Ancient History of Shadow Puppetry

At the 1999 Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, a paper was presented which states that missionary Buddhist priests took the art of shadow puppetry from India to both Indonesia and China during the Buddhist expansion from the sixth through ninth centuries. Although this theory is feasible and intriguing, the popularity of the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana in Southeast Asia suggests that it was the Hindu culture, instead of the Buddhist culture, that accompanied the shadow puppetry from India. However, Buddhism may have played a big role in the introduction of shadow puppetry in China. In fact, picture recitations might have been performed in Buddhist temples during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).

The art of shadow puppetry, or shadow play, is an ancient form of storytelling which utilizes flat figures (shadow puppets) to create cut-out figures which are then held between a source of light and a translucent screen. It has a long history in China, India, Nepal, and Southeast Asia, as well as in Turkey and Greece, surviving everything from war and famine to cultural revolutions. Shadow puppetry is so embraced by many different cultures that each culture seems to have their own history and legend of the first shadow play performance— therefore claiming it, or at least different versions of it, as their own.

Woman in White Tank Top Sitting on Bed

The Andhra Sarwaswamu states that Indian kings who invaded Java (now part of Indonesia) in the sixth century introduced shadow puppetry to the island. However, the present Indonesian shadow puppetry is so much more elaborate than the ancient traces of this art in India, leading many to maintain that it was an autochthonous Indonesian tradition.

One example of this is that although the Indian shadow puppet performances either have very few or no musical instruments at all, shadow plays in Indonesia are accompanied by extensive ensembles of gamelan music. Another difference between the Indonesian shadow puppetry we know today and its older forms is that, while the Chinese shadow plays are considered a form of opera in China, the Indonesian shadow puppetry has become its own art form, separate from the theater in Java. 

Arjuna dan Buto Cakil pada pertunjukan wayang kulit di Semarang, Jawa Tengah.jpg
Arjuna and Buto Cakil in a Wayang performance in Semarang, Central Java

The earliest surviving records of wayang (Indonesian shadow puppetry) on copper plates dated 840 and 907 CE referred to shadow plays and performers. The first copper plate, dated 840 CE, mentions the names of six officials who were either performers themselves or who supervised musicians, clowns, and possibly wayang performers. The second copper plate, from 907 CE, describes dances, epic recitations, and a shadow play performance.

The word wayang is also mentioned several times in court literatures written between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries at various kingdoms in east Java. A famous reference of the shadow play appears in Ardjuna Wiwaha (“The Meditation of Arjuna”), curiously echoing Plato’s discourse on illusion. Ardjuna Wiwaha was composed by a court poet of King Airlangga who ruled from 1035 to 1049 CE. The reference says “There are people who weep, become sad and excited watching the puppets, though they know they are merely carved pieces of leather manipulated and made to speak. These people are like men who, thirsting for sensuous pleasures, live in a world of illusion; they do not realize the magic hallucinations they see are not real.” In 1157 CE, the court poet Mpu Sedah wrote in the Bratajada (“Great War”), that “The sound of frogs in the river sounds like xylophones accompanying the wayang play. When the wind blows over empty bamboo cylinders it is like flutes playing for the wayang performance”

Batara Guru, Museum Wayang Jakarta 2017-03-18.jpg
Shadow puppet Purwa Surakarta depicting Batara Guru, the ruler of the worlds of gods, mystical, and mortals. Batara Guru is also known with the name Manik Maya. Collection of Museum Wayang Jakarta.

In Malaysia, four main types of shadow puppetry traditions have existed in various regions of the peninsula. They are the wayang kulit Jawa (the Javanese leather shadow puppets), the wayang kulit Gedek (the Gedek leather shadow puppets), the wayang kulit Melayu (the Malayu leather shadow puppets) and the wayang kulit Siam (the Siamese leather shadow puppets). While wayang kulit Jawa and wayang kulit Melayu refer to the Javanese shadow puppets, wayang kulit Gedek and wayang kulit Siam refer to the shadow puppetry of southern Thailand.

Masks and Shadow Puppets Royal Palace Cambodia 0561.jpg
A replica traditional house inside the Royal Palace complex holds examples of several arts and crafts of Cambodia, including these Ramayana masks and shadow puppets. The multi-headed mask in the center represents Ravana, the villain of the piece.

Cambodia and Thailand each have two very different types of shadow traditions. There are those performing with large, static, often composite figures, and those performing with small figures with movable arms. In Cambodia, the large figure tradition is known as the khmer nang sebek, while in Thailand, it is known by the name of nang yai. The smaller Cambodian shadow play is called nang trolung, while the smaller Thai shadow play is called nang talung. The Cambodian shadow puppetry are known to have existed some time during the Angkor period of the Khmer Empire (802-1432 CE), and the earliest mention of nang performances in Thailand is in the palace law of King Boromatrailokanath, which tells of a shadow play being enacted in 1458 CE.

Nang rabam. Thai shadow play, 19th century

There are great similarities between the large figures of nang sebek and nang yai with those of India, making it almost certain that the shadow puppetry of Cambodia and Thailand originated in India. Although Thailand is closer to India than Cambodia, shadow puppetry seems to have traveled from Cambodia to Thailand. The first king of Funan (the earliest Khmer kingdom in Cambodia) is believed to have been a Brahmin from India who married the Khmer Queen and founded the first Hindu kingdom in Southeast Asia during the first century CE. Hence it is possible that the large figured shadow figures of Southeast Asia traveled from India to Cambodia to Thailand.

