The origin of the dances of Sri Lanka lies with the indigenous people of Sri Lanka, the Wanniyala-Aetto and "Yakkas" ("iron workers").

Classical Dances
: - The three main styles of Sri Lankan classical dances

  • The Kandyan dances of the Hill Country, known as Uda Rata Natum
  • The low country dances of the southern plains, known as Pahatha Rata Natum
  • Sabaragamuwa dances or Sabaragamuwa Natum.
Kandyan dance takes its name from Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka, which is situated about 116 kilometres from the modern capital at Colombo.
This is considered as the Classical Dance of Sri Lanka. In Sanskrit terminology it is considered pure dance); it features a highly developed system of (rhythm), provided by cymbals called "Thalampata". There are five distinct types; the Ves, Naiyandi, Uddekki, Pantheru, and Vannams.

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 Bera, the drum used in (Ruhunu) Low country dancing as the "Yak Bera", and drum in Sabaragamuwa dancing is the "Davula" (the word Bera or Bereya in Sinhale means "Drum") The Geta Bera is beaten with the hands as is also Yak Bera, while the Davula is played with a stick on one side and with one hand on the other side; the Geta Bera has a body which tapers on both sides while the Yak Bera and the Davula both have cylindrical bodies.
The main distinguishing feature between Kandyan and Sabaragamuwa dancing, and Ruhunu dancing, is that Ruhunu dancers wear masks.

Dance Styles
Kandyan Dance is a dance form that originated in the area called “Kande Uda Rata” (the Central hills region) which became Kandy in English. However, today it has spread widely to other parts of the country.

According to a legend, the origins of the dance lies in an exorcism ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which was originally performed by Indian shamans who came to the Island. They According to legend they came to the Island on the request of a king who was suffering from a mysterious illness. The king was said to be suffering from recurring dream in which a leopard directing its longue towards the king and believed as a black magic of "Kuweni" the first wife of the king "Vijaya". After the performance of the Kohomba Kankariya the illness vanished, and many natives adopted the dance.

It was originally performed by dancers who were identified as a separate caste under the Kandyan Feudal system. They were aligned to the Temple of the Tooth and had a significant role to play in the Dalada Perahera (procession) held each year by the temple.

The dance waned in popularity as the support for the dancers from the Kandyan kings ended during the British period. It has now been revived and adapted for the stage, and is Sri Lanka's primary cultural export.

Dances (Uda Rata Natum)
Ves: - "Ves" dance, the most popular, originated from an ancient purification ritual, the Kohomba Yakuma or Kohomba Kankariya. The dance was propitiatory, never secular, and performed only by males. The elaborate Ves costume, particularly the headgear, is considered sacred and is believed to belong to the deity Kohomba. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century the Ves dancers were first invited to perform outside the precincts of the Kankariya Temple at the annual Kandy Perahera festival. Today the elaborately costumed Ves Dancer symbolize Kandyan dance.
Dancers in Naiyandi costume perform during the initial preparations of the Kohomba Kankariya festival, during the lighting of the lamps and the preparation of foods for the demons. The dancer wears a white cloth and white turban, beadwork decorations on his chest, a waistband, rows of beads around his neck, silver chains, brass shoulder plates, anklets, and jingles. This is a graceful dance, also performed in Maha Vishnu (Vishnu) and Katharagama Devales temples on ceremonial occasions.

Uddekki is a very prestigious dance. Its name comes from the Uddekki, a small lacquered hand drum in the shape of an hourglass, about seven and half inches (18 centimetres) high, believed to have been given to people by Gods. The two drum skins are believed to have been given by the God Iswara and the sound by Vishnu; the instrument is said to have been constructed according to the instructions of Sakra and was played in the heavenly palace of the gods. It is a very difficult instrument to play. The dancer sings as he plays, tightening the strings to obtain variations of pitch.

The Pantheruwa is an instrument dedicated to Goddess Pattini. It resembles a tambourine (without the skin) and has small cymbals attached at intervals around its circumference. The dance is said to have originated in the days of Prince Siddhartha, who became Buddha. The gods were believed to use this instrument to celebrate victories in war, and Sinhala kings employed Pantheru dancers to celebrate victories in the battlefield.
The costume is similar to that of the Uddekki dancer, but the Pantheru dancer wears no beaded jacket and substitutes a silk handkerchief at the waist for the elaborate frills of the Uddekki dancer.
Originally Vannams were kind of recitations. In most Vannams it describes about the behaviours of animals like Elephants, Monkeys, Rabbits, Peacock, Cocks, and Serpents etc. Later dancers have used Vannams as background songs for their performances. There are 18 Vannams in the Kandyan Dance form. Traditionally a dancer would have to learn to perform all these Vannams before they would be gifted the Ves costume. The most well known among these are the Hanuma (Hanuma) Vannama, The Ukusa (Eagle) Vannama and the Gajaga (Elephant) Vannama.

