Wayang theatre is considered to be a highlight of Javanese culture.   Over the centuries its religious character has increasingly developed into a distinct art form; foreign influences introduced new stories, characters were added, and new refined styles were developed at the courts. There are various types of wayang, but, in Java, the most important is the wayang purwa, which uses kulit (flat cut-outs of painted leather puppets) whose shadows are projected on a large white screen. Wayang purwa makes use of the purwa repertoire: the oldest stories about cosmic events and divine will are represented; the course of events is seen as being predestined, part of a cosmic law. The Javanese word purwa means ‘beginning’ or ‘first’ and derives, probably, from the Sanskrit parwan, a word used to denote the chapter of the Mahabharata.

Although the origins of wayang purwa have been subject to intense scholarly debate in the last part of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth centuries, its precise origins remain elusive. Some scholars view the wayang as an ancestor cult, connected with dual organization initiation rites in which young men learned the secrets of the tribe. Wayang is clearly of Javanese origin with animistic features. Originally it was not individuals who were depicted on stage but legendary beings. These mythical figures, represented by the most important puppets, were used to explain the relationship between heaven and the human society; and the origin and the structure of the world. The introduction of narratives, such as the Indian epics, increased the number of puppets and brought more individuality to the characters.  The wayang is part of the religious complex constructed around the concepts of aulus-kasar, lair-batin and rasa. Aulus means pure, refined, polished, exquisite, ethereal, subtle, civilized, smooth. Kasar is merely the opposite: impolite; rough; uncivilized. Lair means «the outer realm of human behaviour»; batin «the inner realm of inner experience.»
Rasa has two primary meanings: ‘feeling’ and ‘meaning’. As ‘feeling’ indicates both feeling from without (taste, touch) and from within (emotional); as ‘meaning’ indicates the implicit import, the connotative ‘feeling’ of dance movements, polite gesture and so forth.

Traditionally a performance last an entire night, starts soon after sunset with an overture (talu) of gamelan music and continues without a break until dawn. The audience is not expected to sit silently, people meet friends and talk to them, look around, sometimes they get a snack from the stall, those who need to rest take a nap, the point being not the content of the story but the ritual efficacy of the performance. Sometimes people regard the puppets themselves as being entered by spirits during the performance; and a good dalang (puppeteer) is often said to be entranced.
From experience everyone more or less knows how a wayang play will proceed, and the exciting parts that they like to watch: the fight scenes and, in particular, the moment when the hero appears with his servants (panakawan) at midnight. According to tradition, any one at wayang performance is safe from evil influences which normally plague people, even though they may be so far from the screen that they can barely hear the voice of the dalang.



The making of shadow puppets is a long and painstaking process. Skin of a female buffalo of about four years of age, the ideal type for texture and strength, is dried, scraped and cured for up to ten years to achieve stiffness and eliminate warping and splitting. On maturity, skin are carved and pierced to fashion the required character. This technique involves extensive knowledge of iconography and physiognomy, since all lines – angles of the head, slant of the eyes and mouth, profile of the body – are specific to the the character. When carving is completed, the traditional pigments including powdered burnt bone for white, lampblack, indigo, yellow ochre and cinnabar for red in a gelatinous medium mixed from dried egg-white. Gold leaf and pigment are applied in a medium of protein glue derived from fish bones. The cempurit, or manipulating rods, are made of buffalo horn, while the studs attaching the jointed arms to the torso are of metal (sometimes gold), bone, bamboo or, in rare courtly examples, gold studded with diamond.
In a wayang kulit performance the shadow of the puppets are cast on to a white fabric screen (kelir) in a wooden frame. The puppets are fastened to a tortoise-shell stick, running from head to below their feet, at which point the dalang grasps the stick as a sort of handle. The arms, the only movable parts, have the cempurit – short sticks attached to them – which the dalang holds in the same hand and manipulates with his fingers. He holds the puppets up in either hand over his head and interposes them between the light and the screen. If they are nobles, as most are, he must be doubly careful never to let them get lower than his head. From the dalang’s side of the screen one thus sees the puppets themselves and their shadows rising up dominant on the screen behind them. From the reverse side of the wayang screen, one sees the shadow of the puppets only. Over the head of the dalang there is a special brass oil lamp (blencong) often shaped like the mythical bird Garuda. The light shining from the lamp on the head of the dalang – and making possible the projection of the shadow of the puppets on the screen – represents the divine light infused through the upper chakra in the dalang (intermediary between gods and humans). The puppets symbolize the original entities, or the celestial archetypes; the white screen represents the World. Thus, thanks to divine light, the ‘shadow’ of the archetypes are projected onto the  phenomenal world, where the dialectic of opposites takes place, but the world is, and remains, a ‘word of shadows’.

