Friday, October 29, 2010

Indonesian puppetry background

So the gift shop at the puppet museum emailed me the story of the puppets. I thought I would copy and paste it for your benefit (they email the story to anyone who buys them and will leave an email address). I left the typos and spelling errors as is because some were kind of cute. Enjoy!


Wayang kulit or shadow puppet is a very old art form dating back over 1000 years. Typically the plays will start about 9 at night and last through until early morning ( about 4 or 5 am ). These shadow puppet plays ( there are well over two hundred different Plays contain the elements of Ramayana and Mahabharata from india but have been made uniquely Javanese.

There are the stories of gods and men, myth and morals. In a command set, used foreveryday performances, throughout the villages and cities.

There are about 120 puppets in a set but in the sets that were used in the places and reserver for special occasions, there have been documented well over 400 in a set. This number also varies considerably as Dalang (puppeteer)were also known to create their own characters primarily for intermission entertainment or for special performances.

The characters in the plays themselves are all set by tradition in both the characters ,stories as well as their size, perforation

and paintings for a given performance. A dalang will sit in a center stage ( usually elevated now ) in front a white cloth screen and illuminated only by a single oil lamp above the stage and dalang.

To his left and right will be his puppets for that performance, their support sticks stuck in the Banana’s stem. To keep them ready to use. He will typically have two assistants to help him with the puppets sitting in his left and right. A companying him are several female singers and a gamelan orchestra.

The perforation and painting throughout the puppets are beautiful. They were subject not only handling but many would also have to endure the mock battles in the wayang kulit or shadow puppet plays. Because these puppets were used in performances, dalang would continually maintenance these puppets for both the leather and the paints.

The Ramayana Story ( Romeo and Juliet)

The Ramayana is essentially a love, the story of Lord Rama’s search for this beautiful wife, Shinta. Dasarata, king of Ayodya, had fulfil a promise to one of his wives and let her Son Baharata ascend the throne, even though it meant exile to the forest for son by another wife, his beloved Rama.

Rama, an incarnation of Batara Wisnu, knew that his love and happiness with Shinta was but the prelude to long suffering to enable him to accomplish the duty of Wisnu. Barata, who didn’t want to see Rama ousted, was therefore unable to persuade Rama to return Ayodya. And Rama, followed by the faithful Sinta and Lesmana, his inseparable companion and another half brother , went away and live in forest.

They were overtaken by disaster due shinta’s over-powering desire for possession of a golden deer seen in the forest. But the deer in reality was sent by the ten-headed demon Rahwana, symbol of man’s lusts. Having tricket both Rama and Lesmana, Rahwana abducted Shinta and bore her off to the island of Alengka. Jatayu,king of the birds, intercepted Rahwana, but was mortally wounded and lived only long enough to tell Rama about Shinta abduction.

At long last, the white ape Hanoman discover where Shinta was hid in the island kingdom. An army of monkeys, led by Sugriwa, build a causeway to Alengka, crossed over and helped to kill Rahwana. Rama and Shinta were united once more.

But Rama listened to voices doubting Sinta’s purity after so long a captivity. Shinta had to undergo a trial by fire and was saved by Agni, Goddess of fire, who convinced Rama of Shinta’s purity.

Gunungan or tree of life

This wayang kulit ( shadow puppet ) is called gunungan or tree of life ( Kekayon in Javanese ). The gunungan, in general, is used to announce the start of the wayang plays ( lakon ). It is also used to show intermissions and scene change as well as indicate the end of a show. The gunungan is composed of two major parts, upper and lower, which correspond to the upper and nether worlds with the tree serving as the link between both wolrds.

In India terms the tree is the nagasari tree which is also seen on the Hindu-Buddhist monuments of the 18th and 19th centuries around Surakarta and Yogyakarta . The various animals represent the opposing good and evil forces or hell and heaven. In typical gunungan the bottom portion depicts a place guarded by two giants on either side of the entrance.


  1. Hi - thank you for sharing all of this. I have a collection of Wayang puppets and I sort of volunteered to give a short talk to my six year old's class about them... This has refreshed my memory after an absence from Bali for nine years. I will certainly read more of your travels.

    LAR. x

    1. You're welcome! These 2010 posts were from my very first trip to Indonesia. The country left quite a positive impression on me. I've been back several times for work, and it remains a dear country to me though I don't get to travel there anymore.