The word "vannam" comes from the Sinhala word "varnana" (descriptive praise). Ancient Sinhala texts refer to a considerable number of "vannams" that were only sung; later they were adapted to solo dances, each expressing a dominant idea. History reveals that the Kandyan king Sri Weeraparakrama Narendrasingha gave considerable encouragement to dance and music. In his Kavikara Maduwa (a decorated dance arena) there were song and poetry contests.

It is said that the ‘Kavi’ (poetry sung to music) for the eighteen principal vannams were composed by an old sage named Ganithalankara, with the help of a Buddhist priest from the Kandy temple. The vannams were inspired by nature, history, legend, folk religion, folk art, and sacred lore, and each is composed and interpreted in a certain mood (rasaya) or expression of sentiment. The eighteen classical vannams are Gajaga (elephant), Thuranga (horse), Mayura (peacock), Gahaka (conch shell), Uraga (crawling animals), Mussaladi (hare), Ukkussa (eagle), Vyrodi (precious stone), Hanuma (monkey), Savula (cock), Sinharaja (lion), Naaga (cobra), Kirala (red-wattled lapwing), Eeradi (arrow), Surapathi (in praise of the Goddess Surapathi), Ganapathi (in praise of the God Ganapathi), Uduhara (expressing the pomp and majesty of the king), and Assadhrusa (extolling the merit of Buddha). To these were added Samanala (Butterfly), Bo (the sacred Bo tree at Anuradhapura, a sapling of the original bo tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment), and Hansa Vannama (swan). The vannam dance tradition has seven components.

Costume: - The dancers wear an elaborate costume including a headdress. The dancer's chest is covered by a decorative beaded net. This costume is known as the Ves costume. The headdress incorporates a metallic front which makes the dancer look taller than he is. The complete costume also includes anklets that produce a metallic rattle each. The headgear in the Ves costume can only be worn by the males and can only be worn after a special ceremony called Ves Mangalaya in which the male dancer first wears the Ves costume and dances. Legend also says that if a female wears the headgear she will have a lot of bad luck or get very sick even the males if they have not performed at the Ves Mangalaya the same will happen to them(only males perform at the Ves Mangalaya and the females have a separate ceremony called Kalaveny Mangalaya.
The Kandyan Dance is traditionally performed to percussion only. The most common drum is the Geta Beraya, which is only used in Kandyan Dance. To assist the dancer to keep rhythm a small pair of cymbals knows as the Thalampata is also used. The Vannams however have lyrics that are sung in tune with the movements of the dancer. These lyrics sing about the virtues of the animal that the Vannam is depicting. Another form of twin Drums called Tammettama used with cane drum sticks.

Devil Dances
The "Devil Dances" are an attempt to respond to the common belief that certain ailments are caused by unseen hands and that they should be chased away for the patient to get cured. If an individual or a family is not doing well, the village-folk believe that it's because that person or the family is being harassed by unseen hands. A 'Thovil' ceremony is the answer. The 'Thovil' can be a simple ritualistic ceremony at home restricted to family and immediate neighbours or involving the whole village like the 'Gam-Maduva' or the 'Devol-Maduva' which is closely linked to the worship of gods.

Masked dancers take part in at least two of the well-known 'Thovil' ceremonies referred to as the 'Maha Sohon Samayama' and the 'Gara Yakuma'. The mention of 'Maha Sohona' frightens the people since he is believed to be the demon of the graveyards.

The performer disguises himself as a bear and wears a mask and a dress to resemble one. Often the 'Thovil' involves the 'sanni' dances where all the dancers wear masks. The 'Daha Ata Sanniya' refers to sixteen ailments with a demon being responsible for each one of them.Dancers wearing masks take part in processions while at certain ceremonies, masks are used to depict different characters.

Of later origin are the masks worn by children and teenagers at street performances during Vesak. Popularly known as 'Olu Bakko' for the simple reason that oversize masks are worn, these performances keep in particular the younger-folk, in particular.

The simple version of the devil dance ritual usually starts in the morning with the building of the stage, decorations and preparation of the costumes. The performers build an intricate stage before which the dancing commences. The stage consists of a wall made of freshly cut natural materials such as coconut palm tree and banana tree trunks. Depending on the region and the available materials the stage may also be coated with clay mud. The dances are accompanied by drummers which also herald the beginning of the ritual. The distinctive sound ensures all neighbours turn up to take part. The full ritual usually lasts until the morning, with the dancers consuming betel-nut juice and drinking coke to stay awake. Dances can however also go on for multiple days.

Folk Dances
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 are prevalent at the present time.

Dance drama
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.
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