WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Dance and music of the Sinhalese

by M. B. Dassanayake

Our historical record, the ‘Mahavamsa’, tells us that the Aryan Prince Vijaya heard music on the day he landed on the shores of Lanka.According to Pali scriptures the ‘Yakkas’ (one of the tribes inhabiting the Island at the time) were fond of songs and dances.It may be that some of the devil dances that have remained with us to the present day owe their origin to the ‘Yakka’ dances.

That a well developed system of Sinhalese music existed in ancient Lanka seems probable. Numerous references in Sinhalese literature, stone carvings and frescoes support this assumption.

But to trace exactly what the system was from the imperfect fragments performed today by professional Sinhala musicians, is no easy task.

The art of music, like most of the other arts in the East has been handed down the centuries orally from teacher to pupil. It was not written down in notation as in the West.

Bands of hereditary professional musicians and dancers kept the tradition alive.

Their patrons the kings, princes and nilames, freed them from want by rich presents and gifts of land and kept them at their palaces and mansions, so that they could devote time to perfect their art.

When as a result of foreign occupation, this royal patronage was withdrawn, the professional musicians had to turn to cultivation to eke out a living, and the standard of musical performance as well as the art of music naturally declined.

In the face of these drawbacks, it speaks well for the virility of Sinhala poetry, music and dance that these arts have been kept alive.

It is in the Kandyan Kingdom, that last stronghold to fall into the foreign hands, that the remnants of the art of music have been best preserve.

The Kandyan dances are world famous

The curious part about these dances is that singing as well as the playing of musical instruments such as the ‘udekki’ or ‘Geta-bera’ and ‘Talampata’ (hand cymbals) accompany the dance. In the ‘udekki’ dance, the dancers sing, play and dance.

This shows that from ancient times the Sinhalese ‘sangita-sastra’, the art of Sinhala music, had three component parts — dancing, singing and the playing of musical instruments. The art of music was considered incomplete without all three elements.

Incidentally the form of Buddhism that came into Sri Lanka about the third century B.C., forbade monks from indulging in these three arts — ‘nacca, gita and vadita’ on the ground that they roused the passions.

Most of the remarkable ‘Vannams’ sung by the Kandyan dancers during the Kandy Esala Perahera as a prelude to their dance are named after animals and are based on their movements.

Thus the ‘gajaga vannama’ moves to the slow majestic tread of the elephant. The ‘kudiradi’ or ‘thuranga vannama’ follows the trot and gallop of the horse.

A vivid portrayal of the leisurely gliding flight of the hawk and its sudden swoop to the earth to seize its prey, is characterized in the ‘ukussa vannama’.

These colourful dances are magnificently executed; but the descriptive song has hardly any definition of melody, though the rhythm supplied by the ‘udakki’ is rigidly observed.

The singing, too is usually unrefined, crude and nasal. One cannot imagine our cultured Sinhalese kings countenancing such poor voice production in any of their royal musicians.

This again goes to support my contention that there has been decadence owing to lack of patronage, especially from 1815 onwards when the last king ceased to rule the Kandyan Kingdom.

When Emperor Dharmasoka sent his daughter Sanghamitta with a branch of the sacred bo-tree to Sri Lanka, she was accompanied by bands of musicians and dancers who performed on the five kinds of musical instruments ‘panca turya nada’ thrice a day in honour of the sacred bodhi tree.

These five sorts of instruments were:

* Atata (one faced drum), * Vitata (two faced drum), * Vitata-taya (three faced drum), * Ghana (metal percussion, * sisiraya (wind instrument)

Seventy-five musical instruments used in ancient Sri Lanka comprise — twenty-six varieties of drums (one and two faced); eight kinds of ‘Vinas’ (three, five, seven, twelve, thirteen, twenty-one stringed etc.). Twenty-six varieties of wind instruments (bamboo and wooden flutes etc) and fifteen kinds of metal percussion (hand cymbals, metal bells, tinkling anklets etc).

Of these seventy-five instruments those in common use today are drums ‘magul-bera’, ‘geta-bera’, ‘mihingu-bera’, ‘maddala’, ‘udekki’, ‘pana-bera’, ‘davula’, ‘tammattama’, ‘hewisi’ and ‘rabana’.

The wind instruments used are ‘horana’ (large and small), ‘naga’, ‘sinnan’, ‘rak-sinnan’, ‘vas-dandu and sak’ (conch-shell).

The imposing ‘maha-kombu’ is some what like a tuba in appearance. Unfortunately, it is little used.

The revival of Sinhala music has been very marked during the past two decades. In our schools, Sinhala nursery rhymes and patriotic songs are replacing foreign rhymes.

Let us hope that Sri Lanka will find her soul through her culture and music. Sinhalese musicians will regain their lost foundations and build on them an edifice of Sinhalese music that will make its own contribution to the world.

Dances of Sri Lanka


There are three classical dance forms and several folk dances in Sri Lanka the classical dance forms are known as Kandyan dancing Ruhunu dancing and Saparagmu dancing; Kandyan dancing is practiced in the central hills of the island, Ruhunu in the coastal or low country areas, and Saparagamu in the province known as Saparagamuwa, particularly in the district of Ratnapura, world-famous for its gems.

The three classical dance forms differ in their styles of body-movements and gestures, in the costumes worn by the performers, and in the shape and size of the drums use to provide rhythmic sound patterns to accompany the dancing

The drum used in Kandyan dancing is known as the GETA BERE, the drum in Ruhunu dancing as the YAK BERE, and drum in Saparagamu dancing as the DAVULA (the word BERE or BERAYA in Inhale means “Drum”) The Geta Bere is beaten with the hands as is also Yaka Bere, while the Davula is played with a stick on one side and with one hand on the other side; the Geta Bere has a body which tapers on both sides while the Yak Bere and the Davula both have cylindrical bodies.

The main distinguishing feature between Kandyan and Saparagamu dancing, and Ruhunu dancing, is that Ruhunu dancers wear masks.

The classical dance forms are associated with the performance of various rituals and ceremonies which are centuries old and are based on the folk religion and folk beliefs going back to times before the advent and acceptance of Buddhism by the Sinhalese people in the third century B.C. These rituals and ceremonies reflect the values, beliefs and customs of an agricultural civilization.

The pre-Buddhistic folk religion consisted of the belief in a variety of deities and demons who were supposed to be capable of awarding benefits and blessings but also causing afflictions and diseases. Accordingly they had to be either propitiated or exorcised with offerings and the performance of rituals and ceremonies.

The repertoire of Dances in Kandyan dancing has its origins in the ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which is performed to propitiate the deity known as Kohomba for the purpose of obtaining relief from personal afflictions or from communal calamities such as pestilence. Although this ritual is rarely performed at the present the various dances associated with its performance could be seen in the Kandy Perahere, and annual religion-cultural event which takes place in the city of Kandy in honor of the sacred tooth-relic of the Buddha housed in the Delude Malaga, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.

The repertoire of Ruhunu dancing has its origins in the rituals of Devol Maduwa to propitiate a deity of the same name, and in the exorcistic rituals known as Rata Yakuma and Sanni Yakuma. Rata Yakuma and Sanni Yakuma are associated with various demons who are supposed to cause a variety of afflictions and incurable illnesses.

Saparagamu dancing is associated with the ritual known as the Gam Maduwa, which is performed to propitiate a deity called Pattini, a female. The purpose is to obtain a good harvest or to ward off evil or to be rid of and infectious disease.

Apart from the classical dance forms there are also folk dances, which are associated with folk activities and festivities. Leekeli (stick dance), Kalageldi (pot dance) and Raban (a hand drum) folk dances prevalent at the present time.

There is also in the low country a dance-drama called Kolam in which the performers wear masks depicting animals or people such as kings or high officials, and provides amusement and social satire. It has been suggested by scholars that Kolam may have developed from the ritual known as Sanni Yakuma and had later become a dance-drama independent of ritual elements.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka