The Republic of Indonesia (Indonesian: Republik Indonesia), an archipelagic nation in South East Asia of over 18,000 islands and hundreds of distinct ethnic and liguistic groups, is the world’s fourth most populous country. An important trade region since the early centuries CE, during which time the maritime and commercial empires of Srivijaya (7th-13th centuries) and Majapahit (13th-16th centuries) traded with India and China, Indonesia has assimilated foreign cultural and political models and religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Colonized by the Netherlands for three and a half centuries, Indonesia declared its independence in 1945.

In Indonesia, puppetry (wayang) and the related mask (topeng) performance are seen as the model for human theatre which is called wayang wong or wayang orang, literally “human puppetry”. The human dancer tries to emulate the movement of the puppet, perhaps because the figure can represent the ideal better than a mortal can. Puppetry is considered the oldest performance, the most prestigious art and the model for other theatres. (For an example of ritual figures on the island of Sulawesi the Celebes see Tau-Tau).

Though the 20th century has brought newer forms of puppetry influenced by Western television puppetry, most Indonesian puppet performances at the beginning of the 21st century remain rooted in the tradition of wayang. The term probably comes from bayang “shadow” and shadow theatre puppetry is considered the most important tradition. Wayang is a style of presenting traditional theatre in which a central puppet master/narrator called a dalang (dhalang in Javanese) is in control of both ritual and performative aspects of the presentation. He, or sometimes she, uses voice to deliver all the mood songs (suluk in Javanese), narration and dialogue, uses a wooden hammer played by hand or held between the toes to give cues to the musicians playing the gong chime (gamelan) orchestra. This hammer (cempala) creates musical and sound effects by striking the wooden puppet box. The puppeteer in Java and Sunda (West Java) also uses metal plates hanging on the puppet chest (kotak), tapping it with a foot to create percussive music and sound effects. Puppets dance in his hands. Shadow puppetry (wayang kulit) uses flat, perforated hide figures from 30-70 centimetres with three control rods: one central rod and two others attached to the hands. A related art which is often practised by puppet masters and their families is masked dance, topeng (“to press against the face”). Older, exorcistic forms of mask dance are, like puppetry, performed by a single person.

Other mediums in which a wayang performance is presented include painted scrolls (wayang beber), flat wooden figures (wayang klitik), 3-dimensional wooden rod puppets (wayang golek) or unmasked human dancers (wayang wong or wayang orang).

Theoretical Framework

Anthropologist Jane Belo doing research in Bali in the l930s theorized a “puppet complex” for Bali and Indonesia, explaining that this was a society which valued puppets, child dancers, or trance performers because, empty of ego, puppets or puppet-like individuals could allow the spirits to manifest more clearly. This desire for an ideal form for spiritual energy to appear may help explain why puppets were preferred to humans as vehicles for representation. It may also help clarify why dalang are traditionally associated with spiritual power (making holy water and curing ills are part of their traditional function).

Objects and the natural world in village thought are seen as potential resting places for sakti (spiritual power). This force circulates through nature, flowing into mountains, trees, animals (especially monkey, tiger, serpent/dragon, or horse), man-made objects (especially puppets, masks, kris daggers, and gongs), and humans. This power is everywhere, but can express itself more clearly when it has the appropriate vehicle. Art can be considered a process of creating objects or disciplining the body so it can allow this energy an outlet. Small refined objects, things or people that move slowly and with flowing gestures allow us to visualize the divine. Big, rough objects and jerky movement are ridden by the demonic.

Image making is old, widespread, and often associated with the dead. Among the Toraja of Sulawesi wooden sculptures are created of dead ancestors and installed in galleries high on cliff walls where the dead can continue to rain blessings on the living (see Tau-Tau). In Sumatra a sigale-gale (one metre tall figure) dances for the son a dead man never had at the man’s funeral. During harvest rites, in times past, figures of the slain rice goddess Dewi Sri would be made out of the cut rice stalks and installed in the rice storage shed until the next season when those same stalks would be planted first. Puppets are associated with the dead – both individual forbears and the general ancestress, the goddess of rice – and have power to reinvigorate life.

Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic mystical understandings hold that the microcosm (our individual life) and the macrocosm (the universe) are intertwined. They have added to animistic and ancestor veneration, and reinforce puppet/mask performance. Puppetry forces the solo dalang out of his own individual reality and into the multiplicity of characters that represent the cosmos. In becoming a performer, one learns to embody – through the puppet or mask – specific voices and movements that stretch the psyche. One person can be the refined hero, the mincing female, the strong minister, the demonic attacker, and the clown.

Most puppet/mask performance has a limited number of character types and the colouring of the figure’s face usually goes from white/light to red/dark. The light is usually associated with semen and male power, while the red is associated with menstruation and female power. The dalang who can embody both male and female power has similarity to the Hindu tantric who seeks to unite the female shakti and the male shiva, or the Taoist master who combines the yin and yang. Some genres, including the mask dance and wayang of the north coast of Java, have four or five specific types which are associated with the four directions and the centre and the elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether) in complex cosmological systems of alchemical thinking. The practice of puppetry and mask in such areas is thought to give one access to esoteric understandings.

Puppetry and solo mask performance are the tools that give the puppeteer access to power. As the deity animates the universe unseen yet everywhere, the dalang is in every figure but bigger than them all. Using the kayon (tree of life) puppet, which is a symbol of the macrocosm, the dalang speaks with the omniscient voice of the narrator, moulding the on-going narrative. In an Indonesian context playing the wayang or dancing the solo mask dance are ways to understand our full potential, which encompasses both the demonic and the divine. This respect for object performers probably began in animism, was re-configured in the Hindu-Buddhist period, reiterated in the Islamic period, and remains to the present.


It is probable that animistic use of figures came with the Malay migration  from mainland South East Asia  to the islands. The jalankung (West Java) or nini towong (Java), a doll figure made of a water dipper and animated by entranced girls, are probably a remnant of earlier trance ceremonies that used dolls to do fortune telling or create rain. The Balinese analogue is the sanghyang deling ceremony which uses small dancing dolls to induce trance. The Javanese bondan dance where a young girl dances with an umbrella and a doll are probably a related form: dancer and doll are harbingers of rain and good fortune.

In other old forms, which may be part of pre-Hindu traditions, we see performers who use horse figures (kuda kepang “bamboo horse” and kuda lumping “leather horse”), pigs (babi), tigers (macan), and lions (singa) to ride on or wear as body puppets. Once in trance, the performers become the animal. They execute astounding acts such as eating glass, tearing open coconuts with their teeth, walking on fire, or stabbing themselves with knives.

These two animistic forms exhibit themes that recur: female-children-puppets-rain-fertility in the first group and male-animals-death-defying acts in the second. Puppets have power to connect us with super-human powers.

From the 9th to the 15th Century

Scholars argue over whether wayang is an indigenous art, was imported from India, or if it has been influenced by China. The likely answer is that all three places have contributed to puppet practice, and influences in some eras may have flowed both ways. Indigenous Indonesian trance behaviours related to ancestors and objects as sites for spirits paved the way. Indian influence from at least the 9th century gave rise to an active puppet tradition presenting Indian epic stories, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. China has shared manipulation techniques and archetypes.

While puppetry in India today is not as developed as in Indonesia, the central narrator/storyteller, opening rituals, and other features are shared between these two regions. The Indonesian Hindu calendar is dated from 78 CE when it is said that Aji Saka, a Hindu culture bringer, arrived and spread literacy and religion. He and his alphabet figure prominently in the opening mantra of various wayang genres.

However, the first clear reference to wayang only comes in an inscription of 907 CE. In the court literature (kakawin) written between the 11th and 15th century are actual descriptions of puppetry. Arjuna Wiwaha (Arjuna’s Meditation, c.1035) states, “There are people who weep and are sad and aroused watching the puppets, though they know they are merely carved pieces of leather manipulated and made to speak.” Passages from the 12th century refer to gamelan playing at a wayang, and in the 14th century History of the Rajas of Pasai we hear that shadow play and other performances “went on day and night in the kingdom of Majapahit” (the last Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Java). A 16th century poem Kidung Sunda tells us that wayang was performed at the time of King Hayam Wuruk. Wayang beber (scroll puppetry) and wayang topeng (mask theatre) are also mentioned during this era.

