Javanese Shadow Puppet

Plays that tell stories of the Hindu religion

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.


This puppet was made in 1994 by a craftsman called Pak Bari, in Tulunagung, East Java. The puppet is cut from a stiff leather parchment, made from the hide of a water buffalo, with the features and costume chiselled out and painted. Three horn rods are tied on to the back of the puppet to operate it.

Shadow puppets such as this one were traditionally used to teach people the stories of the Hindu religion, in particular the Mahabharata. The stories were handed down through generations by oral tradition, which means that the Javanese versions of the story have evolved through time, with storytellers adding details.


Puppets like these are used in shadow plays which are performed behind a large white sheet, so that the puppets cast a moving shadow on the sheet. A single puppeteer, known as a dalang operates all of the puppets used in the play. Performances typically last from 9 o’clock at night until 6 o’clock in the morning!


At one time the audience was divided, with women and children watching the shadows on the white screen, whilst men sat on the same side as the puppeteer. This meant that only the men in the audience could see the intricate detailing on the puppets. Nowadays, all the audience watches together.


Hide - an animal skin is sometimes known as a hide. The hides of buffalo are used to make Javanese shadow puppets.

Mahabharata - The Mahabharata is a story from ancient India which has been passed down through many many generations. It is not known exactly when the story was first told, but it is thought to have been around the 8th or 9th Century BC.

Oral Tradition - Oral tradition is the practice of telling stories by spoken word. Often stories are passed down through generations and as they are told by different people, more details are added to the original story. Because of this, stories can change and evolve over time.


Discussion Ideas:

  • Why do you think the audience used to be divided into sections for men and women? Why do you think this has now changed?
  • Look at the design of the puppet. The puppet has an oversized head. Why do you think the puppets might have been designed in this way?
  • Traditionally, Javanese shadow plays were used to tell religious stories. Why do you think religious stories were told in entertaining ways such as by theatre?
  • Storytelling plays a big part in many religions and cultures. Can you think of other ways religious stories are told?

Activity Ideas:

  • Play 'Chinese Whispers' in your class. One person should start by telling a short story to another person in the class. That person should re-tell it to the next person, until the whole class has heard and told the story. The last person tells the story to the rest of the class, so they can compare it to the original tale.
  • Make your own shadow puppet using cardboard, paper fasteners and string to operate the puppet. Think about the features of the puppets and how you will make them all look different behind a sheet with a light shining on them.
    The Related Links at the bottom of the page might help.
  • You could also create your own shadow play using the puppets you have made. Choose a popular story and transform it into a play. 


The map below shows where this shadow puppet was made:  

Document icon Learning article provided by: South East Asia Museum | 
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