Wayang Kulit – shadow puppet performances

Wayang Kulit – shadow puppet performances


The film The Year of Living Dangerously, set in Indonesia in 1965, opens with a Wayang Kulit performance. President Sukarno himself described 1965 as the year of living dangerously. The excellent novel by Christopher J. Koch has a vivid description of a performance and the theme runs through the story. These ancient, magical performances are very atmospheric and seem to symbolise Indonesia. Many say that Indonesian politics can only be understood in terms of the Wayang Kulit.

Wayang Kulit performances are sacred and form part of many ceremonies in village and family temples. Usually they accompany temple anniversaries and rites of passage ceremonies, such as baby ceremonies, tooth-filings, weddings and cremations. The performances have three functions in Balinese society: they are instructive, entertaining and religious. Wayang Kulit has profoundly affected the other Balinese arts.

The performances bring together visual art, vocal and instrumental music, drama, literature and dance. The puppeteer has to be expert in all these arts.


The shadow theatre exists, or has existed, in the lands between Turkey and China. Many think that Indonesian shadow puppet performances originated in India and that they came to Bali from Java between the 11th and 14th centuries. An 11th century Balinese royal inscription mentions a wayang performance. In the rest of Southeast Asia only the night wayang is known.

Javanese performances are associated with the court, whereas Balinese performances are a folk tradition and belong to the community as a whole. They have developed separately. Javanese puppets are very stylised.

Wayang Kulit has been Bali’s cinema for centuries, but it is primarily a sacred matter. It has the sacred seriousness of classical Greek drama. (Indeed the word drama comes from the Greek dromenon, a religious ritual.) The word wayang means shadow and can refer to the puppets or the show. It may be derived from hyang meaning ancestor or gods. Alternatively it may be from bayan meaning shadow. Kulit means leather or hide. The puppets are made out of cowhide.

The first person to describe a Balinese Wayang Kulit performance was Chinkah, a Siamese master of a junk, which landed in Bali in 1846. The king of Klungkung gave a performance for him.

Two types of performance

There are two types:

The night wayang: wayang peteng

The most common occurrence of the night wayang is during a temple anniversary or odalan. Sometimes they are put on as thanks for a prayer coming true or during the celebration of a wedding or birth.

The day wayang: wayang lemah

The day wayang is the most revered of form of theatre in Bali. It is performed for the gods and is regarded as an offering.

Three types of stories

Three types of wayang stories have become popular in Bali:

Wayang Parwa

This depicts stories from the Mahabarata.

Wayang Ramayana

This tells stories of Rama.

Wayang Colon Arang

This tells the story of Rangda the witch.


The puppeteer, dalang, and his puppets are treated with great respect. Indeed the dalang is a kind of priest and before a performance says prayers to bring the puppets to life. He can make holy water. When a dalang is consecrated, the ceremony is similar to the consecration of a priest. It is performed by a priest and takes place in the priest’s or the dalang’s family temple. If low caste he is called jero and if high caste he becomes a pemangku dalang. Dalangs are nearly always male.

He plays all the characters, in different voices, and controls the gamelan by tapping his foot on his wooden box. He must be able to quote long passages from memory as well as improvise jokes and funny songs and know how to hold the attention of the audience for many hours. Performances usually end at daybreak.

The most famous dalangs come from the village of Sukawati in south Bali. There are half a dozen families, all related, who pass the gift down from generation to generation. The word dalang comes from the Javanese ngudal wulang, which means a spreading of education. He has a duty to educate as well as entertain. It demands great physical and mental stamina.

The stage 

The audience is separated from the cross-legged dalang by a large white cloth (kelir), about 6 feet in length, bordered in black at the top and bottom and with red squares at the side. Behind the cloth are the dalang, a flickering, hanging coconut-oil lamp (damar) casting fluttering shadows on the sheet, the puppets of flat leather and the dalang’s two assistants (tututan), who sit on either side of him and hand him the puppets. The puppets are all placed in a yellow-green banana log (gedebong), at the base of the screen, ready for action.

The dalang’s puppet box is on his left. The filigree patterns of the puppets show up on the screen when held up against the oil lamp. Heroic figures are on the right and evil figures on the left

Behind the screen is a four or more piece gamelan, the Gender Wayang. It is the most demanding of all gamelans. It is quite an experience to go behind the screen and see how it is all done, but the better experience is to watch the performance. They take place at night and go on for hours.

The stories

The performances are the most literary and sophisticated of the Balinese performing arts. The stories are taken from the Hindu epics, the Mahabarata, the Ramayana and Prince Panji, with much improvisation, sometimes about politics. Jokes are told. Battle scenes are played out.

The dalang speaks in Kawi, which few understand. For the benefit of the audience, four clowns, also played by the dalang, translate and comment on the stories in Balinese. The clowns are the most important characters. In the Mahabarata stories they are Tualen and his son Mendah, servants of the Pandawas, and Delem and Sangut, servants of the Korawas. They are Sudras and have the most individuality of all the characters.

