Much like smiles and laughter, puppetry is a universal language. For centuries across human societies it’s been used as a means of entertainment, ritual and celebration. Once the most popular form of entertainment in Burma—now Myanmar—today it is maintained by just a handful of performing troupes.
DATING BACK TO the 5th century BC, puppetry is among the most ancient of art forms. References can be found among the works of Herodotus and Xenophon in ancient Greece. One hundred years later, Aristotle discussed them in his work, On the Motion of Animals. The word ‘puppet’ itself is translated from the Greek ‘nevrospastos’ literally meaning ‘drawn by strings’.
Traditional Burmese marionette theatre—yoke thé—dates from the 15th century. It benefitted from royal patronage in the 1700s. By the time the Konbaung dynasty was in power a century later, it was considered the most highly developed and popular form of Burmese entertainment—long before dancing or other forms of drama took hold. It was only when the British conquered upper Burma in 1885, during the Third Anglo Burmese War, that popular interest in the yoke thé declined.
THE MARIONETTE TROUPE
During the reign of Singu Min in 1780, Burma’s Minister of Royal Entertainment, U Thaw, regulated the art of marionette performance. To this day, a Burmese marionette troupe must have 27 characters including a prince and princess, jesters and various animals, each adhering to their given roles. The hermit, for instance, is a holy man endowed with powers to bring good fortune and is treated with utmost respect. Off stage, he is always stored apart from the other puppets, often hung under a Buddha shrine.
The puppets and their masters are accompanied by a hsaing waing, a traditional Burmese orchestra. Drums beat with suspense, gongs rumble with wonder, cymbals clash with surprise.
From production to performance, marionettes are a study in craftsmanship and ritual. Marionette makers observe strict rules controlling the types of wood used and proportions carved. Male marionettes have 18 strings; females have 19. You can tell a Myanmese marionette from the way it moves in circles, as opposed to Indian and Thai puppets which are maneuvered in a perpendicular fashion.
NOT JUST FOR SHOW…
The performances themselves take on a spiritual significance. They’re based on stories from the Jataka, the sacred texts that recount stories of Buddha’s past lives, as well as historical legends and folktales. A successful marionette artist is said to possess the Lamaing spirit, Lamaing being the Buddhist patron of theatre.
When first introduced in Burma, marionette productions were exclusively for royals. Later it became available to a wider audience—and with good reason. In the late 18th century Burmese kings forbade humans to appear on stage, allowing these humble wooden dolls to steal the spotlight. It was considered disrespectful for anyone to stand taller than nobles among the audience. Reaching between just 50 and 70cm tall, marionettes thrived in the cultural vacuum left behind.
They weren’t just for show. Marionettes served as political conduits between ruler and subjects. Performances informed the populace of goings on in the capital and, conversely, were used as a way to express opinions to the king. The Minister of Drama, for example, used them to voice the misbeahaviour of royal family members or corrupt officials. After all, messengers risked execution, but no one can kill a marionette.
MARIONETTE THEATRE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Today, the country’s flourishing tourism industry has breathed new life into the art of marionette theatre. Companies such as the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre perform regularly, often taking centre stage in popular pagoda festivals.
We too are keen to uphold and preserve this local custom. Aboard Belmond Orcaella and Belmond Road to Mandalay, guests are treated to marionette performances over dinner. Strings seemingly disappear as audiences are transported into a fantasy world. Look out for the dance duet between prince and princess, the show’s finale and a favourite among the crew.
Much like the strings of the puppets, Belmond prides itself on finding a thread between past and present. At once rooted in history and looking ahead into the future, we hope the marionette tradition will be enjoyed for many generations to come.