Kohomba Kankariya harks back to traditional art of healing
The ritual dance of Kohomba demons is the basic spirit of Kohomba
Kankariya or Kohomba Yakuma which is a type of ceremonial dance
considered to be the most primeval devil dance in Sri Lanka. Today
Kohomba Kankariya has emerged to be a widespread folk cult among the
Sinhalese particularly in the upcountry. Kuveni Asna a popular book
compiled in the Kotte period makes the initial reference to this
festival of dance which was organised to bless King Parakramabahu VI of
Kotte and to dispel doubts of illness and enemy attacks on the kingdom.
The ritual dance more over invoked the supernatural powers to infuse the
king with majesty and power with longevity.
A scene from Kohomba
The origin of Kohomba Yak Kankariya dates back to King Panduvasdeva’s
reign. The popular tradition expounds on the predicament King
Panduvasdeva was in when he fell prey to serious illness probably caused
by the malicious curses by Kuveni on Prince Vijaya and his descendants.
The devil dance was thus arranged to cure King Panduvasdeva’s illness
caused by the magic power of Kuveni’s curse unleashed in her frustration
of being betrayed by her prince. In order to bring the evil influences
and illnesses under control an assembly of deities was formed with a
prince who was said to be found in a Kohomba forest. The prince was
called a new god (Aluth Kohomba Deyyo) and twelve other deities were
instructed to protect kings and princess against all types of evil
The Kohomba Yak Kankariya retains certain elements of devil dance
effectively suggestive of pre-Buddhist worship of Yakshas by the Sinhala
people. In complete contrast to other forms of Shantikarma (art of
healing) Kohomba Kankariya noticeably ignores praises to the triple
gem-Buddha Dhamma and Sangha. This is probably because the devil dance
originated against a non-Buddhist background where worship of Yaksha,
Naga, or deva reigned supreme without any exposure to Buddhist culture.
In this peculiar devil dance, no yantras or mantras (talismans and
incantations) are intended for ‘Bhuta’ spirits or devils and dancing is
absolutely carried out without wearing masks.
The absolute theme of this type of devil dancing is prominently
associated with demons and even the gods are called Yakshas. The term
Yak dominates the phraseology intended to appeal to various aspects of
the Kohomba Kankariya and offerings to demons and gods are made without
incantations (Mantra). The Yak dessa (the priest of devil dance) invokes
gods by Yak enavuma. He invokes Bhuta (spirits) and Yaksha (devils) to
bring blessing and dispel all evil influences without a trace.
The ‘Kup Situweema’ (planting of post) on a proper ground to
construct a pavilion takes place three months prior to the ceremonial
performance of Kohomba Kankariya. The dancers’ costumes and decorative
accessories are washed clean and the necessary food is kept in the stone
house and the dancehall (Yak Ge. The whole ceremony is duly set in
motion when Gambara Yak dessa (Chief Yakdessa) invites others to work in
and outside the pavilion. The work involves preparing ‘Yahana (bed),
making ‘Pandam’ (cloth torches), pounding paddy and collecting food and
Offerings, particularly rice offerings, are prepared and placed in
the ‘Yahana’ before noon - a peculiar practice called ‘Pe bat Yadinawa’.
The ornaments, symbols, weapons and insignia of gods are brought to
the village from Devale in an splendidly organised ceremonial
procession. Those involved in the work place on the Yahana offerings and
food which include jaggery, fruits, coconuts, curry of seven vegetables
(hat maluwa)curry made from wild boar flesh, oil cakes, roti and mellum.
In the afternoon, the dancers in a training session take to dancing
‘melei yakun netuma' prior to making offering of pumpkin rice, coconuts
The dance is of three hour duration while the practice dance is going
on, the real yak dessas begin to dress up with all the accessories
needed for the dancing.
The torches are set alight and oil lamps are lighted as an effective
prelude to the grand ceremony of Kohomba Kankariya the main dancing.
The first step in the real dance of Kohomba Kankariya is the vigorous
dancing to the accurate rhythm of loud drumming preceded by a formal and
dignified invocation to gods. This rhythmic invocation is called ‘Yak
enavuma’. The dance vigorously continues with invocations accenting on
names of varied gods and placing even gods on the same rank as demons.
Here the gods are addressed in ‘Yak’ (signifying demons). During this
segment of dancing the gods are described in detail and even the chiefs
of the Veddahs are introduced.
During the special act called ‘Asne Yama’ a protracted dancing is
accompanied by earnest appeals to gods for protection and blessings.
Here the viewer witnesses a spectacular series of dances being staged
with solemn prayers for both demons and gods. A noteworthy feature of
this stage is the pronounced variations in the patterns and movements of
dancers and the rhythm of drumming according to different purposes.
Deity in swine form
One of the most distinguishable characteristic of Kohomba Kankariya
is the panoramic tree - like dance in which prayers are uttered to a god
in the likeness of a pig. Here ‘Dunumal Akkama’ and Yamampaha’, twin
forms of vigorous dance, dramatise the adventures of the King of
Malayadesha who, lured by a pig, came to Sri Lanka.
The king pursues the pig and finally he comes near it. Here the
dancers perform in frenzied movements and king’s adventures are all
dramatised by the dancers.
Towards the dawn of the following day the vigorous dance of the night
begins to be characterised by a lighter spirit.
During this phase of the Shanthikarma, five devil dancers (Yakkama)
are played and even the Veddahs are simulated. Those who take part here
are Kadawara devatava, Kaluwedi devatava, Mahaguru kudaguru malei
devatava, Kotuvaturottamaya and so forth.
During this stage, Kapuralas who are in control of the deities,
become actually possessed and the atura (patient) can then be ensured of
the blessings of Kohomba Kankariya. After this, all the yakadessas
appear for a dance which assumes a solemn expression.
With the shooting of the plantain bud (Muvamala Videema) all evils
are dispelled and the Kohomba Kankariya draws to an end. One of the most
amusing feature in this devil dancing is the presence of sardonic and
pungent verbal exchanges among the players throughout the night. Most of
these dialogues level bitter criticism on the common weaknesses of
society and at the sametime keep the patient in good humour making him
feel perfectly healthy.