This recent article points out another use of masks and masks in health and medicine, as a diagnostic tool. The authors used museum collections and a literature review.

Hence the sanni demons do seem to represent disease syndromes, and their masks show clinical features that are familiar to clinicians today. This classification of disease has considerable merit, especially considering its origin among non-medical practitioners many centuries ago. Sri Lanka has an ancient history of medical achievements, including the first recorded hospitals and a system of Ayurvedic medicine that dates from the 4th century bc.

classification of disease

Demon (Sanniya) Literal translation Associated conditions
Amukku Vomiting bouts Vomiting and stomach diseases
Abutha Non-spirit related Not spirit related insanity
Butha Spirit related Spirit related insanity
Bihiri Deaf Deafness
Deva Divine Epidemic diseases
Gedi Lumps Boils and skin diseases
Gini Jala Great fire or flame Malaria and high fevers
Golu Dumb Dumbness
Gulma Worms (especially hookworm) Parasitic worms and stomach diseases
Jala Water or diarrhoea Cholera and chills
Kana Blind Blindness
Kora Lame Lameness and paralysis
Maru Death Delirium and death
Naga Snake (especially cobra) Bad dreams about snakes
Pissu Insanity Temporary insanity
Pith Bilious Bilious diseases
Slesma Phlegm Phlegm and epilepsy
Vatha Wind humour or rheumatic Flatulence and rheumatism

“Sri Lankan sanni masks: an ancient classification of disease
Mark S Bailey, specialist registrar in infectious diseases and tropical medicine1, H Janaka de Silva, professor”

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