Wayang Kulit From Indonesia

Wayang kulit is a famous traditional form of puppetry in Indonesia, mainly in Java and Bali. ‘Wayang’ means ‘shadow’ in Javanese and ‘kulit’ means leather or skin. ‘Wayang’ has come to mean ‘puppet’ in Bahasa Indonesia, and is applied to the three forms of Javanese puppets: wayang kulit (shadow puppets), wayang klitik (flat wood puppets), and wayang golek (rod puppets).


The wayang kulit art form may be over 800 years old. The fact that the story is told using shadows is very important since moving shadows can be seen but never touched. One belief was that the souls of the ancestors were brought to life as shadows that provided advice and support. So wayang kulit performances have a spiritual and magical significance for Javanese and Balinese people. Everyone present at a shadow puppet performance is believed to be protected from evil influences while the play lasts. People will sponsor a performance to give thanks for someone recovering from illness. 

The screen represents the white universe in which people live their lives. The bright side of the screen represents the material world in which we live. The darker side represents the mysterious after-life. The blencong or oil lamp was often in the shape of the Garuda bird, and represents the rays of the sun which give life to every living thing. 

The puppets
The puppets are usually made from flattened buffalo hide with buffalo horn rods for support. The only moving parts are one or both arms, which may be hinged at the shoulder and elbow. The traditional cast of characters are intricately patterned and coloured. There are as many as 500 wayang kulit figures in an aristocratic set and as few as 100 in a village set. The manufacture of the puppets is very complicated and involves several different artisans.

Balinese puppets tend to be more realistic than those of Java. This may reflect religious differences between mainly Hindu Bali and mainly Muslim Java, as Islam forbids the depiction of the human form.


There may be several puppets for the one character. Depending on what the character is doing, the puppet will be shown with different clothing and with different colours to indicate its mood. Gold represents harmony, love of beauty and the finer things in life; dignity and calmness. Black represents more reflective, inward-looking characteristics, calmness and control; but sometimes anger and strength. Red represents physical strength, but a tempestuousness or fury. White represents flexible characters that are knowledgeable and full of life, as well as innocence, youth or purity.