Baliem Festival, The Highlanders’ Pride

“Orang gunung” (The Highlanders), this is the nickname attributed to the inhabitants of Baliem Valley located in the Jayawijaya mountains, West Papua. The Highlanders live at the altitude of 1600 MASL which is the average height of the Baliem Valley. Some even live at the altitude of 2500 to 3000 MASL.

The inhabitants of Baliem Valley always organize the Baliem Valley Cultural Festival one week before Indonesia’s Independence Day. The year 2017 marked the 28th Baliem Festival. There are always a lot of visitors who come to the festival, some come as audience and others as enthusiastic performers. These performers, mostly locals who live in the Great Valley of Baliem, are the hosts. They come from 40 subdistricts of the Jayawijaya regency. In 2017, two neighboring regencies, Puncak and Yalimo subdistrict, even sent their representatives.

Do not think that the performers’ home districts were located close to the festival location. On the contrary, performers from several districts must walk for days in order to attend the festival because its location is not accessible by any type of vehicle. However, these circumstances did not stop them from coming and participating in the festival.

The festival location was crowded for three days in a row. All kinds of sounds and colors burst into the sky; mesmerizing landscape of Baliem Valley served as its background. The clamor made you feel as if you were on another planet. And the performers’ ensemble was breathtaking!

A large square in the Welesi district was hosting for the second time. This location had been used in 2016 and was permanently designated by the government of Jayawijaya regency to accommodate the Baliem Festival. Various facilities were prepared to ensure the comfort of the audience and performers. For several years prior, this festival was held in the Kampung Wosi Square in Kurulu district.

This festival, which consisted of numerous cultural activities and contests of Baliem Valley habitants, never failed to attract tourists into Wamena.

The Legendary Local Festival

The ambience of Baliem Festival is unlike any other. People from all over the world have heard of its greatness, which explains why thousands of visitors from abroad flock Wamena during the festival. All hotel rooms are usually fully booked and it is almost impossible to rent a vehicle to go to the festival venue. Everything would already be reserved very early prior to the festival date.

Do not be surprised if you see three people, foreign and local tourists alike, riding one motorcycle. Safety is their second priority; the most important thing is to reach the venue.

The most anticipated spectacle is the passionate performance from the people of Baliem Valley. The calm demeanor of Baliem locals changes drastically during the festival. They shout over and over again, dance in a circle, and express their excitements, especially outside the preparation area for their performance.

Just look at their ensemble. Feathers of birds-of-paradise, cockatoos, parrots, cassowaries, cuscus, tree kangaroos, and junglefowls all form a colorful headpiece. Wild boar tusks, penis gourds made from calabash, and other organic wickerwork complete their costumes. There are even performers who incorporate modern accessories into their ensemble, such as sunglasses, soft drink cans, and even cuts of instant noodle boxes!

There are also people who paint their entire body white by using mud, red using clay, pitch black using charcoal, and slick black using animal fat and charcoal.

It is definitely a spectacle that satisfies the body and soul.

Sense of Pride

For three consecutive days from the 8 to 10th of August 2017, district representatives from Jayawijaya regency took turn performing in the festival. The main arena was reserved for war dance and youth dance competition. Other spectacles like archery competition, sikoko spear throwing (with target) contest, puradan spear distance throwing contest, and kurapan babi (pig race) were held beside the main arena.

Karapan babi was Baliem Valley’s version of traditional animal racing festival. The pigs used in the race were young and still docile. The pigs were supposed to follow their masters’ directions and finish the track as soon as possible.

There was also pikon – musical instrument made from bamboos that relies on air vibration – blowing contest. In West Java, a similar musical instrument is called karinding. Both are made from bamboos and must be blown with great energy. The difference is pikon relies on its string to produce air vibration, while karinding produces sound if the end were to be beaten with a finger.

The scores of these competitions were determined by a team of judges, some were local humanists, who were very familiar with its traditional rules and norms. This was done to ensure that each competition stayed strictly within the Baliem Valley norms. The goal was to preserve the tradition and rituals of the people in this great valley.

War dance and youth dance contests were always the prima donna of this festival. Winning the competition was the ultimate achievement and prestige for the performers. For that reason, traditional costumes must be worn properly. If one of the contestants were to wear shoes or even shorts, it would automatically weaken their group points. However, the contestants did not seem to care that much about these points. They were much more concerned about showing their pride of their traditional values and cultural achievements through their performances.

We do hope that this pride lingers so that you, who are reading this article and who wish to watch the Baliem Festival, will be able to witness this spectacular event one day. Trust us. You will not regret attending the Baliem Festival as long as their pride and glory remains. The pride and glory of the highlanders.

That pride. That excellent pride!


Translated by Shofa Fathyamala

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