Playing for the Gods


The puppeteer is singing a song but no one can hear his voice over the din of music, bells, and chanting that fills the temple. He tells a story with carved sheets of leather manipulated by strings and bamboo sticks, but for this performance the characters are virtually hidden behind the rows of puppets arrayed before him. The stage itself is tucked in the back of the temple, surrounded by tall offerings of sculpted rice cakes painted in bold colors. There is no audience to speak of except for some dancers preparing for their own performance and a few children who come to hover over me while I play. I am accompanying a wayang lemah, a special kind of puppet-play used exclusively for ceremonies, and we are here solely for the entertainment of the gods.

A typical nighttime wayang, that is, a play intended for a human audience, is acted out on a white sheet stretched between two bamboo posts several yards apart.  An oil lamp casts flickering light on the screen and brings the puppets to life in shadow.  As characters come and go and opposing forces clash in battle, a quartet of musicians provide music to match the mood of each moment.  For the wayang lemah the whole operation is pared down significantly.  There is no screen and lamp (apparently the gods have no need for the story to be cast in shadows).  The dalang works alone without his usual assistants and is accompanied by only two musicians.

In this simplified form, the wayang can be staged just about anywhere and indeed often seems to be set up in some back corner or small pavilion. I have seen these plays in private homes and next to busy roads, but most commonly inside an actual temple. In each case the puppet play is just one small part of the ceremony, a single offering among hundreds that will be prepared and presented by the villagers as a part of a religious ceremony. In the scene described above, there were three other gamelan groups playing at the same time while we performed our wayang. The desired effect is a state of constant bustling activity that the Balinese find highly satisfying.

Balinese puppet-plays are an ancient and revered form of entertainment, so although the wayang lemah usually appears to be a marginal sideshow, its presence at a ceremony is significant. The puppets themselves are highly sacred (but you wouldn’t guess that watching the puppeteer viciously banging them about in a rousing battle scene) and require special offerings every six months and after each performance. Just taking them out of the box demands a special ceremony performed by the puppet master.  This multi-talented individual, called a dalang, must have the basic skills of a Hindu priest in addition to knowledge of the many stories, songs, and languages required to perform a wayang.  On many occasions he can command significant sums for his services, but the wayang lemah is provided free of charge as a kind of religious duty.


Once the dalang has performed his preliminary rite, he slides the top off the heavy wayang box and starts taking out his puppets. Sitting directly behind him, the two accompanying musicians play a set of instrumental pieces while he works.


The play itself will use only a handful of characters, but as part of the ceremony, the entire collection of puppets is set out before the dalang. Good characters are placed on the right side while bad guys pile up on the left. In the center is the ‘tree of life.’  In most wayang this distinctive puppet is used to mark changes of scene, but for the wayang lemah it remains fixed in the middle of the stage for the entire performance, which has the (desired?) effect of obscuring the action of the story to casual observers.


The play begins with a short overture; then the music slows and we hear the clacking of a wooden horn that the dalang pounds against the puppet box for dramatic effect. At this point characters begin to enter and the story begins.

Temple ceremonies are a time for deities and ancestors to visit the earthly plane.  The festive decorations, cockfighting, dancing and music are all for their benefit as much as for the human participants, so in truth Balinese musicians are almost always ‘playing for the gods.’  In most cases the entertainment is also intended for earthly enjoyment, like the offerings of fresh fruits that can be eaten once their essence has been presented to the gods. The wayang lemah has no such worldly intention and so serves as a powerful illustration of the role of music in Balinese ritual. An outsider might look at a temple ceremony and just see people praying, eating, gambling and enjoying the festive atmosphere without realizing that the whole event is a carefully orchestrated party thrown for the gods–the real guests of honor are invisible. By removing the human element from the performance, the wayang lemah makes clear what is actually going on all around.

The aesthetic of the performance is clearly affected by its intended audience. The pace of the story is slower and the battle scenes less rambunctious than a wayang meant for human viewers. A good dalang will know his audience and customize the story with relevant humor and social commentary. He will deftly read the mood of the crowd to know when to change pace or bring the show to a close. For the wayang lemah he is in his own world and concerned only with the pleasure of the divine. It is truly a strange sight: a lone man acting out a puppet play for no one in particular in the midst of a bustling festival. He takes his work seriously, spinning a one-of-a-kind tale complete with love scenes, battles, and slapstick comedy. When he feels our offering is complete he stabs the handle of his puppet into the banana tree laid out before him, turns around, and says “enough.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s