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Javanese shadow puppets

Multi-coloured shadow puppet

The shadow puppet character 'Durna'

Java is famous for its shadow puppet theatre, which dates back to the 11th century. In western Java the stories are adapted from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which travelled to Java from India.

The puppets are made from cured buffalo hide, the name for them, wayang kulit, means 'shadow hide'. Puppet makers cut them out using stencils, with special chisels and knives and then mount them on to hinged rods of horn or bamboo so that the puppeteer can make their arms move. It takes at least ten days to make just one puppet.

The puppets are divided into 'good' and 'bad' characters. The puppet character shown above is 'Durna' from the Mahabharata. He has a mixture of good and bad qualities. He is a teacher, very clever, but sometimes also a plotter since he can hide his own thoughts and can easily flatter others, but he talks convincingly and can inspire great confidence. As you can see, he wears a distinctive diamond patterned jacket, making it easy for the audience to spot him.

You can find these puppets in the Asia section of our World Cultures gallery on the third floor of the museum.