Song and dance in anceint and medieval Sri Lanka
There is evidence to show that music and song was a part of everyday life in the medieval period. According to the Culavamsa, there was a festival of fine music, song, and dances during time of Vijayabahu IV (1270-1272).It included festive songs, on five instruments.
by Kamalika Pieris
@ LL / Dec 2008
Little research has been done on the status of song and dance in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka. There is evidence to show that music and song was a part of everyday life in the medieval period. There was music, song, and dance from the royal court down to the ordinary folk. The kings patronized song and dance. According to the Culavamsa, there was a festival of fine music, song, and dances during time of Vijayabahu IV (1270-1272).It included festive songs, on five instruments.
Kings provided dancers and musician for religious services. Beating of drums was a feature at religious festivals. From the ancient period onwards, Buddhist festivals were accompanied by music, dancing and singing. The festivals were therefore not dull or dreary. There was liveliness, colour, and variety. They were so attractive that people came from long distances to witness them. Mahadatha Mahanaga (7-19 AD) celebrated the completion of the Mahathupa at Mihintale with a grand festival, which was like a carnival. There was much merriment with dancing, singing and music. Mahinda IV (956-972) included songs and dances in the festivities held in honour of the Mahathupa.
During the reign of Parakrama bahu I, music was employed in rituals. Dancers and musicians, both male and female, playing lutes, flutes, and drums, followed the tooth relic when it was taken in procession, honouring it with song, dance and music. By the time of queen Kalyanavati, musicians were employed in the monasteries. The monasteries encouraged fine arts. The Ruvanvelisaya Inscription refers to dancers, singers, and musicians adept at playing drums, conches, and five instruments. According to the Dalada Sirita, a large orchestra in which thirty six instruments are listed was employed at the shrine of the tooth relic. Parakrama bahu VI appointed musicians and dancing girls for Saman Devale, Ratnapura.
According to the Culavamsa, festive occasions were marked by music and dance. During festivities roads were cleared, pandals set up. Pots of water, festoons of flowers, arches and plantain trees beautified the roadsides and halls. Flags and banners were flown. White sand was strewn on the roads. Roofs of halls and sheds were covered with canopies and floors were carpeted. Song and dance recitals were performed in sheds specially put up for the purpose. Bands of musicians went from house to house giving various musical performances.
About nine inscriptions dated to the 10th century state that persons entering the monastic premises should not do so to musical accompaniment. The Mayilagastota pillar Inscription prohibits laughing and ‘gleeful singing’ within monastic lands. The Medirigiriya Inscription, attributed to Mahinda IV (956-972), says that those living in the area should not drink liquor, play musical instruments or dance outside the hospital area.
The earliest mention of musical instruments is in the Vamsatthappakasini, the Seventh Century Commentary on the Mahavamsa. It refers to strings, percussion and wind instruments as well as two sets of drums, with leather on one side, or both sides. Thirteenth Century texts, such as Dambadeni Asna, Thupavamsa, Saddharmaratnavali, Saddharmalankaraya and Pujavali, talk of ‘pancha thuriya nada’. Thupavamsa gives a list of over fifty musical instruments.
Dalada Sirita lists a wide variety of drums in its list of musical instruments. Saddharmalankaraya refers to nearly twenty kinds of drums including Thupavamsa lists 50 varieties of drums. Veena is regularly mentioned in the literature. It was a commonly known instrument. Sigiri graffiti also refer to it. There were various types of veenas. Thupavamsa mentioned three varieties of veena. The veena was made out of coconut shell or hollowed out gourd. There was chamber music produced by a variety of veenas. Other instruments mentioned in the medieval literature are gold, silver and gem set conches, gold and silver trumpets, a number of woodwind instruments including flute and horanava, cymbals and percussion instruments. Music techniques were known. Kavsilumina refers to tempo, octaves, pitch, tone, and intervals.
Musicians are shown in the sculptures at Yapahuwa, Ganegoda and Velgam Vihara. Veena players are seen at Mahiyangana and in a 4th century frieze in Colombo Museum. Kanthaka chetiya shows a conch player, Dedigama lamp has drummer. The pillars near Ruvanvelisaya have dwarfs playing the veena, flute, conch, and drums. Carvings depicting veena, flute, conch, trumpet, cymbals, kettledrum, and udakki can be seen at Lovamahapaya. There is a tambourine and oboe at Yapahuwa.
Mahavamsa states that king Bhathika abhaya (19 BC to 9 AD) ordered dances to celebrate the completion of the Mahathupa in Anuradhapura and the Ambasthala stupa at Mihintale. From the medieval literature, we learn that masks were used in dance. There are also references to clowns and mimic dances. Dance halls, dancing women and dancing families are mentioned in the medieval literature. The Sasseruwa Inscription refers to a father and son who were both dancers. I think that this may indicate the existence of natum parampara. Dancers can be seen in the sculptures at Yapahuwa, Ganegoda and Velgam Vihara. A bronze figure of a dancing woman was found at the Kuttam pokuna in Anuradhapura. A dancer is shown in the bronze lamp from Dedigama.
Women took part in song, dance and music. They were also skilled in playing musical instruments including the pancha thuriya nada. This seems to have been a tradition in Ruhuna to get women to play musical instruments. The Mulkirigala fresco shows women playing the drum, horanava, and pantheru. Women sang and composed too. From Anuradhapura to Kotte, in every period, there are references to women who were skilled in singing.
Women were also good dancers. In the time of Parakrama bahu I, they used a special stage for dancing. In Gampola and Kotte periods, according to the sandesa literature, they used their eyes, eyebrows, face, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, hips and feet when dancing. During this period there were troupes of dancing women in all the temples. Sculptures of women in dancing positions can be seen at Galapata vihara in Bentara, as well at Gadaladeniya, Embekke and Ridi viharaya, Kurunegala. Yapahuwa has a sculpture of a dancing woman in mandiya position.
(The writings of M.B. Ariyapala, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, H.B.M. Illangasinha, A. Liyanagamage, Walpola Rahula, I. Munasinghe and C.W. Nicolas were used for this essay.)