Jakarta’s Wayang Museum

An old Wayang doll, on display at Jakarta’s Wayang Museum

The Wayang is a traditional shadow puppet here in Indonesia. The puppets are made in a variety of sizes and materials, from human-sized articulated wooden dolls to 20 cm tall buffalo hide dolls. Each puppet is ornately painted with beautiful colors and can be considered an independent work of art from the Wayang theater. To learn more about them, we stopped by Jakarta’s Wayang Museum in Kota Tua. An employee on duty at the time excitedly gave us a tour in English, taking us through the floors of Wayang on display and walking us through how they’re made.

The face of a human-sized Wayang doll on display. Note the ornate and brilliantly-colored painting of the face.

Most Wayang dolls are made for the telling of Hindu epics, stories that arrived here with the Hindu religion around the first century. Wayang depictions of Rama, his wife Sita, and Lakshamana from the Ramayana are common, as are depictions of the heroes of the Mahabharata epic. Each doll is laden with iconography to help the audience identify each character in the story, from weapons to hairstyles and facial structure.

An unfinished Wayang doll of a Hindu epic protagonist. Note the shape of his face, hair, and the monkey on his head, all of which help the audience identify his character by name. I’ve sadly forgotten these details, but they’re written into the museum exhibit’s signs.


Different characters from one of the Hindu epics–I think these ones are antagonists/demons.
Details in the hair of a Wayang doll. Each hole and line is punched painstakingly into the buffalo hide by hand.

Though these epics are ancient, Wayang is alive and well, still adopting new stories to tell. As Indonesia modernized, contemporary Wayang dolls sprung up beside the ancient heroes and deities. We walk past depictions of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, as well as Wayang dolls representing the imperialist Dutch and British forces that once controlled Indonesia as a colony. There are also depictions of characters in Christianity and fairy-tales. Our guide stops by a pair of Wayang dolls at the end of the contemporary section and points to them with a grin, “These show a couple who have so many children that they are always busy. Indonesians used to believe that having so many children was good, but now too many children is a problem. The Office of Family Planning uses these dolls to show people that they should not have so many children.”

A Wayang doll of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.
Wayang dolls of Jesus and Adam.
The character used by Indonesia’s Office of Family Planning to teach people to have fewer children. The man depicted here has so may children that he’s literally laden down by them.

The museum also has foreign dolls and puppets from around the world, housed alongside its gamelans and other musical instruments. We spot Punch and Judy, Vasilisa the Brave, and a unicorn. There are dolls from Chinese opera. There’s even an Alebrije here, a demon with a Medusa-like head of cobras.

Chinese opera dolls in the Wayang Museum.
An Alebrije with cobras for hair.

We finish up with a display on how the Wayang dolls are made, hand punched with tiny metal tools and painted with brilliant colors. Our guide then disappears and comes back with someone who makes Wayang dolls for a living. We’re wary, but we follow him to his workshop around the corner, which is modest, but seems genuine. Tools lay scattered about alongside unfinished dolls and a white sheet at the front of the room serves as a display.

A holepunching set used to create the intricate details of Wayang dolls.
A side-by-side comparison of unfinished and painted Wayang dolls. The line running from lower right to the head of the doll is a handle for use, made from buffalo horn.

Our artisan friend puts on a free, 15-minute version of the Ramayana, becoming all of its characters in turn, from Rama to his wife Sita, to the demon Rawana and the ape-god Hanuman.

A scene from our performance, wherein Sita encounters the golden deer and asks Rama to catch it for her.

He ends the performance with the reunion of Rama and Sita, followed by a hilariously cringe-worthy reference to modern politics*:

Rama: I am so happy you are back, Sita.

Sita: I am happy to see you too, Rama! We should celebrate, by going shopping in New York in the Trump Tower!

Rama: Hahaha, yes, that is a very good idea! Trump is a good friend, I can talk to him.

Sita: Oh Rama, I love you!

Rama: I love you too!

Following the performance, the was a sales pitch to buy a Wayang doll to support the artisan’s work and his school to teach Wayang dollmaking. We don’t know how legit this story is beacuse it shares some traits with scams we encountered in Yogyakarta, so be aware if you’re approached at the museum. But the guy did have business cards, so…maybe? We’re not the right people to judge, and I consider the purchase of a Wayang doll a donation as thanks for the performance.

Our artisan friend, demonstrating the hole-punching technique that creates the intricate details of the Wayang dolls.

* My ten-second analysis is that Indonesians are impressed with Trump because they have a history of admiring strongman presidents and see those same qualities in Trump. They just assume everyone in the U.S. is equally as excited about his election.

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