The Next Indonesia Corner

The Baliem Valley is nestled in the central highlands of Papua lying at an altitude of about 1,800m, surrounded by a crest of steep green mountains and home to three of Papua’s interior tribes: the Dani, Lani and Yali tribes. The Dani live in the centre, the Lani tribe in the west and the Yali tribe in the south east. Although this is one of the most densely populated areas of Papua, and these groups have lived in this area for thousands of years, the Baliem valley has only recently been discovered by Westerners when American Richard Archbold noticed beautiful terraced fields dotted through the valley from his plane in 1938. The Baliem valley is bisected by the Baliem river which flows from Mt. Trikora, through the Baliem Valley before reaching the Arafura Sea.

Every year these three tribes gather together in Wamena for the annual Baliem valley festival, one of the significant cultural events in the history of the Indonesian people. This festival is a wonderful opportunity to experience an event central in preserving and celebrating the cultural values of three of Papua’s remarkable interior tribes.

The baliem festival held on every august or september.This festival is so unique. The main point of interest of the festival will be the massive tribal attraction involving different tribes living on the villages around Baliem Valley such as Dani, Lani and Yali

Located in incredibly lush and fertile valley with the most people living here have a farming tradition more than 9000 ears long – much longer than in most other parts of the world. More than 70 km long and around 20km wide, 1800 m above the sea level and surrounded by a crest of mountains some of which reach up to 4500, this area was not touched by the western world until the 1940s. And it took many more years to discover the whole beauty of this fertile highland and the various tribes living there.  Although now modernized, the Dani still strongly adhere to their traditions and customs, most notably the dress of the men. Even in this cool mountain climate, men wear only a penis gourd, known as koteka, though complemented with elaborate headdress of bird of paradise or cassowary feathers, while the women wear grass or fern fiber skirts  (sali or saly) slung around the waist. And to carry pigs or the harvest of sweet potatoes, women carry a string bag, called noken, slung from their forehead.

To defend their villages or to raid others to avenge for tribe members killed, the Dani practiced regular warfare. However, anthropologists note that the “Dani wars” are more a display of prowess and opulence of dress and decoration rather than an all out war to kill the enemy. Dani warfare displays competence and exuberance, rather than the wish to kill.  Weapons used are long spears, measuring 4.5 meters, and bows and arrows. Most often, therefore, there are more wounded than killed, and the wounded are quickly carried off the field.

Nowadays, Dani mock battles are held yearly at the Baliem Valley Festival in Wamena during the month of August (see Calendar of Events).  At this feast, which has as its highlight the mock battles among the tribes, the Dani, Yali, and Lani send their best warriors to the arena, wearing their best regalia. The festival is complemented with a Pig Feast, Earth cooking and traditional music and dance. 

There are also arts and crafts exhibited or for sale. Each tribe will come with their own identity, and one can see clear differences among them and identify tribes according to their costume especially the penis gourds each wears. The Dani men usually wear only a small koteka (penis gourd / penis cover), while the Lani tribesmen wear larger koteka’s, since their bodies are bigger than the average Dani, while the Yali wear long slender kotekas held by a rattan belt, strapped at the waist.

By attending the massive Baliem Valley Festival, visitors will have a rare chance to learn and experience firsthand the different traditions of each tribe participating in the Festival without having to make the difficult trek to their compounds deep in the hinterland of West Papua.