The story is finished in one sitting – unlike in Java, where it can last for several days. The plots usually start and end in the palace and take the viewer to the village and the forest. The village represents civilization, so that dialogues take place in the civilized world of the village, the court, the temple and the home. Battles are fought in the forest, a place where the hero also goes to meditate and make contact with unseen forces.

The dalang always starts with a long poetic introduction, when he mentions the text from which the story is taken. Action and dialogue take up the rest of the performance. Neither good nor evil prevails in the end. It is a constant battle.

The puppets

A standard collection comprises about 100 puppets, which are made of cowhide with a tapering buffalo horn or wooden handle. The handle ends in a point and is stuck into the banana stem, which lies at the base of the screen. Each puppet is chiselled, coloured and has a conventional headdress, which provides for instant recognition. They are kept in a wooden chest in a prescribed order: those on top are ritually the most important. The scenic one, the Kakayonan, is the uppermost figure, followed by the Supreme god, Tunggal. Ogres are on the bottom.

The figures are not naturalistic. They have disproportionately long necks, very long arms, and toes that are not in the correct position. The eyes and the headdress are the most important parts of the puppet. The eyes reveal expression, the headdress status. The forms may have been derived from temple sculptures and reliefs.

A special puppet, called the Kayonan, in the shape of a tree, the tree of life, is waved by the dalang to indicate the start of the story. The Kayonan brings the universe and the warring parties into life. The puppet is also called the Gegunungan, from the word for mountain and may represent Mahameru, the Mountain of the Gods, the sacred centre of the universe. Mountains and trees link the three zones of the underworld, earth and heaven. Mountains arise out of the depths into the sky. Trees have roots in the underworld and branches in the sky. Mountains also represent stability and permanence and trees represent transience.

It is used to indicate scene changes and the end of the performance. It can also be used to represent a forest, the sea, bathing places, wind, rain, fire or a palace during the performance. More generally it may represent the five elements that make up the universe: air, wind, fire, water and earth.


The art of puppet-making is passed down from one generation to the next. Apprenticeship takes between two and five years. The puppet-maker will carry out a ceremony to Wisnu and Siwa before he starts and will place an offering daily on a small shrine. He wants to ensure that he remains in a state of ritual and spiritual purity. When the puppets are finished, a Brahman priest consecrates them.

The puppets are painted using five basic colours: white, red, yellow, black and blue. White is made from animal bones, black from soot and yellow from stones found on Serangan Island in the south coast of Bali. Gold leaf, prada, is used for the Kakayonan and the costumes of the Ksatriya characters. The head is painted first.

The head, torso and legs are one piece. The arms are separate and attached to the shoulders, so that they can move by means of rods tied to the puppets’ hands. They are all dressed, except for the Supreme god.


The puppets represent life. They comprise celestial, human and demonic beings. There are gods, Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Wesyas, Sudras, ogres, demons and animals. Each has its own darma, duty. There is a concentration on males. This is not surprising: it is a patrilinear society. Women follow their husbands.

There are not very many Brahman puppets. There are many more Ksatriyas. The visual similarity between the ruling kings and the gods is marked. They often wear the same headdress. This may well have derived from the fact that there was something divine in kingship, especially in Bali and Java in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Some of the puppets can be used for several characters. Major characters would not double up in this way, unless they were linked by a common heritage.

Body colours

The body colours represent symbolically major ideas and values in Balinese society. The colours are the five basic colours: white, red, yellow, black and blue, and a mixture of them. See the article entitled Balinese Symbolism for the meanings associated with different colours.

Noble characters have light body colours, flat teeth and slit eyes; whereas coarse ones, like the ogres, are red or brown, have bulbous eyes and pointed teeth.

The music

There are always four gamelan instruments, which comprise the gender or xylophone, the rebab or two-stringed violin, the drum and the gong.

Every act of the play is accompanied by music and songs, which are used to convey the dramatic mood and the character on stage. The dalang also sings songs.

Music accompanies the placing of the puppets in the banana log, announces entrances, supports the dialogue, creates a benevolent atmosphere, and adds excitement to dramatic scenes.

Dalang’s preparations

As he sets off for a performance, the dalang will stop at his gate and feels his hair knot. If it pulsates to the right, he puts his right foot forward. If it pulsates to the left, he starts to walk with his left foot. If it pulsates in the middle, he leaps forward.

Before entering the stage he tests his breath to see which god will communicate through him. If the breath exhaled from his right nostril is stronger, Brahma will perform. If the stronger breath is from his left nostril, then Wisnu will perform. If they are equal, then it is Iswara.

It has already been mentioned that the dalang prays before the performance. He prays for protection from witches and evil spirits, for the gods to descend and enter him and the puppets, and for the audience to enjoy the performance. He sprinkles holy water and makes offerings to ensure that the stage is a pure area.

He requests Brahma to give the puppets life, so that they may dance well. He then knocks his wooden chest three times. He then prepares the puppets. They are placed for convenience on the lid of the wooden box in which they are kept – on the dalang’s right, in the correct order, so that he may pick them up easily. When they are in the box, not being used, the puppets are thought to be sleeping.