Poetry reading and scroll narration are traditional, believed to be older, arts. Recitation of the court literature (kekawin) by literati may have inspired some to add scrolls for visual interest, creating wayang beber. The next step in this theoretical progression would be to create puppet shows by taking the figures out of the paintings and letting them dance. While these are only traditional understandings of a possible history, it is clear that puppetry was supported by courts. It popularized Hindu-Buddhist ideas, and translated the court literary language into a form accessible to all. The use of Kawi in wayang – a Sanskrit impacted language  not spoken by ordinary people – and the function of the clown to translate into indigenous language may have come from this period. Literature could not be generally understood without a performer-intermediary.

By the thirteenth century the bas relief on the temples of the East Javanese are replete with figures in “wayang style”. The images correspond iconographically to present day Balinese figures. Panels are set up as if the image were scenes on a shadow screen.  Clown translators appear in the frame in about the same position in which they are seen in Balinese wayang today.  

The Hindu-Buddhist period was the formative period for the wayang. With the fall of Majapahit by the 16th century, Hindu-Buddhists retreated to the hills or to Bali and a new Islamic synthesis of the art began in Java. Before addressing these changes, it is useful to consider Balinese practice, which continues to reflect Hindu culture.

Today, Bali’s 300 dalang say that they are the descendents of artists who fled Java in the 16th century. The ritual practices of the puppeteers in this Hindu region do probably have more in common with the pre-Islamic period than what we see on Java today. The streamlined troupe of five (until recently), the four-hour performance period, and the clearer linkages to ritual probably reflect older Javanese practice. Performances usually begin at 9 p.m. and are over by 1 a.m. Villagers usually watch the shadow side of the screen. Dalang study the Dharma Pawayangan (Book of the Dalang) to understand the art. Balinese dalang combine shamanic powers, philosophy, and entertainment in their shows.

Chinese Influence

Chinese Buddhist influence too had begun by this Hindu era of Java and impacts are seen in practices that remain at the beginning of the 21st century. Widespread traditions of large male and female puppets linked to fertility and body puppets similar to the Buddhist lion dance can be linked to Chinese models.

The male and female figures are known as barong landang in Bali and ondelondel in Jakarta. Such figures are usually found in regions where many Chinese settled. Lion figures called barong, probably influenced by China, were and are paraded for the Balinese new year. On Java, lion-like figures are also used for young boys to ride while celebrating their circumcision or carried in parade. These body puppets are thought by most Indonesians as indigenous creations, but they share many features with Chinese lions and may be part of a pan-Buddhist image of the inner animal that, when tamed, becomes a protective figure.

In Bali, the most significant barong is called banaspati raja (king of the forest) or barong keket and is also associated with the human afterbirth (considered the protective older sibling of the human). A well known performance of the Balinese barong today pits him against the witch Calonarang and usually involves a group of villagers who attempt to stab themselves with kris (daggers). Holy water can be made by dipping the barong‘s beard in a glass of the liquid.

Another related figure is found in Java’s reog ponorogo. A large mask of 60 kilograms has a lion-like face and a headdress made of peacock feathers. A young boy rides atop the stunning mask while other troupe members ride horse figures or wear masks of characters from the Panji story. Homosexual relations between the boy and troupe members were part of the practices in the period before Independence. In another form that may be related, West Java’s Singa-singaan in the Subang area, a martial arts troupe dances a lion figure on their shoulders as the circumcised boy rides above.

Recurring patterns here include an animal figure and martial dancers. Lion-like images probably represent wildness and sexual potency which must be channelled to benefit society. Trance behaviours, displays of weapons, fire walking, and other feats are often part of these processional performances, which are usually accompanied by drums, gongs and often a reed instrument. All these genres are ideologically related and may have come from (or contributed to) Chinese lion dances, where martial arts, animal dances, and exorcisms are similarly aligned.

It is possible that wood rod puppets (golek), which were popular along the north coast of Java, may also have developed under Chinese influence. Wooden rod puppetry is not as old as shadow genres and discussion of them rises more in the Islamic period. But the technique may have been seen earlier among Chinese immigrants. Purely Chinese glove puppets (po te hi) are also found among Chinese-Indonesians today, but glove puppetry is a less assimilated form and probably a recent import.

