Last updated on March 4th, 2019 at 10:16 am

Considered Sri Lanka’s greatest cultural export, Kandyan dance was almost lost during the period of British rule due to the cultural domination imposed by the ruling empire. Good thing it’s been revived because it is one truly captivating show that would be a shame if it were lost.

Dancers adorned with rattling anklets, elaborate beads, jingling bangles, funky headgear and colourful flowing costumes perform stunning high jumps and summersaults while drummers flank them, pounding out heart-thumping tribal rhythms. With a stage set amid the deep, lush jungle of Sri Lanka, a Kandyan dance performance captures the imagination by connecting audiences to their tribal roots.

Kandyan dance is said to have spawned from an exorcism ritual that Indian shamans brought to the island at the request of the king who was suffering from a mysterious illness many years ago.

As the legend goes, the king was experiencing a recurring dream that was causing him much anguish, which he believed to be black magic working against him. After the dance was performed for him, his mystery illness disappeared—and from then forward, the dance flourished.

Kandyan dance has different forms, such as ves, a sacred dance in devotion to the god Kohomba; uddeki, which gets its name from the small hourglass-shaped hand drum that’s played for the dance; and vannams, which has vocal recitations to express the virtues of the animals being depicted.

With the exception of vannams, traditional Kandyan dance is paired solely to the sounds of the drum and other percussion instruments such as cymbals. The tammettama is one such instrument, a twin drum played with thin cane drumsticks as well as the two-sided geta beraya drum. The combination of the two drums and cymbals are enough to fill the space with full, richly textured sound.

Though Kandyan dance has traditionally been reserved for men, today women commonly perform it and have adapted their own style of costume. The success of Kandyan dance has resulted in its both spreading beyond the city of Kandy for which it’s named (still the best place to watch it) and has spawned various dance schools as well as being integrated into other forms of contemporary dance in Sri Lanka and beyond. As the national dance of Sri Lanka, it lives on as an enduring feature of a country richly endowed with culture.

Read more about Kandy in KANDY: 5 top spots to experience Sri Lanka’s strong cultural legacy

image: Tixu Oty (Creative Commons BY-SA)