The History of Wayang Kulit in Java

In 2003, UNESCO stipulated that wayang is world heritage from Indonesia. Wayang as the oldest original culture from Indonesia was mentioned in history sources such as inscriptions.

Wayang is one of Indonesia’s most prominent cultures among other cultures. Wayang consists of art of acting, singing, music, oral, literature, painting, carving, and symbol. Wayang culture evolves from generation to generation, as  information media, missionary endeavour, education, entertainment and philosophy comprehension.

Wayang is Indonesia’s original culture, especially from Java Island. Wayang existence had been in Indonesia for centuries, before Hindu came to Java, though the story of wayang popular in society was adapted from Hindi culture, Ramayana and Mahabarata. Both main stories have changed and added adapted to Indonesia original philosophy.

The philosophy adjustment concept is related to Javanese philosophy to gods position in wayang world. Gods in wayang tale are not free from sin, but also as other creatures of God, sometimes they do wrong things and also they forget. Punakawan characters were created deliberately by Javanese humanist to strengthen philosophy concept that in this world there is no one who is 100 % good heart and soul and no one is 100% evil. Every creature has good and bad side.

In  Bijdrage tot de Kennis van het Javaansche Tooneel(1897), a dissertation by  Dr. GA.J. Hazeau, wayang was the culture of Javanese. He wrote that Wayang was walulang linukir (carved leather) that was seen its shadow from screen.  Wayang mentioned was wayang kulit that we recognize today.

There are two opinions about the history of wayang. First opinion, wayang was originally born in Java, notably in East Java. This opinion was stated by researchers and experts from Indonesia and also from western countries. Among experts stated this opinion were Hazeau, Brandels, Kats, Tentse and Kruyt. They have strong reasons, one of them is that wayang art was very closely related to Indonesian socio cultural and religion, especially with Javanese. Punokawan characters, important characters in wayang, Semar, Gareng, Petruk, Bagong are only exist in Indonesian wayang, and their names derive from old Javanese.

The second opinion is that wayang came fron India and taken by Hindi traders to Indonesia with their Hindu religion. Experts stated this were Pischel, Hidding, Krom, poensen, Goslings and Rassers. Since 1950s wayang books says that wayang came from Java and was not imported from other countries.

Wayang is estimated to be born in the period of King Airlangga, king of Kahuripan (976-1012) a kingdom in East Java. Play for wayang was written by poet from Java since 10th century such as Ramayana Kakawin in Old Javanese language in the period of King Dyah Balitung (989-910), written adapted from Ramayana written by Walmiki from India. Later Javanese poet wrote the tale not only translated it but also retold it with Javanese philosophies. For instance Arjunawiwaha Kakawin by Empu Kanwa was written from Mahabharata. Or Bharatayudha kakawin written by Empu Sedah and Empu panuluh. Those masterpieces were written in the period of King Jayabaya, king of Kediri (1130-1160)

Wayang is a performance that is popular since king Airlangga period. There are few inscriptions mentions about ‘mawa yang’ and ‘aringgit’ mean wayang show. According to Ir, Sri Mulyono, in his book Simbolisme dan Mistikisme dalam Wayang (1979), wayang was already exist since Neolithic period, or 1500 BC. This opinion was based on the writing of Robert von Heine-Geldern PhD, ‘Prehistoric in The Netherland Indie’ (1945) and by Prof K A H Hidding in Ensiklopedia Indonesia.

Wayang derives from word ‘wewa yangan’ means shadow. This was estimated according to the fact that wayang kulit uses kelir or screen where dalang can play wayang and audience can see from the other side. Audience can see the moves of wayang from its shadow through screen. In the past, wayang was only accompanied by simple gamelan instrument consists of saron, todung and kemanak. And it was estimated that sinden (singer) was not included accompanying wayang show.

To create more Javanese in wayang culture, since the early period of Majapahit Kingdom, introduced other wayang stories that were not sourced from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Since then also known Panji tale, believed as the ancestors of Majapahit kings. Panji tale later was used in Wayang Beber show. Tradition to javanize wayang story was also maintained by Islam ullemas, Wali Songo. They start to characterize kings of Majapahit, such as Dhamarwulan story into wayang.

Islam entered Indonesia since 15th century and gave big influence to wayang tradition especially for religion and philosophy of wayang. In the 15th century, in the period of Demak Kingdom, oil lamp (blencong) was started to use in wayang show. Since kartasura period, wayang story  based on Ramayana and Mahabarata was getting farther from the original story. Since then wayang lovers knew the pedicree of wayang characters, including the gods characters that began from Prophet Adam. The pedigree then continued until Java kings and later known a standard of wayang story or pakem. Standard of wayang should follow the standard story and wayang carangan is wayang outside the standard story. Also known lakon sempalan, wayang story class that is very far from the pakem or standard.

As wayang is closely related to Indonesia culture, then there are ambiguities about wayang story, legend and history. If Hindi consider Mahabharata and Ramayana are from India, Javanese also consider wayang tales really happened in Java.

In Kulonprogo, wayang is liked by the society, not only by old generation but also by teenagers and children love to watch wayang show.