In front of the dalang, and parallel to the screen, there are two banana tree trunks, one a little higher than the other, into which the puppets are jabbed with their pointed handles when they are not in use. Members of the just party are placed on the right side, and members of the unjust party on the left. The highest ranking figures are placed on the higher trunk. To the left of the dalang there is a rectangular chest (kotak) in which the puppets and other props are kept. The chest has some small wooden or metal plates attached to it, called keprak or kekrek, which the dalang, sitting cross-legged in front of the screen during the performance, tinkles with his right foot to indicate the fury of the elements, the din of battle or the roaring of a giant. Using his left hand, he taps the inside of the chest with a small horn (cempala) or a wooden hammer (tabuh keprak) to guide the gamelan players sitting behind him. The lid of the chest sits on the right of the dalang and contains the puppets he wants to keep handy. Near the dalang there is also a bowl of incense (padupan) which is lit at the beginning of the performance, and a  bowl (sajen) with sacrifices for the spirits which might include food or flowers. Musical accompaniment dates from as late as the eighteenth century; gamelan music is essential to a wayang performance, and the music is especially selected for each performance. The gamelan orchestra presents to the ear the picture of the inner life the shadow-play presents to the eye. It is an entirely percussion orchestra, which may consist of as many as fifty  instruments in a very large court ensemble. There are several tonal scales or modes, but in wayang purwa the music is mostly in salendro, the five-tonal scale of Javanese gamelan music, with approximately equal intervals between the tones (barang, gulu, dada, lima, nem). The music expresses the atmosphere of the various sections of the performance and accentuates the movements and words of the puppets. Some wayang characters have their own particular melodies, associated with their personalities and moods.




A dalang is highly respected and is often believed to possess supernatural qualities – especially healing – because of his position as mediator between people, gods and spirits. Linguistically, the word dalang is thought to be associated with langlan, which means ‘to go round’ something. A dalang is a ‘wanderer’, but also a ‘diviner’, a protector in a religious or magical sense. The work of the dalang is difficult because he needs to have many talents and to conform to a number of court-derived prescriptions and traditions: antawacana (intonation), to make the distinction between the voice of each character, all of which have their own characteristic voice, and whose register and sound are determined by the combination of the shape of the eyes and the position of the head. A dalang has nine voices for the main figures, as well as the typical language of each one; rengep (to involve completely), to keep the performance alive; enges (emotion), to create interest in the characters and involve and move the audience, for instance, during a dialogue between lovers; tutug (eloquence), to recite prescribed dialogues or pagedongan (traditional, fixed explanations); banyol (comedy), to  make the audience laugh; sabet (flow, wave), to handle the puppets correctly, and properly distinguish between their movements, especially during fight scenes; kawiraja (kawi refers to the old Javanese mode of speech, raja means ‘prince’), to be able to recite the traditional eulogy prior to the performance; parama-kawi (parama is the Sanskrit word meaning ‘high’), to correctly explain the nicknames of the kings and nobles in the performance; amardi-basa (to focus on language), to know the different ways that gods, giants or humans speak in their various social positions (hierarchy is strongly embedded in the Javanese language, which has two completely separate vocabularies: if the listener has a higher status krama is used, but if he has a low status ngoko is used); parama-sastra, to know the writings (layang) on which a performance may be based, and which are necessary to determine the content of the suluk (narrative announcements) and greget saut (pieces of music); awicarita (knowledge of many tales), to know all the tales referred to in a performance, the character depicted by each puppet, and the significance of each stage requisite; amardawa-lagu (melodious singing), to know the verse measure and singing techniques which are used in performance. A dalang also needs to observe the following courtly prohibitions: he may not change the form of a performance once it is recorded in the pakem (handbooks of the court); he may not show any preference for a character; he may not show himself during a performance, or speak out of turn; he may not focus criticism on anyone, or anger his audience; he may not make uncouth jokes; he must make sure that the performance lasts for the correct duration and that each aspect of the performance lasts the appropriate time.



