Dances in low country are highly ritualistic. This form of dance is performed to appease evil spirits which cause sickness and is thus called ‘Devil Dance’. The dancers wear masks depicting many characters varied in forms of birds, demons, reptiles, etc. There are 18 main dances related to pahatharata style known as the Daha Ata Sanniya held to exorcise 18 types of diseases from the human body.
The Low country dances of the southern plains mostly spread in coastal areas such as Galle, Matara, Hambantota, etc. It has two contents, Devil dance & Deity Dance.
Deity Dances are used to get the help of a variety of Gods & Goddesses, to appease evil spirits. There are some dances related to the Pahatharata ( low country) style known as Daha Ata Sanniya held to exorcise 18 different types of diseases from the human body.
Furthermore, there are some Kolam (jovial) characters & Devil characters that also can be seen. A cylindrical body drum used for low country dancing is called a “Yak Bera”, and it is beaten with both hands.
The Low Country dance form is known as such because the important schools of this form were historically located in the low-lying coastal areas of the Western and Southern Provinces.
This form of dance was also known as Ruhunu Dance, as the areas of the present Western and Southern Provinces made up a greater part of the ancient Ruhunu Kingdom of Sri Lanka.
Dances of Sri Lanka state that Low Country dances are very different from Kandyan dance—the only similarity being the basic mandiya pose of knees half bent and spread outward, and arms bent at the elbows in line with the chest. These dances are very ritualistic, and the use of masks is prevalent throughout all of them.
Three different types of rituals (shanthikarma) can be found in the Low Country tradition of dance—the madu shanthikarma, bali shanthikarma and thovil shanthikarma.
The madu shanthikarma are performed to venerate the gods—of these rituals the gammaduwa, a ritual devoted to the Goddess Pattini, is the most famous.
The bali shanthikarma are rituals that are performed to ward off the negative effects on people’s lives, caused by planetary movements (graha apala).
On the other hand, thovil shanthikarma rituals are performed to ward off demons and evil spirits from an individual or place.
Daha Ata Sanniya
Dances in Sri Lanka state that of the thovil shanthikarma, the daha ata sanniya is the most famous. These are exorcist ritual performances, and each sanni depicts an incurable disease or ailment, and a different mask is worn by the dancers to represent each one.
According to beliefs found in the Pre-Buddhist folk religion of Sri Lanka, these ailments are said to be the work of sanni yakku (devils) and can only be healed by invoking the devil responsible for each ailment and appeasing it with offerings.
Kolam is a masked ritualistic dance too, but they differ from the shanthikarma, mainly because they are more theatric than the other ritualistic dances. Traditionally, kolam were rituals performed to mitigate issues that arise with pregnancy.
According to Dances in Sri Lanka, the masks depicting the naga raksha (the mythical king of cobras) and gurulu raksha (the mythical king of birds) are the most well known of the kolam masks.
The Dying Dances Of the Low Country
It is unfortunate to note that many of these Low Country dances are not as important or popular as they once were. For both aesthetic and ritualistic purposes, Kandyan dance has become increasingly popular in the Western and Southern provinces. As a result, the number of people who practice and teach the pahatha rata natum has declined over the years.