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Rod Puppet Performance: The Ramayana and the Mahabharata (lesson)

Sita (Sinta), wife of Rama, approx. 1980

Sita (Sinta), wife of Rama, approx. 1980. Indonesia; West Java. Wood, cloth, and mixed media. From the Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.86.148.

Map of Southeast Asia

Map of Southeast Asia

Sita (Sinta), wife of Rama, approx. 1980
Map of Southeast Asia

Materials: Map of Southeast Asia (above); Wayang Golek Slides, Synopsis of the Ramayana and Mahabharata (above); Character Study Worksheet (above)Video: Indonesian Rod Puppets (see "Related Resources" below)


  1. Using the slides see and background information (see below), discuss with your students the following questions:
    • On what occasions are wayang golek performances held? How do they bring members of the community together.
    • What type of stories do dalang tell? How are Indonesian versions of the Hindu epics different from their original Indian versions?
    • What type of iconography is used to distinguish the different character types (i.e., refined, semirefined, strong, uncontrolled, and special)?
    • What is the role of the jester? Why is this character important in wayang golek?
    • How does the puppet master signal to his audience that a particular type of character is on stage (voice inflection, movement, the level of respect one character uses toward another, and artistic features)?
  2. Locate Indonesia on the map. Explain that Indonesia was the center of the maritime trade in Southeast Asia. Describe how Indian, Arab, and Chinese traders brought the religious traditions of Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism to the islands.
  3. Introduce the art of Indonesian rod puppet theater (wayang golek).
  4. Using the slides and background information, review the discussion questions with your students. Read a summary of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, or focus on a scene from these Hindu epics. Identify the main characters of these epics, and discuss how the various character types are portrayed in wayang golek.
  5. Have students watch the video Indonesian Rod Puppets to give them a sense of how music, voice, and puppet manipulation come together during a performance.
  6. Have students reenact key scenes from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata either by using the rod puppets that the students created in the lesson Making Wayang Golek: Indonesian Rod Puppets (see "Related Resources" below) or by acting out the story themselves. Use the performance outlines of the Indonesian versions of these Hindu epics.
  7. Have students do an analysis of their characters to help them assume their performance roles using the Character Study Worksheet.
  8. Give students the performance outline and have them study it together in groups.
  9. Next, have them perform the scenes using improvisation. Make sure to include the jester characters, who offer advice to the main characters as well as provide comic interludes between story scenes; they may also be used to comment on contemporary concerns of the audience.