Unveiling The Mystery of Koteka, The Legendary Traditional Clothes from West Papua

Grass Cloth Dress: West Papua Traditional Clothes That Makes You Papuan
Sumber : Celebes

Among many traditional clothes of West Papua, koteka is arguably the most famous one. Its unique appearance draws attention, not only from foreigners but also fellow Indonesians. Koteka is a piece of clothes worn by men. Fascinatingly, koteka only covers the genital area, and when a man wears it, he wears nothing else.

As a highly valued traditional legacy, koteka is worn during sacred rituals or ceremonies in West Papua. In a more civilized and modern era today, koteka has become a cultural heritage from the most eastern part of Indonesia. Papuan who live in big cities no longer wear koteka as their daily clothing, however, those who remain in the hinterland still do.

Traditional Clothes from West Papua
Sumber : Tempo

Let’s unveil the deeply mysterious koteka, from its origin to its value and philosophy.

The Origin of Koteka

Koteka is often regarded as a traditional clothing worn by indigenous people in West Papua. It is not entirely wrong, since koteka originated from an ancient tribe in Paniai District. The word “koteka” was taken from Ekagi or Ekari language, which means “clothing”. Meanwhile, tribes who reside in the highland of Jayawijaya mountain called it “hilom” or “horim”. 

More than just clothing, koteka is also deemed as a symbol of masculinity. Therefore, if a man does not wear a koteka, he is considered naked. 

Koteka Through the Ages

As West Papua is exposed to modernity, the people become more civilized and start to cover themselves more with pieces of clothing for modesty. