After touring the United States, 'Semelah' (God Bliss), a shadow puppet play created by Indonesian visual artist Eko Nugroho returned home in a series of performances in Jakarta, the last of which was staged at Teater Kecil in Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, Central Jakarta, on Monday (17/07). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Do You Know Your Kurawas From Your Pandawas: Wayang's Origins Stories


JANUARY 08, 2019

Jakarta. It might come as a bit of a surprise that Indonesia did not have a special day to celebrate one of its most famous cultural heritage, wayang, or traditional puppet play, until last December when President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo announced Nov. 7 as National Wayang Day.

In 2003, Unesco recognized wayang as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

Jokowi said National Wayang Day is targeted at millennials, most of whom are more familiar with the instant gratification of pop culture than with the labyrinthine plots and philosophies of wayang stories.

Do millennials know their Pandawa from their BTS, their Arjuna from their Suga?

Sixteen-year-olds Alisa Hamida and Lina Oktaviana, students at Labschool High School in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, told the Jakarta Globe they had both heard about wayang from their art teacher at school and from their parents, but none of the long-winded, meandering wayang stories stuck with them.

"We learn about the history of wayang from school textbooks. But we never got introduced to the characters," Alisa said.

"If I have to learn about wayang, I'd rather see a performance," Lina said.

Firza Hastari, a 22-year-old student at Trisakti University in Jakarta, said she knows about wayang from her grandfather who still loves to listen to all-night wayang performances on the radio.

"My grandfather once told me the Petruk and Semar [court jesters] stories. But when I tried to listen to it myself, I just got lost. The are too many characters and the story is too complicated."

If like these millennials, you want to know more about this ancient high art, whose stories are mostly derived from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, but don't have the stamina to sit through all night wayang performances, we've created the list below to highlight all the major characters you need to know in wayang – the gods, the knights and the musketeers!

The World of Gods

Like in Greek legends, gods play a very important role in wayang stories. They meddle in human affairs, play favorites with the mortals and even copulate with them to produce successive generations of demigods.

There are more than 20 major gods in wayang, but the two most famous are Batara Wisnu, the god of prosperity, and Batara Surya, the sun god.

In wayang, Wisnu is represented by a black puppet, a symbol of immortality. He protects humans from evils and always defends the truth.

In both the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Wisnu is reincarnated as a human at least three times, including as the warrior prince Rama, the king Arjuna Sasrabahu and the schemer Sri Kresna – the Odysseus of the Mahabharata.

Wisnu rides the Garuda-shaped chariot Garuda Birawan and carries around with him a divine heirloom flower called Wijaya Kusuma.

In khayangan, the wayang heavens, Batara Wisnu is the fifth son of Sang Hyang Manikmaya, the great Tribuana (three-world) king, with the goddess Dewi Umayi.

Batara Wisnu resides Untarasegara, a corner of khayangan where he lives with three empresses and 18 sons.

Batara Surya, the sun god, is in charge of the Ekacakra heaven. There, he lives with three empresses – the sisters Dewi Ngruna and Dewi Ngruni and Dewi Prati or Dewi Haruni.

Batara Surya is in charge of illuminating Arcapada, the earth.

Batara Surya is the sixth son of Sanghyang Ismaya with Dewi Senggani. He has nine siblings including Batara Wungkuam, Batara Tambora and Batara Wrahaspati.

Like Batara Wisnu, Surya is very powerful and one of the main wayang deities.

Batara Surya's ride of choice is a gilded coach pulled by seven horses

The Five Pandawas

In the Mahabharata, the Pandawas are the five sons of Pandu, by his two wives Kunti and Madri, the princess of Madra. Their names are Yudistira, Bima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sadewa.

All of them are married to the same woman named Drupadi.

According to the Hindu epic, each member of the Pandawa is an incarnation of a certain deity. Yudistira is the incarnation of the god of justice, Dharma. Bima is the incarnation of Bayu, the god of the wind. Arjuna is the incarnation of the god of war and thunder, Indra, while the twins Nakula and Sadewa are the incarnation of Aswin, the god of medicine.

The Pandawas are the Avengers of wayang, and here are their origins stories:

Yudistira is the eldest of the Pandawas known for his righteousness, respect of elders, and honesty. The legend has it he never utters a lie.

Bima, the second-oldest of the Pandawa, is known for his physical prowess, bravery and voracious appetite. Though he often lacks self-control, his intentions are always noble and honest. In some versions of the wayang story, Bima has the ability to fly, as does his half-brother Hanoman and his son Gatotkaca.

Arjuna is the third of the Pandawa brothers and the ultimate warrior hero of the Mahabharata. He is known for his chivalry, loyalty, handsome looks and, hence, his womanizing.

In wayang orang (wayang opera), Arjuna is depicted as a graceful warrior (often played by women actors), whose agility on the battlefield is complemented by self-discipline, nobility and loyalty to family.

Nakula is the fourth of the Pandawas and is known for his handsomeness and his armory skills, making him a great warrior. He is honest, trustworthy and best known for his loyalty.

Sadewa, Nakula's twin, is the last of the Pandawas and the astronomer in the family. Just like his twin brother, Sadewa is also loyal, trustworthy and honest.


Punakawan are court jesters. There are four of them in wayang stories, original to Indonesia.

Punakawan are supposed to symbolize the average person. They are humble characters who work hard, sometimes risking their lives, as advisors to knights, musicians, entertainers, clowns and social critics.

In Java, these four musketeersbof wayang are called Semar, Gareng, Bagong and Petruk.

In Balinese wayang, they are called Malen, Merdah, Delem and Sangut.

The name Punakawan comes from an Old Javanese word meaning "friends who understand."

In both wayang kulit and wayang orang performances, they provide comic relief and philosophical interludes that highlight the morals of the story.

Semar is the Punakawan leader and is regarded by some as the most sacred figure in wayang.

Some say he is the incarnation of a major deity, who according to Javanese mythology manifests himself as an ugly human figure to blend in with humans on earth.

Often referred as by the honorific Kyai Lurah Semar ("the venerable chief Semar") in wayang plays, Semar is often depicted as an old wise soul with a protruding lower jaw, bulging belly and ears and a flat nose. One of his unique characteristics is his finger that always sticks out as if he is pointing at something.

Semar can fight like a warrior if he wants to, and his greatest weapon is his incredibly smelly and loud fart.

Clumsy, gaffe-prone Gareng is Semar's eldest sun. He's the real comedian of the family who walks with limp and has a crippled arm – a symbol of his innate virtue and his refusal to tread on the rights of others.

Semar's second-eldest son, Petruk, is a tall and lanky fellow with a distinctive Pinnocchio-like long nose. His long hair is braided into a bun that sticks up like a keris on his head. Petruk is full of humor but also quick-tempered. He seems to divide his time evenly between joking around and getting into fights.

Semar's youngest son is Bagong, a chubby figure with big round eyes and thick lips. Bagong is an innocent who would indavertently reveals the wicked ways of others in wayang plays.

Just like court jesters in Shakespeare's plays, the Punakawan's slapstick jokes can quickly turn into biting social commentary, as they bring the knights and gods down from their high horses.

Unlike most of the other characters in wayang plays, the Punakawan are not based on characters from the Mahabharata or Ramayana. They are most likely a Javanese invention – some say the creations of the 15th-century cleric Sunan Kalijaga who helped spread Islam in Java. But then again, as mentioned, they also exist in Bali, which suggests pre-Islam origins for these most lovable of wayang characters.