Behind the Shadows: Javanese Wayang Kulit Puppets in Ramayana


The night darkens and the crowd gathers. Placing themselves on either side of the lit screen (kelir), excitement buzzes as they wait eagerly for the shadow puppetry (wayang kulit) to begin. Behind the kelir, the puppeteer (dalang), gamelan orchestra and female singers (pesinden) prepare for the typically night-long performance. A note is played, a tune is sung, and the dalang’s voice echoes into the night. The once-still puppets now awaken and their shadows enthral the audience as the story of good versus evil begins.

Snippet of a wayang kulit performance in Solo.
Video Credit: Chua Pei Shyuen

Welcome to Javanese Wayang Kulit Puppetry

Wayang kulit refers to shadow puppetry, a type of traditional theatre play, that is performed in Southeast Asia using two-dimensional puppets crafted from animal hide. In Java, this term also refers to the intricately handmade puppets. Beyond the purpose of entertainment, these performances are also used as a medium to transmit values, culture, religion and even comment on current affairs. These performances were also traditionally believed to provide spiritual protection over the audience.

Wayang kulit often follows the plot of good versus evil and storylines often retell or are inspired by the Hindu epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. In these stories, the puppets used are characters ranging from gods, nobles and priests to commoners, giants (raksasa), jokers (panakawan or punakawan) and animals.

We met Mr Tumadi Patri, a 63-year-old active batik artist practitioner of Javanese descent. Mr Tumadi has been exposed to Javanese wayang kulit since the age of 6. With almost 40 years of experience, Mr Tumadi continually reflects his experience by largely incorporating Javanese wayang kulit puppets in his artworks. Let’s watch a short and simple demonstration by Mr Tumadi using Javanese wayang kulit puppets. Enjoy the colours of the puppets and props! Subtitles are not verbatim. 


Join me, as we find out more about Javanese wayang kulit puppets and props specifically found in the Ramayana epic. View Javanese and other wayang kulit puppets and props in the Singapore National Collection by scrolling through the image carousel.


Gunungan, also known as kayon, is a key prop in wayang kulit. Representing the cosmic order of the universe, it is used to signal the opening, ending and transitions during a wayang kulit. The motifs seen across the gunungan, such as a palace, forest, fire and wind, can also be used to set the context during the scenes. To begin the wayang kulit, the gunungan is twirled from the centre and planted firmly at the right of the kelir.

Fun fact: The opening movement of the gunungan symbolises the entrance into the mystical world!

Watch the video below as Mr Tumadi shares about the gunungan.


Scroll through the image carousel for other types of gunungan in the National Collection.

The Good

Enter the main characters of the Ramayana epic – Rama (the prince and successor to the throne), Dewi Sinta (Rama’s wife) and Lesmana (Rama’s brother). Protagonists in the epic, they are known to have high moral virtues such as loyalty, humbleness, wisdom and kindness. These virtues can be seen from their facial features and posture.

Fun fact: Each facial feature has different shapes that tells of the character’s virtue on the spectrum of good versus evil.

View the images below for an example of the Good character’s features.

Check out other Good character puppets from the National Collection in the carousel below.

The Allies

As good and evil battle it out, characters such as the vulture Jatayu (a Garuda bird), and wanara, monkeys that display human-like behaviours, play crucial roles to guide or aid the good characters to victory. One of the most famous wanara is Hanoman, also spelled Anoman, a general who had proven himself to be the strongest and most capable.

Fun fact: In the Ramayana epic, Jatayu fought hard and used his last breath to tell Rama and Lesmana that Dewi Sinta (Rama’s wife) had been abducted by Rahwana, the evil and oppressive king.

Watch the video below as Mr Tumadi shares about Hanoman.


Scroll through the image carousel for other Allies in our National Collection.

The Evil

A formidable opponent! With their big round eyes and bulging nose, these evil characters are no small feat. Raksasa, translated as giants, demons or ogres, are typically bigger in size to symbolise their physical force while their posture and facial features dictate their lack of self-control, aggression and impatience.

Fun fact: In the Ramayana epic, Wibisana, the brother of Rahwana, eventually defected to the side of the Good due to his moral sense of justice and disagreement over Rahwana’s decisions.

View the image below to see how one can identify an Evil character.


Check out the image carousel below for other Evil puppets in the National Collection.

The Jokers


Bringing much laughter to the scenes and yet, also much wisdom, the jokers are characters that cannot go unmentioned when talking about Javanese wayang kulit. Also known as the clowns, or in Javanese – panakawan or punakawan – Semar and his sons, Gareng, Petruk and Bagong are interestingly not specifically mentioned in the Ramayana epic. However, so crucial and popular are they that the dalang will typically include them in a wayang kulit to break tension, bring laughter and comment on current affairs. Each of these odd-looking characters have their own quirks and peculiarities.

To find out more about the characteristics of each puppet, click here.

Watch the video below as Mr Tumadi shares on Semar and Petruk.

Scroll through the carousel to see the different Jokers in our National Collection.


Besides the gunungan, there are other props used to enhance the wayang kulit scenes. These other props typically have specific purposes and can range from animals, marching armies (rampogan, rampokan, or perampogan), to utilitarian objects such as tea jugs or magical objects and weapons. Some refer to all the props as ricikan while others use the term to refer to the smaller props like the weapons and utilitarian objects.

Fun fact: The figures depicted in the rampogan depends on the kingdom they belong to. For example, the Evil kingdom will depict ogres while Rama’s kingdom will depict the wanara.

Scroll through the carousel below for various props in our National Collection that can be seen in a wayang kulit.

The Artist and His Handicrafts

Creating traditional wayang kulit puppets involves the cleaning and preparing of animal hide which are subsequently drawn, coloured, chiselled, assembled and varnished. While Mr Tumadi’s expertise is in batik art, Javanese wayang kulit puppets are his go-to motifs for his batik artwork. Mr Tumadi also makes his own Javanese wayang kulit puppets.

Watch Mr Tumadi as he gives us a peek into his work of making wayang kulit puppets without animal hide, right here in Singapore!

Beyond Javanese Wayang Kulit Puppets In The National Collection

Within the Singapore National Collection are other types of shadow puppets, such as wayang siam from Malaysia, nang yai and nang talung from Thailand, tholu bommalata from Andhra Pradesh, India and shadow puppets from China.

Additionally, the National Collection also has other types of puppetry including water puppets, string puppets and rod puppets like wayang golek. Alternatively, you can also head over to the bibliography for more information on shadow puppetry!


Written by:

Chang En En, Assistant Manager (Heritage Resource Discovery), Strategic Planning and Data Management.

Advice and Assistance:

Ho Swee Ann, Senior Manager (Heritage Resource Discovery), Strategic Planning and Data Management.

Chua Pei Shyuen, Research Assistant (Cataloguing), Strategic Planning and Data Management.

Kaloati Devi.

Background of in-text images:

Image by vecstock on Freepik.


To know more about shadow puppetry, check out our list of references here.

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