To signal the beginning and the end of the performance – but also strong emotions, scene changes, the elements of fire, earth, air and water – the dalang uses the gunungan, the most important requisite in the wayang theatre. The gunungan (gunung, mountain) or kayon (forest) is a representation of the ancient Tree motif originating from India. This consist of two parts: a mountain and a tree. The Tree motif is rendered as a combination of two different trees: the fig tree rooted in heaven; and the earthbound lotus tree rising from the waters. The former, placed above, has implanted its root in the top of the stem of the tree-shaped lotus. The lotus is the very symbol of life springing from the water. The celestial fig tree represents ‘creative breath’ or fire, which is as essential in creating life as the water’s essence. In the Javanese gunungan the lotus part can assume an hourglass form, with a small building with a pair of closed doors, or that of a lake or pot filled with water. Guardians stands on both sides of the stronghold. Their task is to guard treasures, particularly the mount Meru (heavenly mountain), and the liquid elixir of life. A pair of huge wings flank the upper half. The shape of these wings may actually be derived from lotus leaves or other vegetation. The gate building with closed doors can be understood as female, whereas the tree represents the male. Together and united they form life.  The gunungan is placed in the centre of the screen before the drama begins, separating the opposed groups of characters that lie to the right and left of the dalang. The meditation undertaken by the dalang before the performance seeks a train of associations leading from the gods of the Hindu pantheon to the kayon. During the performance, the gunungan is the backdrop with which time and space are delineated, and it determines the atmosphere. Its association with the Tree of Paradise makes it an apt image to suggest the idyllic world of the kingdoms of the wayang lakons (plays) before the activities of men and supernatural beings upset the ideal balance.

A lakon, the Javanese word for ‘play’, is an adaptation of the classical wayang literature for wayang performances, and is divided into fixed sections, these being related to religious overtones of consecration and entering a new state. The word lakon is derived from laku, which means ‘go’ or ‘act’, but can also imply ‘adventure’ or ‘journey’ Each section can be seen as a stop along the journey towards perfection. The transition from one section to the next is marked by suluk, the dalang’s recitative announcement of what is about to happen. The wayang purwa repertoire consists of four different performance cycles: the first, the preamble, deals with the origins of the world and the vicissitudes of the gods, and is inspired by both the Adiparwa, the prologue of the Mahabharata, and ancient Indonesian tales; the second, the Arjuna Sasra Bau cycle, deals with the lineage of several prominent characters of the Ramayana, including the birth of the twelve-headed giant known as Ravana or Dasamuka, and his opponent Arjuna Sasra Bau, he of a thousand arms, an incarnation of the god Visnu; the third cycle, the Rama cycle, is based on the Ramayana, and tells the story of the errant hero Rama, who goes in search of his wife Sita kidnapped by the giant Ravana; the fourth cycle, the Pandawa cycle is based on episodes from the Mahabharata, the story of the struggle between the five Pandawa brothers (Yudistira, Bima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sadewa) who rule the country of Amarta and the hundred Korawa brothers of Ngastina (led by Suyodana, Sakuni, Dorna and Karna, the dissident half-brother to the Pendawa) which ends with the disastrous battle (Baratayuda) lasted eighteen days during which the champions from each side face one another.