Wayang in Islamic Java of the 15th to 18th Century

Dalang of Java ascribe creation of the wayang performance to the wali, the saints who converted Java to Islam in the 15th to 16th centuries. The wali were wonder workers and history and mythology mix in what we hear of them. Sunan Gunung Jati of Cirebon was the founder of the kingdom of Cirebon. Legends of West Java claim that he first etched the shape of a wayang kulit purwa figure in the sand. Another wali, Sunan Kalijaga, was a reformed robber baron. He understood Gunung Jati’s intent and made the first shadow puppets to perform in the great mosque. To enter the performance viewers, it is said, converted to Islam. Another wali, Sunan Giri, supposedly created wayang (kulit) gedog to tell stories of Prince Panji in 1553. In l584, Sunan Kudus is said to have created wayang golek menak using rod puppets to present the story of Amir Hamzah, Prophet Mohhamed’s uncle. Other wali are credited with creating music for the show.

While wayang, of course, predates the 15th century, it is clear that many changes were introduced to the art in this time. Islamic artists of Sufi inclinations refashioned the puppet art in significant ways and did use it to propagate religious ideas. The elongated limbs and delicately pointed noses of the refined characters give a more abstract interpretation of the human form than we find in Balinese wayang and respond (in part) to the proscription on representation in Islam. The structure of a performance, which dates from this Islamic period, is said to mirror the human life as it moves from birth through adolescence to death. It is more carefully delineated than in Balinese wayang, reflecting the legacy of the Islamic mystics. The opening mantra that precedes a Javanese shadow puppet show describes a port city: “Ocean’s sands border it; mountains guard its rear. On its right lie fields of rice, to the left a great river leading to a harbour.” This is clearly a description of the Islamic coastal kingdoms, not the Central Javanese heartland. The enlarged gamelan orchestra of Javanese and Sundanese wayang is a legacy of this period as well.

The “Islamic” period must be seen as a period of integration between Islamic and Hindu thought. Dalang and poets created this synthesis: for example Ng. Rangawarsita  (1802-1874), a Surakarta court poet, in his Pustaka Raja (History of Kings) summarized many wayang stories in prose. He traced the historical descent of Javanese kings from the heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata on one side and the prophets of Islam on the other. His grand synthesis was rejected as bad history by the Dutch scholars resident in the Javanese courts, but his work was good art and continues to be explored by Javanese dalang to the present. Other significant Central Javanese artists were K.G. Boeminata, a younger brother of King Paku Buwana IV (l788-l820), who commissioned two famous sets of figures, still in the care of the Surakarta court. Boeminata taught B.P.K. Kusumadilaga, who wrote the Serat Sastramiruda which systematized music and outlined plays.

This period also brought the creation of Sundanese wayang golek purwa as puppet masters from the north coast migrated into the Sundanese highlands. What is believed to be the earliest set is on display at the Museum Pangeran (Prince’s Museum) in Sumedang, West Java.

The 20th Century

The 20th century has seen many new developments including formal education of puppeteers, increased involvement of puppeteers in politics, and commercialization of their activity.

The first formal schools for dalang were Padhasuka School (1923) in the Surakarta Court, Habirandha (1925) in Yogyararta, and PDMN (Pasinaon Dalang Mangkunegaran, 1931) at the Mangkunegaran Court in Surakarta. Schools emphasized court versions of songs, Kawi passages, and music. After independence from the Dutch in the 1950s, the government funded schools. KOKAR (Konservatori Karawitan Indonesia Indonesian Conservatory of Traditional Music) now SMKI (Sekolah Menengah Karawitan Indonesia High School of the Arts) taught wayang at the secondary level. Tertiary level institutions, ASTI (Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia Indonesian Academy of Dance), later STSI (Sekolah Tinggih Seni Indonesia Indonesian College of the Arts) were founded by l965. Some of these schools are now teaching wayang at full graduate level institutions: today as ISI (Institut Seni Indonesia [lier]Indonesian University of the Arts) in Solo (see ISI Surakarta), near Yogkakarta (ISI Yogyakarta), and Denpasar (see ISI Denpasar). These institutions emphasize written materials for teaching and research, modifying what was largely an oral tradition. “Correct” modes of performing, often related to the Surakarta court for Javanese style wayang, have often been emphasized over local variations. Technical aspects, such as music and movement, are practised while inner meaning may be deemphasized. Aesthetic and secular values may be privileged over esoteric aspects of wayang. Since the l970s, schools have taught women equally with men, though wayang remains largely a male art and professional dalang are still most often from families of puppeteers.


