It has been suggested that Wayang puppet has been around since the 10th Century, during the kingdom of Prabu Airlangga in East Java. Several ancient artifacts with reference to words “mawayang” and “aringgit”, meaning Wayang performance, from that era shows that Wayang started to evolve in this island.

Wayang is an art of puppet theater and story telling. In the beginning, the stories were adapted from India to spread Hindu’s teaching. They were often stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. These tales were then adapted by Indonesian poets since the 10th Century, written in artistic language and became part of ancient Indonesian oral literature. One of them is the script of Kakawin, in Javanese language, from the period of King Dyah Belitung.

As one of Indonesian highest arts and heritages, Wayang is very close to the heart of the people. Everybody in rural and urban areas love the performance. In Java, people hold the shadow puppet theater in the highest esteem. In the beginning, it even used to be reserved for ritual ceremonies. The progress of Wayang goes rapidly among the society. The plot of the stories has always changed in response to the current social conditions. In the past, they used to tell fiction stories about kingdoms, empires, and colonialism that seeded the spirit of patriotism. Now they have evolved into entertainment with anecdotes filled with social criticism.

The art requires acting, singing, narrative, literature, music, and crafting skills. Dalang, the master puppeteer, plays the most important role in the performance as he operates all the puppets, performs all the narration and dialogue, sings the songs, and directs the musicians. He must be highly skilled to manipulate, direct, sing and story-tell; for example, if he is using both hands to hold puppets, he would use his foot to cue the signals to the musicians. Gamelan music accompaniment is performed to help the story comes alive. Throughout the performance, tempo, rhythm, and mode change to create the desired atmosphere. The theater would be performed during evening until dawn; and the whole performance could last for as long as eight hours, with no intermission.


The word Wayang derives from wewayangan, meaning shadow. Obviously, the oldest form of Wayang is shadow puppet, which progressed mainly in the island of Java.

The word explains the performance process which relies on moving shadows that appear on a stretched white cloth. This piece of cloth functions as the screen. The Dalang moves the leather puppets behind a lit white cloth, creating moving images, or shadows, to tell the stories. The audiences watch the performance from the other side of the Dalang. Commonly called Wayang Kulit, or leather wayang, the two-dimensional puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on wood or bamboo stick as the handle. Most of Wayang Kulit are made with the head facing to the side and the torso, arms, and knee facing to the front.

Here are few kinds of Wayang Kulit and their origins:

  • Wayang Kulit Gagrag Yogyakarta (Central Java)
  • Wayang Kulit Gagrag Surakarta (Central Java)
  • Wayang Kulit Gagrag Banyumasan (Central Java)
  • Wayang Bali (Bali)
  • Wayang Kulit Banjar (South Kalimantan)
  • Wayang Palembang (South Sumatera)
  • Wayang Betawi (Jakarta)
  • Wayang Cirebon (West Java)


Wayang Golek is another form of Wayang made from wooden puppet. Its birth was much inspired by the beauty of leather Wayang. This three-dimensional puppets are made much more to human shape than leather Wayang. They are also dressed with batik clothes. What has become the appeal of Wayang Golek is the freedom that comes with creating the Wayang; it is made according to the story. The artist could adjust the color or clothes to build the characters. As a venue of theater performance, its popularity has spread out especially in West Java. Historically, this Wayang started to evolve since the period of Padjajaran kingdom, sometimes in 10th to 12th Century and truly developed in the 16th Century during the golden age of Sunan Gunung Jati. At this time, Wayang Golek was to be used for the spread of Islam.

Local community in West Java recognizes these three common types of Wayang golek:

  • Wayang Golek Cepak: the plots are based on ancient legends, using local language.
  • Wayang Golek Purwa: the plots are based on Ramayana and Mahabharata stories, using local language.
  • Wayang Golek Modern: the plots are based on Mahabharata story, using electricity for its performance tricks.

Today Wayang Golek functions as folk theater in social gatherings and ceremonies, such as weddings, birthdays, etc.


Similar to both Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek is Wayang Klithik. The word comes from the sound it makes when played by the Dalang, klithik-klithik. It is constructed like Wayang Kulit, a two-dimensional figure, but made from wood as Wayang Golek. The down side of this Wayang is its material; the wood is more vulnerable than Wayang Kulit’s buffalo hide. During battle scenes, the puppets sometimes sustain some damages, which meant expensive, newly made figures, especially in the 1970s when no strong glue was available in the area. Due to the material, it is less expensive to produce than Wayang kulit.

