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Music Dance Theatre

Ritual magic: masks and costumes of five spiritual cultures

Up close and under the masks


Published: 11 Apr 2016

Time taken : <5mins

In spiritual cultures all over the world, the ritual is an indispensable component that not only defines identity, but also creates a transitional space between the physical and spirit worlds. It brings a sense of tradition, is transformative in nature, and is as much a performance for the divine as it is an act of faith. It also serves the purpose of strengthening belief while attending to the (spiritual) well-being of participants.

Many rituals involve music and dance, some of which are highly elaborate and feature vibrant costumes and intricately carved masks. There is something deeply symbolic and meaningful about wearing them. Costumes are known to enable their wearers to project a different self. Similarly, masks imbue power and have the ability to transform one’s identity.

We look at visually powerful ritual performances from five cultures featured in the 2016 edition of A Tapestry of Sacred Music, and learn what the costumes and masks symbolise.

Brazil’s Candomblé

Ritual: for purification

In Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, Friday is a sacred day for the believers of Candomblé, a syncretic religion based on African beliefs but with elements of Catholicism. It is the day of purification, and they dress in white in honour of Oxala, the god of creation. The women don crinolines and laced cotton dresses adorned with colourful belts and beaded accessories, and cover their heads with a turban.

Once the ritual has started and the orixás (deities) have been summoned, those who have been possessed by them are led away, only to return in beautiful sparkling costumes. The change in clothing indicates a connection with the deities, the colours of which represent the different orixás that have taken over.

There are more than 400 orixás in the pantheon of deities, 11 of which are primary gods. Each has a favourite colour and rhythm by which it is summoned.

White represents Oxala, who controls the functions of reproduction and procreation.

Yellow gold is the colour of Oxum, the protector of spiritual intuition and destiny, who is also represented by the , the smallest drum in the atabaque.

The colours red and white represent the deities Xangô and Iansã, who are the god and goddess of storm and lightning.

China Taoism

China’s Taoism

Ritual: for exorcism, purification, blessings, meditation, to bring balance, or to present offerings to deities

Rooted in millennia-old Confucianism, divination, and animatism, Taoist rituals are known to be highly dramatic and steeped in symbolism. Priests use a number of sacred items to carry out their rites. From incense meant to attract the gods and carry messages to the heavens, to swords for exorcism and purification, almost every instrument and article has a symbolic meaning and can only be used in certain rites.

As visually stunning and decorative as Taoist ceremonial robes look, they represent the power a priest has over the cosmic energy, and can only be worn by authorised masters conducting the rites. Embroidered on these robes are usually the symbols of the yin and yang, the five elements, as well as those of the I-Ching, all of which are sewn by hand and can take several months to make. They come in many colours, which are specific to the rite performed, and can cost up to $1,000, depending on the amount of handiwork required.

Apart from the robe, other elements of Taoist ceremonial attire include:

  • A headdress, which is usually a black skull cap with a metal crown on top, called the crown of gold, and a flame-shaped pin that signifies a priest who has been ordained. The flame symbolises one’s energy, or the chi that emanates from one’s body;
  • Shoes shaped like boats, decorated with cloud patterns which symbolise the priest’s ability to “pace the void” (transcend physical boundaries) and carry messages to the heavens;
  • A square apron made of silk, wrapped around the waist and worn in honour of the gods.

Malaysia Mah Meri

Malaysia’s Mah Meri

Ritual: for thanksgiving

Best known for their tradition of spiritual carvings, the art of the Mah Meri tribe of West Malaysia draws heavily on their spiritual and animistic beliefs. One of their most important festivals is Hari Moyang (Ancestors’ day), during which they conduct rituals to give thanks to and receive blessings from the moyang (ancestral spirits).

A highlight of Hari Moyang is the highly expressive ritualistic mask dance. The women weave their own skirts, sashes, and tiaras out of pandan leaves, while the men don fearsome masks intricately carved out of nyireh batu, a reddish hard wood. The performance itself tells the social history of the people through gestures that mimic everyday life, while the masks represent the different moyang, namely Gadeng, Keteq, and Ambai.

Each mask is treated with care and reverence, and cannot be given to anyone else since it is imbued with the power to protect the owner and his family. It has to be hung in the living room by the village chief and positioned across the main entrance.

Korea Bongsan Talchum

Korea’s bongsan talchum

Ritual: for warding off evil or purification

The bongsan talchum is a masked dance drama developed in the Hwangdae region (in North Korea) in the 18th century. It is regularly held on Dano Day (5th day of the 5th lunar month). According to Korean shamanism, when a person dons a mask, he or she spiritually transforms into the very thing the mask depicts. Whether a deity, a spirit, a member of the opposite sex, or an animal, the physical contradictions at odds are removed by the magical art embodied by the mask—which is often overly exaggerated and dramatic in appearance.

Composed of seven acts, the performance includes ritualistic elements for warding off evil and for purification. The presence of fearsome creatures, such as the lion, is thought to be effective in scaring off evil spirits. The masks are painted in vivid colours, each shade a marker for personality, social class, gender and age.

There are over 250 types of masks used in Korean dance for various purposes, categorised into:

  • Totemic masks, used to embody the characteristics of different animals;
  • Demon masks, used as objects of worship by shamans to scare off evil or to take on characteristics of the particular spirit;
  • Medicinal masks, for exorcism of evil spirits possessing the body;
  • Spirit masks, to appease other spiritual beings;
  • Memorial masks, to honour historical figures.

Sri Lanka Ves Dance

Sri Lanka’s ves dance

Ritual: for purification

Many Sri Lankan dance forms can be traced back to the Kohomba Kankariya, an ancient ritualistic dance originally performed by Indian shamans. In the ves dance (also known as “devil dance”), performers don spiritual masks and elaborate costumes.

Traditionally a purification ritual known as kohomba yakuma to treat the mentally disturbed, it could only be danced within the premises of certain temples before it became secular in the 19th century. Performed by an all-male troupe, the costume featured in this dance is called suseta abharana, which represents the god Kohomba and is made up of 64 ornaments said to be a replica of what he wears.

Each performer wears a crown made up of a tiara, a forehead plate, silver spokes shaped like rays which fan outwards from the base, and a 115cm-long ribbon that trails down from the tip. The process of draping the cloth covering the lower half of the dancer’s body is also a ritual on its own. Mango-shaped ornaments hang over the ears of the performers while sheaths resembling the head of a cobra cover the shoulders. Instead of a breast plate, ornamental ivory and beaded chains decorate the chest.

The suseta abharana is so sacred that performers are not allowed to bring the costumes home. They are instead stored in temples, in specially woven boxes called ves pettiya.

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