Another change has been the increasing politization of wayang. Especially since the advent of the Republic of Indonesia in 1949, puppeteers have negotiated complex political circumstances.

During the Sukarno (Soekarno) regime (term of office: 1945-1967), dalang were encouraged to use the art to help the nation modernize and strong democratic characters (Gatotkaca, Bima) were promoted as better models for the times than the refined aristocratic heroes such as Arjuna. New “branch stories” (carangan) which featured strong characters proliferated and dalang were hired by political parties to publicize their platform.

In 1965, Sukarno was ousted in immense turmoil. Many dalang who had ties to the Communist party (PKI) were imprisoned on the island of Buru or killed. As a result, active dalang of the 1970s chose their affiliations very carefully. Until the fall of  President Suharto (Soeharto), the successor to Sukarno, in 1998 a strict system of registration was applied to all performances. While political critique remained part of the performances, allegory and metaphor replaced direct statements.The Suharto government had many “up-gradings” for dalang and sought to use them as a mass media for communicating government programmes. Dalang espoused issues they found good for society (such as family planning) but ommited some other government campaigns.

The government worked to formalize the practice of wayang. Organizations like the Persatuan Padalangan Indonesia (PEPADI, Dalang Union of Indonesia) and Sekretariat Nasional Pewayangan Indonesia (SENAWANGI, Indonesian National Sekretariat of Wayang) were established in the 1970s and the National Wayang Museum (Museum Wayang) in Jakarta became responsible for festivals or exhibitions as wayang was touted as a pan-Indonesian art. Since 1998, censorship has lessened, but puppeteers today remain politically aware and self-censor when appropriate.


Over the 20th century much debate occurred over modernization of the art. Courts seek to make the art more systematic and refined. Schools seek to make it more aesthetic, technical, or scholarly. Government seeks to make it reflect set political views or social programmes. But dalang are probably more concerned about how to maintain audiences in times of modernization and mass media. The rise of the female singer(s) (pesinden, Javanese: sindhen) as co-stars with the puppeteer have helped keep viewers, but has eaten into narrative time for the dalang, sometimes causing disgruntlement. Changes in how people celebrate life cycle ceremonies have led to fewer performances, while television, film, video, rock concerts, digital media, and multi-media displays offer alternative entertainments. Dalang from the l950s to the 21st century have embarked on many experiments (multiple dalang performances, digital projections), created new stories, and heeded entertainment value, but performance, while adding more female singers and other mixed entertainments, have often returned to the traditional model of one dalang since newer performances tend to be costly and require complex rehearsals. And ultimately watching one master dalang is probably more awe inspiring than a group.  


Since the 1980s, Western forms of puppetry were available in the media. On television, children watched Si Unyil, a child figure in television puppetry. In this period, dalang sought innovated figures with more movement possibility, with foam heads and realistic expressions, or trick figures were part of the innovations. Musical styles mixed gamelan from different areas of Indonesia and might add a rock beat. During the economic boom of the Suharto years, top dalang performed almost every night for substantive fees. Dalang Nartosabdho, Ki Manteb Soedarsono, and Ki Anom Suroto were known wherever people spoke Javanese; Dalang Asep Sunandar Sunarya was known to all Sundanese speakers; I Wayan Wija was known all over Bali. Tapes and CDs of their performances were sold in shops. The next generation dalang who have emerged as stars include Javanese Dalang Purbo Asmoro and “dalang gila” Ethus Susmono, and Balinese superstar Dalang Cenk Blonk (Ceng Blong).

At the beginning of the 21st century, campursari (mixed entertainment) is the rage and pop music, stand up comedy, multiple female singers, and three dalang presenting on three screens may be part of a wayang event.

In 2005, dalang debate, as they have for the last 100 years, the innovations in wayang. Conservatives decry the changes but the puppet masters who will carry the form forward continue, as did their forefathers before them, to respond to a changing world, working to keep the puppet art important to Indonesian culture.

(See also Jlitheng Suparman, Ledjar Subroto, Panut Darmoko, Papermoon Puppet Theatre, Semar, Sigit Sukasman, Slamet Gundono, Timbul Hadiprayitno, Tjetjep Supriadi, Wawan Gunawan.)


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