The Baliem Valley festival has been the highlight of the tourism in West Papua. The annual event is a tourist magnet coming from all over the world. The exclusive experience and the extraordinary trek to the valley make it more special.
Every August each year, the Baliem Valley in West Papua is filled with the tribes residing around it. They reenact a mock war that has been happening between the three tribes: Dani, Lani, and Yali tribes. Though in the past they were involved in the battle to defend their tribe from raids, now it is just as a reenactment or a show of culture.
When It Started
The first Baliem Valley festival was held in 1989, and since then, it is held annually every August for three days. Before it became a tourist destination, the rundown of the festival was to make a war reenactment, prepare a food feast, and celebrate prosperity for the year’s crops and harvest. Now, it is complemented by tourist information centers and exhibitions.
When the men are preparing to war, the women prepare the feast by making an earth oven—which is a large hole down in the ground to cook the pigs and sweet potatoes. The large hole is covered with leaves so that it works as an oven underground.
Usually, each tribe and village bring their crops as a contribution or gift. In the festival of Baliem Valley, men and women coming from different tribes and villages work hand in hand to create a festive event. The only differences that can be seen are from their accessory.
Before they feast on the food, they will dance and sing about fertility and prosperity. The youth will perform their best songs that tell stories about the life of the tribes using an instrument called witawo. Many of the songs have a sad theme in minor tone, but some are also upbeat songs that tell stories about happiness and war spirit. The stories have moral messages in it, used to teach the youth about spirituality, wisdom, and ancestor’s story.
The Story behind the Baliem Valley Festival
The tribes in the Baliem Valley are very sensitive towards kidnapping, theft, and murder. In ancient times, they may raid each other’s village to take women or pigs. The raided village would then avenge the deed and attack back.
The Baliem Valley festival also starts with the same scenario, where the tribes decide to war after someone is kidnapped or their crops are raided. The moral story of the scenario is not to avenge what others do to you but more about how tomorrow should be better than today.
The dresses and accessory worn by the men show their power and skill. They also paint their body and face with white and red clay to look more threatening. The animal tusks and teeth are added as an accessory and a proof of hunting competence, though in fact, they have high respect towards wild animals.
In recent years, the mock war is made into a competition that involves story-telling and choreography. Each village should perform its mock war with different background stories or scenarios. The weapons are no longer made to be dangerous and are used only as story properties. Some judges will score the performance, and the competing village would get an award for winning.
Experiencing the Baliem Valley Festival
Besides the mock war and food feasts, the Baliem Valley festival is becoming more open to tourists. Now, they also have an arts and crafts exhibition. As a display of culture, the arts and crafts that can be found in the festival are not just coming from the three tribes residing in the Baliem Valley but also from other tribes in Papua.
The Baliem Valley festival is also one of those rare times you would find the tribesmen in their war attire and regalia. For some tourists, it is the perfect time to take pictures—of the tribesmen contrasting with the beauty of nature. To keep the ethics, take the pictures from a reasonable distance so they can still practise the ritual in the right manner.