What to Look for in Balinese Shadow Puppets


One of my earliest memories is of watching a shadow puppet performance in our village temple in Ubud at night. I must have been about five years old and was totally mesmerized. That was a long time ago but the art is still as strong as ever and I am still captivated by it. I collect the puppets and have an old set of over a hundred in a big wooden box. One of the challenges is identifying the characters, but there are clues, which I shall reveal. I sell old ones as well as new ones from my shop, Murni’s Warung Shop in Ubud and also from my web site www.murnis.com. They are very popular as unusual decorative items.



Shadow puppets are an old art form and were mentioned in a Balinese inscription dated 896 AD. A Balinese royal inscription of 1053 mentions a performance. They are instructive, entertaining and religious, and have had a profound effect on Balinese arts. They bring together dance, drama, literature, visual art and music. The puppeteer or dalang has to be an expert in all these arts: it is a one man (or woman) show, and very impressive.

The puppeteer sits cross-legged behind a large, white cloth. A flickering coconut-oil lamp casts shadows on the screen. The puppets are made of flat buffalo or cow hide and two assistants sit on either side of the puppeteer and hand him the puppets. I always like to go behind the screen and have a look. The stories concentrate on scenes from the epics, especially the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. We, the audience, know the stories well and can start watching a performance at any point.

The puppets are made of cowhide with a tapering buffalo horn or wooden handle. Each puppet is chiselled, coloured and has a conventional headdress, which provides instant recognition. The style has hardly changed in hundreds of years. They have long necks and arms, and toes that are not in the correct position. The eyes and headdress are the most important parts of the puppet, because the eyes reveal expression and the headdress indicates status.

Noble characters, like royalty, have light bodies, straight noses, flat teeth in slightly open, slightly smiling mouths and slit, almond-shaped eyes. Their legs are close together. Examples are Arjuna and Karna. They speak in high voices. Noble princesses are small and slim, large breasted, with flowing hair, narrow waists and slender hips.

Less refined males have neat moustaches. Further down the scale, there is more facial and body hair and eyes become round. They speak in louder, deeper voices. Examples are Bima and his son Gatotkaca, whose mother Arimbi was a demon. At the bottom of the scale are the coarse characters, like the ogres, who have hairy, muscular, red or brown bodies, thick hands, pointed teeth and bulbous, round eyes.

Body colours represent values in Balinese society, for example, white represents purity, green fertility and black evil. The gods have their own colours. Wisnu is green or black, Siwa is white and Brahma is red. Some attributes are restricted to certain characters. Bayu, the god of wind and his sons, Hanuman and Bima, have a large, lethal thumb-nail. Only these characters, and Tualen, wear a black and white chequered poleng sarong. All the monkeys in Rama’s monkey army are black, except Hanuman, who is white.

The Kayonan is the most important puppet, in the shape of the tree of life. It is also a palace. The dalang waves it to indicate the start of the story. It swoops, trembles and flutters and brings the puppets to life and indicates scene changes and the end of the performance. The dalang speaks in Kawi, which few understand. For the benefit of the audience, four clowns translate and comment in Balinese. The clowns are the most popular characters and can be very funny.

There are usually four gamelan instruments called Gender Wayang, which comprise the gender or xylophone, the rebab or two-stringed lute, the drum and the gong. The dalang directs the music and also sings songs. The music announces entrances, supports the dialogue, creates a benevolent atmosphere, and adds excitement to dramatic scenes.

If you can, I would recommend that you try and attend a performance in Bali. Even if you don’t understand much, you will certainly enjoy the atmosphere and marvel at the skill of the dalang.

Ubud, Bali

Ni Wayan Murni is the owner of Murni’s Warung, the first real restaurant in Ubud, Murni’s Warung Shop, Murni’s Villas and Murni’s Houses. Her web site www.murnis.com is Bali’s leading on-line resource centre. She has been the co-author to a new book ‘Secrets of Bali’ to be published later this year.

What to Look for in Balinese Shadow Puppets