Rama and Sita astride a horse following their wedding - Museu do Oriente - Lisbon, Portugal - DSC06650.JPG
Rama and Sita astride a horse following their wedding – Museu do Oriente – Lisbon, Portugal

Thai scholars believe that the nang talung reached Thailand through the Malay forms known in Kelantan and elsewhere. A probable link between the Thai, Cambodian, Javanese and Balinese literature and ceremonial procedure in the context of the shadow play has also been suggested. Therefore, we can conclude that some Indonesian influence exists among the small, articulated shadow puppetry of Southeast Asia – probably reaching Cambodia and Thailand through the Malay Peninsula. 

All these sounds lovely, of course, but shadow puppetry has existed in other parts of the world for centuries, albeit with different variations. In his Republic, Plato mentions a cave in India with an inscription from the second century BCE. The inscription refers to a shadow play performance where puppets of humans and animals were manipulated by a puppeteer in that cave. The fire behind the puppets casts shadows of them and, according to Plato, they are seen as a form of reality by the fettered audience. This story illustrates Plato’s discussion on the illusory nature of all perceptions. However, it also illustrates an early example of the use of shadows and the significance of caves as sacred sites for the performance of religious ceremonies, as well as an early example of a performance of a shadow play.

Shadow puppet of a man on a horse. Egypt, 14th to 18th century. 

A popular Chinese legend from the second century BCE begins with the conjuring of a “shadow” of the deceased beloved concubine of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). The historical record of this story is found in Ban Gu’s Hanshu, or History of the Former Han.  After the death of Lady Li, a favorite concubine of Emperor Wu, the heartbroken emperor continued to think longingly of his deceased concubine and was thrown into melancholy. One day, a minister happened to see children playing with dolls and saw vivid shadows of the dolls on the floor. This inspired him to make a cotton puppet of the concubine and painted it. As night fell, the minister had the emperor take his place behind a curtain and observe him moving the puppet between the curtain and the light from a distance. From where he sat, the emperor could see a figure of a lady resembling Lady Li behind the curtain, moving and sitting, and in that brief shadow play Emperor Wu could see his beloved again.

This early attribution of the Shadow Play in China was advanced by a Song dynasty scholar, Gao Cheng. In his Shiwu Jiyuan (“The Origin of Things”), Gao Cheng repeated the Lady Li story in his own words and then added, “This was the origin of the shadow shows”. However, Gao Cheng also asserts in the same piece that “the shadow play have not been seen in the dynasties since,” —implying that it was done merely to give the emperor a chance to say goodbye to his concubine. This last phrase is mostly ignored in history.

'Female Warrior on Magical Animal', shadow puppet from Gaoxiong, Taiwan, Lin Liu-Hsin Museum.JPG
Female Warrior on Magical Animal, shadow puppet from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Lin Liu-Hsin Museum

Somewhat similar to the Chinese story of the origin of its shadow play is a Middle Eastern tale with the same theme. One night in Kfifa in the eighth century CE, an actor by the name of Batruni presented “a show of phantoms.” Using shadows, he conjured the appearance of Qail, an Arabian king, making him appear as encircling the yard of the mosque, riding on horseback. Unfortunately, unlike the success of the “first” shadow play in China, Batruni’s shadow play was condemned as sorcery and he was sentenced to death.

Some scholars have advocated Indian origins for the shadow theater through the interpretation of the word rupopajivanam in the Indian epic, Mahabharata. Nilakantha, a 17th century commentator of the Mahabharata, explains that the word rupopajivanam in the Mahabharata is referred to as thatjalamandapika in southern India in his own time. The two words refer to the display of the reflection of leather figures cast on a thin cloth.

Another interpretation of the early shadow play in India comes from the 4 BCE work Mahabhasya, specifically from the word saubhika – interpreted by scholars as “shadow player”. This interpretation is later confirmed through the work of a tenth-century writer, Somadeva, who explains that a saubhika is “a man who makes several people visible at night on a screen made of cloth.” This same word also appears in a list among other entertainers in several early Buddhist scriptures of the late first millennium BCE, such as the Mahavastu and the Jataka.

Baba Khwaneb, shadow puppet, Libya. Circa 1900

Oral traditions in India claim that shadow puppetry was found in Andhra Pradesh
as early as 200 BCE. The Andhra Sarwaswamu states that in the sixth century, the Pallava and the Kakatiya kings of South India introduced leather puppetry to Indonesia when they conquered the group of Islands of Java. Therefore, one can conclude that shadow puppetry has likely existed in India since the first millennium BCE, and had been performed by the sixth and tenth centuries.

Another theory of the beginning of the shadow puppetry placed the art form among the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, linking the characteristics of shadow puppet performances to the culture of the Turkish tribes. Logistically, it seems simple: Nomads have animals, and therefore extensive access to leather. With their use of tents and fire it would have been natural for them to utilize a lighted screen. Ten to twenty shadow puppets, for example, due to their shapes and light weights, could easily have been packed into a small saddlebag. In burial grounds among the Altai Mountains near Outer Mongolia, along the old trade route between China and Russia, there have been found cutout leather animals which could have been a shadow puppet, and it is known that the Scythians of the third and fourth centuries BCE made silhouettes of leather.

Tang and Song Dynasty Chinese sources say that the Central Asian Turks worshipped felt figures representing gods that they kept in leather bags. Therefore, the use of flat figures made of leather, paper, or cloth by the nomadic tribes of Central Asia may have been related to their religious practices. Indeed, the Turkish scholar, Sabri Esat Siyavusgil suggests that the Turks of Central Asia had long been familiar with shadow puppetry, which they call kavurcak or kabarcuk. A Turco-Arabic dictionary of the thirteenth century gives the definition for the word as “the shadow theater.” Siyavusgil believes that kavurcak must have transformed in the course of time into kolkurcak in the Turkish dialect of Central Asia, and came to be used more specifically to refer to marionettes. In Turkestan, the shadow play is still known as cadir hayal, which means “performance given under a tent”.

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