There’s this puppetry museum in Dehiwela run by Wimal Weerawansa’s cousin and SB Dissanayake’s former media secretary. It’s one of those places where you feel like you’re the first person discovering something really cool. Which is to say, it was completely empty. Inside it is full of awesome. The architecture is simple, airy and light and the puppets are well-painted, their stories told with love. Sunny is the puppeteer and he shows you around in lovely, musical Sinhala (which I needed translated), telling the stories of a man who lost his wife, kings who lost their heads, and princes who lost their thrones. At the back there is also a collection of magnificent, giant devil masks. He put on a small show for us, but I hear that there’s a full one on November 17th at 9:30 am. I recommend.
Perhaps you’ve been to the Dehiwela Zoo. The Puppetry Museum is 100 meters away. They have an extraordinary (for Sri Lanka) website, a great building and the place looks better cared for than, say, the Natural History Museum. It remains, however, that the place is one of those where they act confused when you want to go in. Perhaps it’s just not busy on Sundays. There is a section on puppetry in the National Museum dedicated to puppetry, but it sucks. It’s all third-rate handbills and puppets from other countries, none of the amazing stuff we have here. The only cool thing there is the full whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
The Puppetry Museum doesn’t have whales, but it does have various puppets hanging from the raftings, looking down and grinning their rictured grins. Sunny opens the doors and show you around, telling stories and singing songs for each exhibit. My favorite is the one about Gotabhaya.
King Sirisabago. I think Gotabhaya is the snake
In the Mahavamsa, there was a Gotabhaya who was also brother to King Sirisagabo. However, through intrigue, he got the throne for himself and the king retired to the woods as a meditating hermit. Still not satisfied, Gotabhaya offered a bounty for anyone who would bring him the true King’s head. People started bringing him random heads, then Gotabhaya started lopping off their heads, leading to a rash of headlessness in the kingdom. In fear, one peasant fled to the woods, where he found Sirisagabo. When Sirisagabo heard what was going on he said, ‘oh, dear’ and – to prevent further bloodshed – plucked off his own head by simply pulling on the top. He told the terrified peasant to take it to the king, under his protection.
Gotabhaya was like ‘what’s this, another headmonger, off with his head,’ but then the dismembered head of King Sirisagabo spoke up and said, ‘hey guy, haven’t you done enough killing already? Why don’t you chill out already.’ Gotabhaya felt bad and the wife he’d stolen from his brother felt so bad she died. The end.
Achchi, your, uh
Other stories are more traditional, some ancient, some gamay. In one an ugly man gets married to a pretty girl who abandons him the first chance she gets. A wise king sorts it out, but the moral was not to marry above your station. All the stories are interesting an, oh, the masks.
The Dehiwala Puppet Museum on the Zoo Road, about 100m before if you’re coming from Colombo side. Basically near the Big Bite Biriyani on the Google Map, though I’ve never seen a BBB there. The site says its open from 9-5. The guys said there was a proper show on November 17th at 9:30 am.