the Devil Dancers
  3. Hussein, Asiff. "Pallemalala discovery throws new light on Lanka's pre-historic culture". The Sunday Observer. http://www.lankalibrary.com/geo/palle1.html. Retrieved 2015-12-05. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Pate, Alan. "The yakun natima - devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka". lankalibrary. http://www.lankalibrary.com/rit/yakun%20natuma.html. Retrieved 2015-12-05. [permanent dead link]
  5. Schechner and Appel (1990), p. 126
  6. Obeyesekere (1990), p. 191
  7. 7.0 7.1 Obeyesekere (1990), p. 192
  8. 8.0 8.1 Claus, Diamond and Mills (2003), p. 133
  9. 9.0 9.1 Seneviratne, Vidushi (2003-02-16). "A burst of Daha Ata Sanniya". The Sunday Times. http://sundaytimes.lk/030216/plus/12.html. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  10. Bailey, Mark S; de Silva (2006-12-23). "Sri Lankan sanni masks: an ancient classification of disease". BMJ. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/333/7582/1327. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  11. Schechner and Appel (1990), p. 124
  12. 12.0 12.1 Macdonald and Fyfe (1996), p. 38
  13. Gunasekara, Naomi (2002-09-22). "Unmasking a craft". The Sunday Times. http://sundaytimes.lk/020922/plus/10.html. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 "18 masks, 18 illnesses – and the master of them all". kulturhistorisk museum. https://www.khm.uio.no/tema/utstillingsarkiv/masker/english/sanni_18_masker.html. Retrieved 2015-12-05. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 Moore and Myerhoff (1977), p. 108
  16. Moore and Myerhoff (1977), p. 102
  17. Moore and Myerhoff (1977), p. 109
  18. 18.0 18.1 Amarasekara, Janani (2007-02-04). "Daha Ata Sanniya: How it's performed". The Sunday Observer. 
  19. Schechner and Appel (1990), p. 125
  20. Claus, Diamond and Mills (2003), p. 134
  21. Bailey, Mark S; de Silva (2006-12-23). "Sri Lankan sanni masks: an ancient classification of disease - table of masks". BMJ. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/333/7582/1327/TBL1. Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  22. Macdonald and Fyfe (1996), p. 37
  23. Schoonover, Jason. "In Search of the Vanishing Sri Lankan Devil Dance II". explorers.org. https://explorers.org/flag_reports/Jason_Schoonover_Flag_33_Devil_Dancers_of_Sri_Lanka_Report._.pdf. Retrieved 2015-12-04. 
  24. Stroud, Les. "THE DEVIL DANCERS OF SRI LANKA". beyondsurvival. Archived from the original on 2010-08-25. https://web.archive.org/web/20100825083522/http://lesstroud.ca/beyondsurvival/ep3.php. Retrieved 2015-12-04. 


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