Myanmar’s Marionette Puppetry


I decided to continue the natural lead into marionettes after my dance post ended with the marionette dance.

Marionettes are one of what are considered the four dramatic arts of Myanmar. These are: Singing, the Art of Instrumental Music, Orthodox Theater Performance (with human performers) and the Performance on the High Level. In Myanmar this art form is known as ‘Yoke thé.’ It literally means miniatures.


Yoke thé or Burmese String Puppetry is believed to have been started since the Bagan period in the 11th century, however the first mention of it dates to about 500 years ago found in an inscription in the Htupayon Pagoda in Sagaing, Upper Myanmar in 1444 CE. This Pagoda looks like this:

Cr. Wagaung, Flickr.

However the date when these developed into a sophisticated form of court entertainment was perhaps during the reign of Singu Min, and their introduction is credited to the Minister of Royal Entertainment, U Thaw. From their inception, marionettes enjoyed great popularity in the courts of the Konbaung dynasty. Little has changed since the creation of the art by U Thaw, and the set of characters developed by him is still in use today. (2)

Burmese puppetry served as a means of making people aware of current events; as a medium for educating people in literature, history, and religion; as a display of lifestyles and customs; and as mouthpieces for the people in the days of royalty. (3)

1821 to 1885 was considered the golden age of marionette puppetry in Myanmar, where many troupes flourished and performed sponsored by royal patronage.

In 1885, when the British conquer Upper Myanmar in the Third Burmese War and exile King Thibaw, this exquisite art form begins its decline and it had lost its most important supporter, the Royal court.

By the 1960’s there were only 6 active Marionette Puppetry Troupes. The most famous one by the nameShew Bo Tin Mg Troupe survived until it disbanded in 1981. (1)

In 1986, Mrs. Ma Ma Naing and Mrs. Naing Yee Mar formed the Mandalay Marionettes Theater as a step in saving this rich legacy. This troupe has been working to preserve Burmese puppetry and original Burmese traditions such as Burmese dancing and music, sculpture, sequin embroidery and painting. (3)

Currently there are various initiatives to preserve this art form. One of them is by master puppeteer Khin Maung Htwe (U Htwe) who created  Htwe Oo Myanmar, a troupe performing since 2006 in Yangon. You can read an article about this here. You can even see his 45 minute performance by booking on Trip Advisor.

Khin Maung Htwe (U Htwe) by DestinAsian. com

If you are ever in Myanmar and want to see a marionette show you can see his show HERE. He also has a puppetry class HERE.

Characteristics of Myanmar Traditional Marionette Puppetry.

Even though Myanmar’s Traditional Marionette Puppetry has been influenced by India and Thailand greatly it has many characteristics that make it their own. One are the sort of cannon of characters that perform and the complexity in the creation of these marionettes.

I read that in its golden times a marionette puppet performance would sometimes last a whole night! Now a days the longest shows run for about an hour and forty five minutes.

Traditional Myanmar puppet shows have 28 main characters, ranging from gods, animals, monsters, and royals. They represent the 28 “rupas” of physical forms mentioned in the Buddha’s teachings. They are carved from wood, polished before being sanded and painted with various natural areas. Then they are dressed very intricate shiny costumes with rings and some other accessories. Each puppet is usually made from 17 to 19 pieces of wood and moved by 11 strings (the most complicated can be up to 16 ones). Head and shoulders are controlled by 5 strings whereas the arms and legs are controlled by the rest of 6 ones. (4)

The heads and body parts of the puppets are hand carved using a mallet and chisels. Puppet masters like Sein Aye Myint know all of the characters by heart and can carve each one from memory. Traditionally yamane wood (beechwood), considered holy and once used to carve the thrones of Burmese kings, is used to make the puppets but now teak is often substituted. The elaborate and intricate clothing is hand stitched and then sewn onto the finalized puppet body.

Here are some of the 28 puppets used. These were created by Mandalay Marionettes Theater Troupe.

Yes… it is correct. Out of the official 28 characters only two are women! I won’t say more…

You can see the rest of the characters HERE.

Would you like to see them in action? Well let’s warm up with this…

I know right? How does it not become entangled?! Incredible ability!

I also found a great site that has many videos! From the same troupe! I just hope they are there for the rest of time! So great to have access to them! They are HERE at a virtual South East Asia Library. I also read that most themesof these puppet plays are drawn from the 550 Jakata tales told by the Buddha and from historic Myanmar tales.

These are some more photos:

Last two treats: a video of a whole show by the Mandalay Puppet Theater Troupe that show took place at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and a skit by the Htwe Oo Myanmar Troupe from Yangon.

If you are ever in Myanmar and want to see a marionette show HERE is one of the choices. They also have a puppetry class HERE.


(1) Slideshare. net by Kyaw Myo Ko

(2) Wikipedia

(3) South East Asia Library

(4) gomyanmartours. com

Mandalay Puppet Theater Troupe

(Yangon) Htwe Oo Myanmar Troupe

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