Puppetry has long been a medium of entertainment and devotion in South Asia

Puppetry has long been a medium of entertainment and devotion in South Asia

By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai

Puppets are a part of popular culture and entertainment across the world, especially in the South Asian region. They reflect the cultural heritage of their region, its mythology, music, beliefs, rites and rituals. Puppetry has been around since ancient times.

In India, the earliest reference to puppetry is in the Mahabharata (which originated as an oral tradition around 9 th.Century BCE). It is believed that Indian puppetry was part of theater from very ancient times. The works of the Sanskrit grammarian Panini (4th century BCE), and later the Yogasutra of Patanjali (2nd century BCE) had mentioned puppets.

A reference to them can be found in the work of Tamil poet- Thiruvalluvar (2nd century BCE) also. “The movements of a man who has not a sensitive conscience are like the simulation of life by marionettes moved by strings”, Thiruvalluvar had said.

According to the 19th century German scholar, Richard Pischel (1849-1908), Indian puppetry is the source of Western puppetry.

There are approximately, twenty living traditions of glove, string, rod and shadow puppets in India. Only some of these are well known, but each one of them has distinct regional features and forms, narration style, musical accompaniments, and content. Each of these has been influenced by the traditional regional theatre as well.

There are cross regional connections in puppetry. Karnataka’s Yakshagana and Yakshagombeyatta and Kerala’s Kathakali and Pava Kathakali glove puppetry, West Bengal’s Jatra and Dangerputulnach rod puppetry, and Assam’s Bhaona and Putalanach string puppets are related.

Presentation, including costumes, headgear, jewellery, make-up, and character types may be the same across different art forms. There are similarities between the murals of the 16 th.Century Lepakshi temple in Andhra Pradesh and the shadow puppets of the region. Accompaniments to the songs include drums and flutes. There may also be dancers in puppet shows.

The content is typically drawn from the Indian epics- The Ramayana and The Mahabharata  as well as local lore and folktales. Puppetry has been part of religious as well as non-religious festivals, and rites and rituals performed in homes. In Tamil Nadu, Pava koothu or glove puppetry portrays the victory of Goddess Lakshmi over the demons. There are two major traditions of puppetry in Tamil Nadu, the Tolu bommalattam or shadow puppetry, and Bommalattam or string-cum-rod puppets.

Kerala is famous for Tolpavakuthu or shadow puppetry, Pavakathakali or glove puppetry, and Noolpavakoothu or string puppetry. In Andhra Pradesh there are four traditions of puppetry. There is the Tolu bommalata or shadow puppetry and the remaining three  Koyyabommalata, Keelubommalata, and Sutrambommalata use puppets.  

In Karnataka, the traditional puppets are shadow and string and glove Orchinnipatti puppets. There is also a puppet dance or Togalugombeyata (which are of two types- Chikka and Dodda).

In Western India, there are the Chamdyachabahulya (chamadyachabahulya) or leather puppetry (of the Thakar community) and the Kalasutribahulya or string puppetry of the Maharashtrians.

Nepali puppets- showing local masks

Rajasthan is famous for the Kathputli ki khel or wooden-puppet play. These are wooden puppets on a string. The performers are called Nats or Bhats. In Northern India there is the Gulabo-Sitabo of Uttar Pradesh which dates back to the 17 th., century.

In Eastern India, Odisha has many puppet dances and songs, like the  Ravanachhaya  or Ravana’s shadow; Gopalilakundhei  or cowherd-play puppetry ( using a string puppet); and Sakhikundhei or a friendly doll (a glove puppet). Then there is the more recently composed Kathikundheinacha  or wooden-rod puppet dance.

In West Bengal, puppets were influenced by the local folk theatre tradition called Jatra and the 16 th. Century Vaishnava tradition. The most notable forms of puppetry are the Tarerputulnach (string puppetry), Danger putulnach (rod puppet dance) and Benirputul (benerputul or glove puppetry).

In Tripura, the performances of Gopal Chandra Das (trained by his father, the Late Gopal Das who had settled in Tripura in 1990) and his string puppet dances are famous. He was a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2011.

In Assam, puppetry derives a lot from the 16 th., Century saint-poet-social reformer- Shankardeva. In Assam also the popularity of puppetry grew with the rise of Vaishnavism. The 16 th. Century Bhagavata Purana mentions Kashtamaya and Daruputula, the now defunct wood and shadow puppet traditions.

Puppetry is known by many names such as: Putulnach, Putulanach, Putulabhaona, or Putalabhaoriya. Today only string puppetry is popular everywhere. The popularity of other forms differs from region to region.

