© 2023 Dr. M. Sheppard

Health Ayurveda Plants Mantra Tovil Treatments

Tovil or Devil Dances are Curing Dances to exorcise the disease causing demons that are troubling a patient and causing their illnesses and misfortunes.

(References : Exorcism and the Art of Healing in Ceylon by  Paul Wirz 1954)

Paul Wirz studied these extensively  (see especially  page 18-19). There is also much useful information in Bruce Kapferer’s work (e.g. “A Celebration of Demons” and on the internet e.g. Wikipeadia

During  the tovil dances the history of the dancing and cures is sung and mimed  during the ceremonies as well as the origins of the various disease causing demons. These  are very ancient curing dances that are believed to have originated from Southern India but have been adapted by the Sinhalese.

There are various legends about the origin of the Sinhalese Devil Dance. One main one is that it originates from a blind man from the ancient and very holy Sri Lankan capital Anuradhapura. In order to restore his sight, he danced the whole way from Anuradhapura to the image of Kataragama at the Temple of Dondra (about 340 Kms). His sight was restored and he wrote the details of this dance down in a book which he presented to the Shrine of Kataragama. According to this version of the legend, this ancient dances is what the Tovil dancers use in a Tovil Dance. It has been handed down from Tovil dancer to Tovil Dancer via trainees, through the generations.

Another legend is that a Buddhist monk died and  was reborn as an elephant. He became the  leader of a large herd of elephants that lived by an enormous swamp. A gigantic crab lived in this swamp and every day when the elephants crossed the swamp, the crab would kill and eat the last elephant, dragging it down into the swamp. The leader of the elephants noticed that the herd was decreasing and so placed himself last. He caught the crab and crushed it to death. Its body floated to the mouth of the river causing a tremendous flood over the surrounding area.

The local people appealed for mercy. The Deity Sakra heard their cries for help and came down from heaven  and dragged the body of the crab back with him to heaven so the flood cleared. He called two of his  sons who were the Masters of Music  to make two  enormous drums out of the crab’s claws. These drums were 16 miles across. These Masters of Music then taught the Deities how to beat the various rhythms on the drums and the different dance poses and steps of the curing dances. They also taught the Deities  the 64 verses sung recited during the Tovil Dances, and the 216 hymns sung in praise of Buddha.

Training to be a Tovil dancer is long and often starts in childhood. Typically the art is passed down from father to son through the generations although boys and men whose relatives are not Tovil Dancers can be apprenticed. First the trainees learn the poses and steps.

Brief History of Tovil (Devil Dance)

Devil Dancers during a Mahasona Tovil. N.B. the young dancer on the left had only completed his apprenticeship the night before - he did not come from at family of Tovil dancers but had been drawn to undertake the training, as he had admired the dances and drumming at ceremonies he had attended.