An Overview
Multiple functions of Indian Puppetry
Skilled Craft of Indian Puppetry
Inanimate to Animate in Indian Puppetry
Legend & Genesis of Indian Puppets
Categories of Puppets
Ancient India

According to historians, puppets are as old as civilisation. Dating back to 2500 BC, the ancient civilisation of Harappa and Mohenjodaro was spread over thousands of kilometres and the variety of archaeological relics includes a terracotta bull with detachable head that can be manipulated by a string: thus achieving limited animation. Another figure found is a terracotta monkey that slides up and down a stick: creating a vertical movement.

String Bull, Mohan Jo Daro

The Mahabharata refers to popular entertainment in India including art of puppetry and shadow theatre. When the princess Uttara and her friends urged Arjuna to bring back (after his campaign against Kaurava clan) the fine, gaily coloured, delicate and soft garments for their dolls, the allusion was to puppets. The best reference is probably from the Gita where the three qualities of the Sattah, Rajah and Tamah, found in men, are the three strings pulled by the Divine to lead men in life.

The Ashokan rock edicts in the third century BC announced and endorsed many religious and moral practices, and alluded to the Jambudweep (the ancient name of India) as a puppet theatre.

In the following century Patanjali, the great grammarian, enunciated in his Ashtadhyayi Mahabhashya many illustrations from the Sanskrit plays and entertainment's of his time, which relate to the three major streams: the dance drama, the puppet theatre and the musical narrative of story telling. The other great grammarian Panini, even before Patanjali's time, laid down rules of grammar with puppets as illustrations.

Therigatha, an old Buddhist treatise, was composed by senior Buddhist nuns and contains a clear reference to puppet theatre. They refer to a dance show by string puppets with detachable limbs made of woods.

Natya Shastra by Bharata in the second century brings much evidence on puppets. The most important reference is to the Sutradhar who would manipulate dolls with sutra (strings) from inside. Since Sutradhar in classic Sanskrit plays is the principal co-ordinator and stage manager who holds the strings of dramatic performance, the scholars think that the puppet-play with a literal Sutradhar must have preceded the theatre proper.


Around the same time, in the South India the epic Shilappadikaram by Ilango mentions: "The puppets danced with war-like vigour just as goddess Lakshmi danced to destroy the demons." The Tamil scholar Thiruvalluvar wrote about puppets in his famous Kurals: "The movements of a man who does not have a sensitive conscience are like the stimulation of life by marionettes moved by strings".

In the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, the celebrated classic of intimate human relationship, various types of puppets and puppet-plays were discussed. The best way to entertain and seduce young girls was to organise the performance of puppet shows and presenting the damsels with puppets. Kamasutra also elaborated upon the making of puppets from thread, animal horns, elephant tusk, honeycomb wax, flour and clay. For the first time, Vatsyayana mentioned manipulation of puppets not only by strings but also with yantras (mechanical devices) so that puppets could be animated with their in-built mechanism.

Plays and Fables

Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet and playwright, gave a few dramatic instructions in Abhijnana Shakuntalam, which seem to be based on a puppet show. There were many mentions in plays like Panchala Anuyanam for animated puppets and human actors, performing together.

Kathasaritsagar, a collection of ancient fables, had many descriptions of mechanised wooden dolls, which formed charming gifts within a basket full of lovely puppets. These puppets were fitted with keys whose operation made them dance and narrate story. One mechanised puppet could even bring a garland of flowers and another could fetch water!

Simhasana-Dratrimsika, a famous collection of thirty-two fairy tales, has been part of ancient folk literature. The story is about the king Bhoja whose throne, inherited from Vikramaditya, was carried by thirty-two statues of ladies. It seems that these wooden dolls, as mechanical contrivances, could present shows on fights between gods and demons, churning of the sea, and even providing love sports.

Tadaka Badh

Another play Balaramayana in the tenth century mentioned two wooden dolls: representing the epic characters Sita and her stepsister Sundarika. This was a wonderful dramatic technique employing the human actor and wooden puppets together on the stage in consummate dramatic action.

Richard Pischel, according to whom the Vidushak of the classical Sanskrit play is the predecessor of the German puppets Kaspearle and Hanswrust, also corroborates this idea.


Ancient India and many other lands had viewed the puppet as divine creation. An endearing Indian legend of the eleventh century, recorded by Somdeva, narrates about exquisite dolls created by a carpenter. Gauri, Shiva's consort adored them very much and Shiva gave them life to perform dances. The carpenter prayed for continuing the boon, which was granted. Whatever the basis of the legend, most traditional puppeteers of India commence their shows with prayers and, at the end of the show, put the puppets reverentially aside. When puppets decay, they are floated away in rivers after performing the worship. The latent idea still is to treat puppets as blessed by the gods and respect due to them. The heritage of Indian puppets is to tell stories from the epics and myths: depicting gods and men.

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