Another famous type of Wayang is Wayang Wong, meaning human Wayang. People act and sing in Wayang Wong performance, comparable to that in western musical theater. They wear clothes and make ups similar to those in leather and Wayang Golek. Bright colors to emphasize each characters are often used. Costumes are very important as they highlight the personalities along with the actors’ body gestures and movements. Clearly, Dalang is not needed in this performance as the people converse or sing to portray their characters. Music still play significant role to support the mood. This Wayang, born in around 18th Century, started in the Kraton of Jogjakarta and Surakarta, Central Java. Originally, it was performed exclusively for aristocrats inside the wall of Kraton, or Javanese Court, for sacred purposes. At the end of 19th Century, Wayang Wong in Kraton of Jogjakarta still maintained its original purpose, while in Kraton of Surakata the Wayang became more secular and more accessible to public. In this area, the Wayang was even performed commercially where people needed to buy tickets to see the performance. Today, Wayang Wong is widely performed as entertainment for community everywhere.


Other kinds of Wayang, despite their less popularity, also exist. Wayang Beber is a story telling that uses paintings or scrolls as the visual image and music as the background. The Dalang plays the gong as cues to the Gamelan musicians as he unrolls the scrolls and narrates or sings the story’s details. The scrolls contains artistic paintings to illustrate the stories. A few scrolls of images are still preserved in museums today. This process of story telling is similar to that performed in Europe during medieval age.




Wayang Suket, also called Wayang Rumput, is intended for playing games and telling stories to little children. This Wayang is made from dried grass. A less recognized type, Wayang Potehi, also exist with its strong influence from Chinese culture.












By the story, there are several types of Wayang. Wayang Purwa, meaning the first Wayang, is obviously believed to be the oldest one. The plots are taken from Ramayana and Mahabharata. From these two Hindu epic, the plots then developed to tell stories about Panji, or noble knights, in Wayang Gedog or Wayang Panji during the kingdom of Kediri and Majapahit. In the 20th Century, some modern Wayang were born with adaptation to current situation. Wayang Wahyu was created by Javanese Jesuit priests to spread Catholic teachings during the 1960s. By using a medium that was already loved and appreciated, it was an effective and appropriate method for local community to tell bible stories and to teach God’s messages. Alternatively, papers were used to substitute the more expensive buffalo hide. Similarly, Wayang Sadat was used by Kyai (teachers of Islam) to teach Islam principles. Indonesian Government also sponsored Wayang Revolusi, Wayang stories based on Indonesia’s struggles for independence during Dutch’s colonization, as well as Wayang Pancasila, which was based on the five nation’s principle of Pancasila. Wayang for kids, called Wayang Kancil, was also born to present suitable stories for little children. The most common themes are fables with Kancil, a fictive clever character, as the center of the stories. Like the other Wayang types, Wayang Kancil provides wisdoms of life that are age-appropriate.

In its development, few adaptations of Wayang took place naturally to relate stories from foreign cultures to local people. Obviously, new or alternative characters were needed to deliver the messages effectively. Punakawan, four added characters of clown servants to Pandawa, or princes in Mahabharata epic, is one of the examples. This adapted characters, born in Javanese Wayang, are much loved by locals since they portray common people and provide practical jokes, sometimes slapstick humors to the stories. They deliver messages of wisdom and humility in simple and humorous ways that are easily digested by many.

People living outside of Java also recognize Wayang. Most of these Wayang follow the same style as the oldest one, Javanese Wayang Kulit, with adaptations to local languages.

In Bali, most Wayang are performed with sacred purposes in mind as part of ceremonies. Mantras are usually recited before and after the performances by a priest, which also plays the characters as a Dalang. The ceremonies also include presentations of holy water and offerings. Wayang Purwa, being the oldest Wayang with its Hindu influence, is performed frequently in Bali. This Wayang is commonly accompanied by Gamelan Gender and performed at nights. Few other types of Wayang in Bali are Wayang Gambuh, Wayang Arja, and Wayang Leah, or Daytime Wayang.


The influence of Javanese shadow puppet has also made its way up to South Kalimantan, called Wayang Kulit Banjar. Since the 14th Century during the kingdom of Dipa, people in this area have appreciated the art form. In the beginning, its purpose was to spread Islam teachings from the kingdom of Demak in Java. The shape and method of performance are similar to Javanese Wayang Kulit; the difference is its smaller size and simpler decoration and color to emphasize more on the shadows rather than the appearance of the Wayang. Themes of the story are adapted from Ramayana and Mahabharata with a new character, Carang, which then become more popular. Local language, Bahasa Banjar, is used with few different ways of performing, such as the absence of Pesindhen and the different type of musical instruments in their Gamelan. In the same region, there are other types of Wayang such as Wayang Gong, Wayang Sampir to cast out evil spirits, Wayang Karasmin to entertain, Wayang Tahun to celebrate annual harvests, Wayang Tatamba and Wayang Topeng. The last one is kind of Javanese Wayang Wong with masks.

Wayang Palembang in Sumatra has absorbed Javanese influence also. In the east of Indonesia, Wayang Sasak is recognized in the island of Lombok.

Wayang, once predominantly a Javanese culture, has widely evolved into a world cultural expression. On November 7, 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Wayang Kulit (puppet shadow) as a cultural heritage of the entire world originating from Indonesia. The Wayang puppet theater is incorporated on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on November 4th, 2008.






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