Wayang stories states the formulation of how is action possible, given compassion. Their philosophy is that insofar as one can perceive ultimate reality, which is within oneself as an ultimate feeling (rasa), one will be free of the distracting effect of earthly emotions, not only compassion, but anger, fear, love, hope, despair, and all. This gives one great power, either for good, as in the case of the Pendawa, or for evil, as in the case of the Korawa. Good and evil are human values only, and God is in in everything, the hate and the cruelty as well as the love and the compassion; and everything is in God.



The Pandawa, especially Arjuna, are always accompanied by their five loyal servants clown by the name of panakawan: Semar, a very fat man with big belly and enormous buttock; and his sons Gareng, with his misshapen arms and cross-eyes; Petruk, a tall man with a very long nose; Topog and Bagong, with a squat body and very big eyes. Semar’s sons have been brought to life by their father’s practice of meditation. They live in the village of Karang Kabolotan, bolot means human body's dirt. Panakawan (pana means ‘clear vision, clever’ and kawan means ‘companion’), thus, those who have clear vision and that can give a wise advice. Although they are only servants, with ugly faces and disproportional bodies, they are very wise and good advisers. On the stage, the most pathetic scenes are often interrupted by the panakawan. This occurs especially during the gara-gara, the climax and turning point of the performance. There is a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous; wisdom easily becomes foolishness and vice versa. Humour and satire have a protective and strengthening power and are the counterbalance for passion, despair, and other deep feelings which may disturb the harmony with their intensity. The Javanese word for clown, badut, is derived from badot, meaning ‘healer’. The panakawan are thought to be purely Javanese by origin because of their roles as mediators. They always refer to the ksatrias as «Ndara Den Bagus» (ndara, from bendara,means ‘master’; den, abbreviation of Raden, a male court title; bagus means good and handsome), the whole meaning being «Master, do a good things».


Semar or Sang Hyang Ismaya, the oldest and most important of the panakawan, was originally a god, ‘the twin brother of heaven’. He is the elder brother of the highest god, Batara Guru. As a punishment for a misdeed he was given a grotesque form and sent to earth to serve the descendants of the gods (ksatrias). He is the guide of the hero on a journey full of tribulations which the hero must overcome before achieving his goal.

The name Semar comes from the word samar (vague) and, as a master of secret theology (kyai lurah), he can be called ‘mysterious’. His words are from se[ngsem] (to lure) and mar[sudi] (to search, to do) meaning that one is lured to search or do good things.  The other names of Semar are:Badranaya: badra means ‘dark cloud’; naya means ‘face’. As a clever man, one has to have a bright face (has to be happy, do not appear with dark face); Bojagati: boja (food) symbolizing knowledge, gati (real, true) meaning a true and correct knowledge, that is, a wise man always teaches a true and correct lesson. Semar’s appearance befits his nature and his place in the ancient mythological world: he is both man and woman. In the dalang’s worlds: «Semar can be called mysterious. Call him a man, and his face will look like a woman’s; call him a woman and he will look like a man. What does kyai lurah Semar look like? He has a snub nose which is mrakateni (so charming that it inspires love), watery eyes, puffy cheeks, also comely; he is fat, but graceful; in short, everything about his person is pleasing. Anyone in Semar’s company therefore wins the love of the gods. Indeed, kyai lurah Semar is a mysterious person, for he is not an ordinary human but a divinity from the Suralaya (heaven), in reality, he is the Sang Hyang (venerable god) Ismaya

Semar wears a batik with kampuh polong patterns, with four colours, meaning that there are four kind of lusts (nafsu): red ~ amarah, anger, like the character of Rahwana; yellow ~ supiyah, greedy like Sarpakenaka, Rahwana's sister; black ~ aluamah, desire of eating and sleeping like Kumbakarna; white ~ mutmainah, doesn't have any desire, like holiness, in wayang is Wibisana. A man should be able to harmonize these four nafsu for positive endeavours.


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