A great little article today about the history of shadow theatre, courtesy of Suite 101 and Cheryn Tan. I’ve added some images and video, and at the bottom of the page are some more comprehensive (and excellent) links.

The History of Shadow Theatre

Shadow plays depict fantastic stories of folklore and mythology, but their stories of origin are equally fascinating as they are vastly differing.

The differences of origins may be attributed – or may contribute – to the fact that the styles and cultural significance of these shadow plays differ from one country to the next. For instance, Chinese shadow plays usually depict history and the aristocracy; Indian plays are of religious significance inspired by epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana; whereas Turkish plays are comedic satires with witty banter.

China – Death of a Beloved

Most experts believe that the art of shadow playing originated from China during the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD). As the story goes, the Emperor Wu Han had many concubines, but one whom he loved most. When she died, he was so devastated that he lost interest in life, and neglected all his responsibilities. His councillors tried all they could to revive their ruler, but nothing could abate his sorrow.


Finally, one of the greatest artists of the court created a puppet in the likeness of the emperor’s beloved using donkey leather and painted cloths. He lit a silk screen from behind, and with the movable joints of the puppet he imitated her graceful movements, even speaking with the intonations of her voice. Having his beloved seemingly brought back to life, the emperor was thus comforted and returned to his duties, much to everyone’s relief.

An alternative, though somewhat less romantic, explanation of how shadow theatre originated in China was because ladies were not allowed to watch live theatre performances, hence the most successful shows were staged as shadow plays in female quarters instead.

India – Dancing Gods

The art of shadow puppetry gained prominence in India in the sixteenth century, especially during the reign of King Kona Bhuda Reddy. These puppets are the largest in the shadow performance world; and the plays usually take place outside the temple of Shiva, the patron god of puppets.

According to folklore, in the days when dolls were just crude blocks, there was a toymaker who made dolls with separate jointed limbs. One day, his shop was visited by Lord Shiva and his wife, the Goddess Parvati. Upon catching sight of the dolls, Parvati was so entranced that she asked Shiva to let their spirits enter the dolls so they could dance. After she was tired out, they withdrew their spiritual selves and left. The toymaker, who had been watching the entire scene, was inspired to make the dolls dance again. He strung their limbs together and thus gave life to string puppets.

Turkey – Comedic Satire

Shadow theatre also features in Turkish performance arts, with most performances centred around the main character Karaghiozis. Karaghiozis is usually depicted as an ugly little man with a large nose, humpback and enormous black eyes. The legend behind this Middle Eastern incarnation of shadow plays tells of Karaghiozis and Hazvidad as they were at the construction site of a mosque. Instead of working, they were constantly quarrelling – but their verbal sparring was so amusing that their fellow workers would stop to listen to them, to the point that the completion of the mosque was in jeopardy.


The Sultan that had commissioned the mosque was so livid that he had them executed. Later he regretted his rashness, and summoned his viziers to create puppets in their likeness, to perform their humorous squabbles as entertainment for the masses.

Besides China, India and Turkey, shadow plays are still highly popular in more than 20 countries around the world, including Indonesia, Malaysia and France. Their styles and cultural significance may differ, but one thing they invariably share is that they provide hours of entertainment for the audience.


A much more comprehensive source on all kinds of Indian puppetry can be found here. A great resource.

One for Turkish shadow puppetry can be found here.  Again, a great resource.

And a super one here on Chinese shadow puppetry


3 thoughts on “Shadowlands

  1. Absolutely fabulous resources!!!! Thanks so much for sharing… my mind, and my IB Theatre students minds, are expanding all the time.

  2. Thank you for the link to the Tholpavakoothu video! A point of correction, however, Turkish Shadow shows center on the main character, Karagöz. Karaghiozis is the counterpart found in Greece.

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