Bali: Shadow Puppets in the Monkey Forest

From the moment I stepped foot in Bali, it's been a mix of traveling, unpacking, logistics, orientations, getting to know people, and a few delicious meals. While going with the flow, I was starting to get an itch to experience some Balinese culture.

Shadow Puppets in the Monkey Forest

Yep, that's the one I'm starting with.

The group is called Wayang Kulit, representing a form of shadow puppetry that is popular in Central Java and many other South-East Asia regions, going back to 930 CE.

I posted to the Slack group for other Unsettled participants inviting anyone along, and Paria said she was interested. We met at the villa, strolled through Monkey Forest at night, and while we didn't get accosted by any monkeys, to my dismay and Paria's relief, getting to avoid the scooters zipping around on the cobbled half-of-one-lane road was enough of a thrill. For now.

We walked up to the shop where the performance was about to take place and were briefly greeted with a warm family hanging out front. 75,000 rupia for each ticket. Roughly $5.60.

Just 4 minutes until show time, we walked up the stairs, to be greeted with every single seat empty. Had we not shown up, I don't believe the performance would have happened. We sit in the 2 middle chairs in the front row and wait. 

Photo credit: Fabulous Ubud

Photo credit: Fabulous Ubud


The main lights go out, and everything is lit from a single, bright lightbulb and small flame behind the white screen.

After about 5 minutes of hearing a song from a metallic xylophone type of instrument that we couldn't see, puppets start to emerge.

Each intricately crafted from water buffalo hide, mounted on sticks made of water buffalo horn, wood, or bamboo, but all with interesting silhouettes and very fine details of light poking through. Some have arms, legs, or mouths that are able to be animated with the sticks and wire.

The Dalang, a man who puppets and narrates the entire story, fluctuates his voice to try to add drama, suspense, or comedy. Mostly speaking in Bahasa, sometimes in broken English.



Frankly, even with reading this story of Kumbakarna Lina ahead of time, which is written out in full at the bottom of this post, I wasn't really able to follow with it being applied on stage. To be honest, I struggled a bit to stay engaged, and catching myself just analyzing the art and craft of the performance, reminded myself to let all my notions of storytelling and demands for performance quality drift away and be here now with this. 

"How does Indonesia has a zero-tolerance drug policy?" I thought to myself, as I watched what looked like a living mushroom trip. 

Coming back to the moment again and again got me through another 10-15 mins or so, but given it just felt like a man sitting behind a screen playing with puppets to himself, and unable to grasp the story, I was getting both antsy but also fatigue leftover from the 28hr travel journey started to set in. I glanced over at Paria, unable to tell if this was blowing her mind or boring her. I assumed the latter. 

"Do you think they'd notice if we left?" I wrote out on my phone and flashed at her. Given we were still the only two there, it was enough to draw a laugh... I think we were at the same point.


I really wanted to capture just how silly, and frankly a bit sad, this whole scene looked, so I got up from my seat and went to the back and saw a shadowy figure sitting in the corner watching me. Breathing through the discomfort of feeling like I'm doing something rude, despite having asked permission to take photos beforehand, I quietly snapped a couple and went back to my seat. Only 30 minutes left to endure...

It was as if they could read our minds, or maybe just a pure coincidence in timing, but a woman emerged from behind the screen and asked if we would like to come around the side and see what it looks like actually being made. We both jump up and go to the side.



Turns out it was a full family affair. A young woman and two elderly gentlemen were responsible for creating the soundtrack on the xylophone. Another elderly gentleman and the woman who invited us back, sit to the sides to sort and provide all of the characters and props.

There were stacks and stacks of cutouts, all exquisitely painted, which seemed silly given they were silhouette.

But I suppose it made it more realistic to the Dalang.


Then there was the man, front and center, to which he held his own show. And while there was no nobody sitting in front of the screen to view the performance, the man didn't show a care in the world. In fact, he wasn't in our world. He was living and breathing the world that he was creating and the story he was telling. This whole show seemed to be for him, and his family there to help make sure it come to life.


We sat almost the entire remainder of the show just watching this family work together with so much passion and focus.

It was beautiful and intense.

Walking back to the villa, all we could muster for the first couple minutes was, "uh, wow" and quite a bit of laughing. Turns out we had the same thoughts the whole way through, and both ended up agreeing, that was special, and worth every rupia.

Kumbakarna Lina - A story from Epic Ramayana

Kumbakarna Lina is a part of the epic Ramayana. Rama (an avatar - incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu), is the exiled Prince of Ayodya whose wife Sita is abducted by the demon King Rahwana of Alengka. This story talks about the war between Rama, the personification of good and Rahwana, who is evil. Kumbakarna is Rahwana's brother, a powerful demon, yet a noble warrior who obeys his King unquestioningly and dies waging war against Rama, even though he knows his King is in the wrong to have abducted another man's wife.

The act opens with Rahwana getting more and more desperate to marry Queen Sita, who he has kidnapped and imprisoned in Taman Asoka, Alengka, as Sita continues to rebuff him and evade his advances. Hanoman, the monkey messenger of Rama has created havoc and set Alengka ablaze. Rama in the meantime, helped by his army of monkeys successfully built a bridge to Alengka, crossed over and declared war. Prahasta, Rahwana’s war minister has been killed and his armies have fearfully withdrawn from battle. There is a lull in the battle while Rama and the monkey army are now unopposed. Now a paranoid Rahwana has his brother, Kumbhakarna, awakened from deep slumber and demands that he assume leadership of the Alengka forces.

Kumbakarna initially disagrees with Rahwana who wants to get Queen Sita to be wife forcibly, but finally has no choice but to obey his King. Thus upholding the pride of his country and his King and safeguarding his people, a reluctant Kumbakarna goes to war.

The battle with King Rama is resumed with Kumbhakarna leading the Alengka forces. The swarming monkeys cannot contain the powerful Kumbhakarna and what ensues is a long battle where Rama and Laksmana are compelled to make use of their fearsome weapons in the face of Kumbhakarna's formidable strength. Kumbhakarna receives many mortal wounds, but continues to wage war, and ultimately falls to the ground, severely injured yet alive.

Kumbhakarna’s, brother Wibisana who had chosen to forsake his evil brother Rahwana, is an ally of Rama, discovers him in this helpless state and is filled with compassion and sadness, Wibisana then begs Rama for forgiveness on behalf of Kumbhakarna and appeals that Kumbhakarna be allowed to die the death of a true warrior and be saved from a slow, painful death and send his soul to heaven.


Thank you for reading. :)

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During this whole trip in SE Asia, I'm sharing many of the little moments in my Instagram Stories: @KyleKesterson. Follow & interact!