In Manipur, Vaishnavism is seen in string puppetry known as Laithibijagol or doll dance. The art is said to have been introduced during the reign of Maharaja Chandrakirti Singh (1850-1886).

Other regions of India like Sikkim, Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh, have a tradition of puppetry. Visual representations of various religious beliefs like Jainism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the beliefs of migrants from Central Asia contributed to puppetry across India and the sub-continent. In recent times, Meher Rustom Contractor, Suresh Dutta, R.N. Shukla Rahi, Dilip Chatterjee, B. Sahai, Ranjana Pandey, Dadi Pudumjee, Mansingh Zala, Mahipat Kavi, Hiren Bhattacharya and others have contributed to this art form.


In Bangladesh, references of string puppets have been found in a number of ancient and classical literary works such as the 1 st. century  Gitagobindha, Srikrishnakirtan, and Chondimangala, and  the 14 th. To 17 th. Century works such asYousuf Julekha, Choitonnyo Vagabato, Choitannya Mongal, and Choitannya Choritammrito.

Traditional puppets include benirputul or glove puppet, rod puppetry danger putulnach, string puppets or tarer putulnach.

The Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Puppet Theatre, directed by Rashid Haroon, is one of the companies that gives puppet performances.

Nepalese string puppets resembling faces of Nepali masks


The puppetry tradition in Afghanistan is known as Buz- baz.This is from northern Afghanistan. The puppet is a goat carved out of wood. It is a string puppet decorated with sequins, baubles and bells. The goat represents two beliefs:  one is the markhor or the snake eating goat of Badakhshan and the other is that mountain goats have magical powers.

The performance is generally accompanied by music played on the Dambura. Both the goat and the Dambura are connected and thus, the puppeteer controls both at the same time.


Many storytellers in rural southern Pakistan use puppets in their sessions.This has primarily been a family tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Accompaniments in puppet shows include vocals and the traditional drum called as the Dholak. The puppets were traditionally mostly made of wood and decorated with vivid colours.

In the 1960s, support for puppetry came from the Pakistan Arts Council and under the leadership of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The idea was to revive children’s entertainment. Initially, European fairytales were used but later newly written Urdu scripts which Faiz himself penned came to be used.

Faiz’s daughter, Salima Faiz, Hashmi (an artist herself and principal of the National College of the Arts in Lahore) joined the project. The Puppet Theatre of the Lahore Arts Council was later led by Samina Ahmed. Other organisations also contributed considerably to the revival and sustenance of puppetry as an artform.


In the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, Hindu and Buddhist images and ideas are mixed in puppetry. The Putali  which is a type of marionette or string puppet ,is used by the Newars. The Newars also use masks. The puppets correspond to masks representing the Narasimha incarnation of Lord Vishnu and goddess Kumari, among other Hindu deities.

Large figures made of wood and called jhyalinca or putali are used in the annual Indra Jatra Festival. One of the best-known large figures is  the Tahamaca.

Tibet, Bhutan and Himalayas

The Tibet-influenced Himalayan region has many religious ceremonies dedicated to Padmasambhava (“Lotus-Born”, usually called Guru Rinpoche Precious Teacher or Lopon Rinpoche Precious Master). Believed to have been born in the Swat Valley (in present day Pakistan) the ceremonies arrived in Tibet and the Himalayas in the 8 th., Century to subjugate demons and teach the Dharma in areas that today correspond to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, North India and parts of China.

There are many dances which are credited to Padmasambhava who is said to have hidden religious treasures or terma (gter ma) in Himalayan locations to be discovered later by Tantric masters-artist-teachers called treasure revealers or terton (gterston).

Masked dances are more popular than small puppets in the Himalayan region.. Among masked dance puppet performances mention may be made of the dance of the Tshering Chenga Cham (tshe ring mchedlnga ’cham) or Dance of Five Sisters who encounter Milarepa in the DochulaDrukWangyel Festival in Bhutan.

Giant figures in Tibet made of wood or papier-mâché represent saintly enlightened beings such as the “second Buddha”,  the Saint Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) are popular representations. The Raksha Mang Cham (Raksha mang ’cham) of Bhutan and has a very large effigy of the Lord of Judgment (Gshinrjechosrgyal).

The dance enacts the intermediate-state (bardo) experience of judgment as it encounters wrathful deities that the human soul is believed to encounter between death and rebirth.

(The featured images of Nepalese puppets and masks are by the author Dr.Lopamuda Maitra Bajpai)