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The Origin of Hand and Shadow Puppetry

There is no precise and concrete account of when hand and shadow puppetry started. One of the most probable estimate is that it evolved during the caveman era. At that time, the paper and the pen, and even the English language, have yet to be invented. So the people living during that particular period made use of the available resources, usually their hands and feet, in order to tell or to express their sentiments.

One then could just imagine: two or three cavemen grouped together inside their cave dwellings sitting around the fire they had just produced.

One of them stands up and starts telling a story about hunting for a wild boar.

With the use of his hands and perhaps, even his feet, he creates images on the walls of the cave through shadows so as to illustrate better the story he is trying to tell.

To further liven up the story, he uses a piece of cloth and makes use of his voice to imitate the sound of a wild boar.

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That can be considered as the first hand and shadow puppetry show, primitive as it may look.

Nevertheless, despite the absence of the exact date as to the origin of hand and shadow puppetry, this much may be said: it is an ancient form, and even considered as the oldest form of puppetry.

From there, hand and shadow puppetry underwent several evolutions, the most logical of which is the development of the hand and shadow puppetry show. The birth of the said show is being claimed by several countries all over the globe, notably China and India.

China, for instance, has an ancient legend which it claims happened sometime in 120 B.C., when a Chinese emperor was left behind by an ailing wife. Sorely missing her, the emperor decided to hire a magician who could possibly bring the emperor's wife back to life. The magician, of course, was no shaman who has the power to give life to the dead. So what he did was to put on a puppet show using a silk screen in which he will be able to create the illusion that the emperor's wife has indeed risen from the dead. For a while, the trick worked, and the emperor was convinced that his wife has actually resurrected. But the ploy was short-lived. Eventually, the emperor found out about the deception and the poor magician, identified as Sciao-Wong (or Ciao-Meng), got his head cut off.

The preceding account was fiction. India, however, has a more solid proof of the existence of a hand and puppetry show in their region. The evidence is contained in the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem of 24,000 lines written in the 4th century B.C., and which archaelogists discovered in the Sitabenga Cave in India. In the poem, a tale is written in the semi-epic Mahabharata about the life of Rama, son to the king of Dasciadha, presented in hand and shadow form. The evidence is a bit controversial, but nonetheless makes it the oldest documented shadow puppet show known to date.

Notwithstanding who holds the genuine claim to its origin, no one can argue the fact that hand and shadow puppetry is an ancient form of art that has been around for more than 2,000 years now.

Please enjoy these free hand shadow puppets and learn interesting facts on shadow puppets. Learn to make hand shadow puppets and the history of making shadow puppets and hand puppets. Shadow puppets have a long history and lots of interesting shadow puppet and hand puppet facts exist. These free hand puppet examples are for you to try your hand at creating shadow puppets and hand puppets, and hopefully put on your very own shadow puppet show!


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Images and portions of the text by Henry Bursill and were originally published by Griffith and Farran in 1859.