Creative Thailand

Masked dance and shadow play

Writer : Editor Team

Translator : Suchanart Jarupaiboon

Photos : Teeraphon Pittapatee

It is undeniable that in this day and age, very little is known about shadow play (locally known as Nang Yai, which literally means large hides).

The reason is simple. People haven’t heard of it, don’t know what it is, and have no idea where this kind of play is shown.

In the past, Nang Yai performances were a popular means of entertainment that incorporated several art forms. It was also considered a high-level art performed during royal ceremonies and the country’s major events. Evidence suggested that the shadow play dated back to the Ayutthaya period and was passed on to the Rattanakosin era. The most common performance is Ramayana. King Rama I subsequently authored a play known as Inao to be performed as Nang Yai in addition to Ramayana.

Puppet figures are made from perforated buffalo or cow hides, which are sun-dried and then painted. There are two types of hides, the first of which is Nang Ruang, large hides containing background or more than one character. This can be categorized further as Nang Mueang, which may be a character or a location, and Nang Jub, consisting of two or three characters in battle. The second type of Nang Bedtaled, which means miscellaneous. The art of perforating the hides is one of the charms unique to Nang Yai, as it requires refined skills.

It is not an exaggeration to regard Nang Yai as a brilliant mixture of art forms, from the making of the puppets to the narration of the story by songs, chants, and music.

To understand the grandeur of Nang Yai in the past, we can still learn about this ancient performance in some museums and temples that have maintained large collections of puppet figures. One of the most important and oldest collection to remain today was created in the reign of King Rama II, which had been partially destroyed by a fire. Yet the remaining part serves as evidence of the masterpiece in dramatic arts. It has been said that Nang Yai was the origin of Khon (masked dance). Nowaways, both are often performed together.  

During the reign of His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol (Rama IX), a collection of 130 Nang Yai puppets were in his honor and were used in the nation’s important events. Ajarn Prasat Thongaram (Kru Mued), an expert from the Fine Arts Department, has been instrumental in preserving Thai traditions and was the director of Nang Yai and Khon performances in the royal funeral ceremonies of King Bhumibol and, before that, of Princess Galyani Vadhana, his elder sister.

According to Kru Mued, in order to ensure that these traditions live on, some adjustments have to be made to the performances themselves. One way to do this is to perform both Nang Yai and Khon together, taking advantages of their strengths. This was a crucial step, resulting in what is called “semi-setting khon” where technology and multimedia are incorporated into its settings, adding more excitement for the audience.

However, as for the performance of Nang Yai for the general public, only three Nang Yai production teams now remain in Thailand: Wat Khanon, Ratchaburi Province; Wat Sawang Aron, Singburi Province, and Baan Don, Rayong Province. Each of them is doing what they can to ensure Nang Yai’s survival, by modernizing and organizing shows frequently.


Wat Khanon’s Nang Yai was recognized by UNESCO for its active role in safeguarding “intangible cultural heritage.” The temple has hosted the annual Nang Yai festival for 13 consecutive years. Communities around the temple are becoming keener to learn the art of puppeteering. The local government also came up with an alternative course at Wat Khanon School, with Nang Yai performances shown every Saturday. Meanwhile, Wat Sawang Arom and Wat Baan Don are working just as hard to pass on the knowledge to younger generations and use puppet shadow to create harmony within their communities.

Photos: Teerapon Pitapatee – Wat Khanon Nang Yai, Ratchaburi Province

Information: National Library, Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture

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