The play

During the play the puppets are placed in the banana log. The main characters, the good characters, are placed on and enter the stage from the dalang’s right. Lesser figures are placed on and enter the stage from his left. Similarly, important figures are taken off stage to the right and lesser figures to the left. So the Pandawas are on the dalang’s right and the Korawas are on his left. An invisible line down the centre of the screen divides the two camps.

The dalang sets the scene and describes the action. He speaks the parts. He needs to know the personalities of the various wayang characters and speak in an appropriate tone.

The most exacting part of the play is the fight against the giants, which usually takes place about 1 am or 2 am. It is the most difficult job for the dalang and is a test of his skill. Energetic tapping of the puppet box by the hammer held between the toes of his right foot always accompanies battle scenes.

After the performance the dalang recites a mantra to bring the puppets back to life symbolically.

Hand gestures

Puppets have stylized hand gestures. These are similar to the hand gestures of the priests, mudras, although priests use both hands whereas puppets only use one hand. See the article entitled Balinese Symbolism.


The music, stage and equipment symbolize the macrocosm. The clean white cloth screen symbolizes the sky. The cloth separates us from the real world of the gods. The puppets symbolize all that exists. The banana log is the earth. The oil lamp, which gives life and energy, represents the sun and the dalang is God. The music symbolizes the harmony of the cosmos and the puppets’ movements harmonize with the music.

The dalang wears headgear, waistcloth and dress, which represent heaven, earth and the underworld. He joins all three together during a performance.

The seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible, the inner world and the outer world all are present during a shadow puppet performance. The dancing shadows represent the illusory and transitory nature of life. To the gods, who are in the real world behind the screen, we, the audience, are the shadows.

The stage details are also symbolic. The stage is orientated to the propitious mountainward, kaja, direction, or to the east. The cloth has nine holes at the top, which represents nawa-sanga, the Balinese mandala. The lamp is lit with three bundles of wicks, reprsenting the Trinity (trisakti), the gods Siwa (or Iswara), Brahma and Wisnu. The cloth is also red, white and black. See the article entitled Balinese Symbolism.

Tumpek Wayang 

As mentioned in the article entitled Balinese Calendars every 210 days is a day called Tumpek Wayang. It is also Kajeng-Keliwon, and special for Wayang Kulit shadow puppets, which are taken out and given offerings by the dalang. It also happens to be very unlucky to be born on that day. Such a child is prone to illness and injury from Kala, the demon god.

To cure the baby an elaborate ceremony called sudamala is carried out by a dalang after a night or day wayang. It shows the priestly nature of the dalang. The dalang narrates a story about Kala and, with the help of certain puppets, carries out the ceremony, which is primarily exorcistic, and he makes purificatory water, toya penglukatan. This elaborate ceremony is also performed when someone suffers an unnatural death, for example, a fatal accident.

The day wayang: wayang lemah

This version of the shadow play is only performed during the day. Lemah means daylight. It is only for the gods and is a religious rite. For that reason it takes place in the inner sanctum of the temple, the holiest part. As it is already in a ritually pure area the dalang’s preparations are less. The performance can also take place outside a temple if ceremonies are taking place outside, for example, during a Melaspas house consecration ceremony.

It is a quiet performance, hardly audible to human beings. There is little or no conflict. The gods perceive reality directly, so there is no need for a screen. There are only about five to fifteen puppets, which are stuck close together in the banana log, where they stay. The puppets rest against a string of three threads entwined together, white, red and black, the colours of the gods of the Trinity. The string is stretched between two branches of a luminous plant, dapdap, about a foot above the banana log. The puppets stand motionless throughout the performance. They represent, through their colours, the gods. The servants are not stuck in the banana log and are held by the dalang.

The dapdap tree has supernatural power. Its name is Erithrina litosperma. Priests burn the wood in clay jars in all ceremonies. The leaves are used for protection against witches. Juice from the leaves is a cure for sick people. The branches form a pillow for the dead.

Two musicians playing large metallophones, gender pemgumbang, provide the music. The music is less rich in tone and colour than the night wayang.

The stories deal with moral and spiritual themes and always relates to the particular ceremony or occasion. So, if the ceremony is a wedding, the chosen story will be about a wedding. There are no comic interludes. The stories are in three phases – the hero leaves a place, passes through another place and reaches his destination, a changed, improved person. The story stresses his purity and nobility, enhanced by a hurdle he has overcome in the intervening place.


There may be no strict connection, but one cannot help remembering Plato’s famous allegory of the Prisoners in the Cave in the Republic. Plato asks us to imagine a row of prisoners tied by chains inside a deep cave. They can only look straight ahead of them at the dark inside wall of the cave. Far behind them is a fire, but they do not know it. The fire is the only source of light in the cave.

Just behind the prisoners, in front of the fire, are people walking around with objects in their hands. They cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners have never been out and have no idea of any other life. They have never seen real objects. Socrates, according to Plato, says that this is the human condition. We can only see mere shadows of real things. We take the shadows for reality. We are so attached to our own lives that we do not even realize our plight and we could not immediately cope if we were freed. For a while we would still believe that shadows were reality.

There are performances in Ubud.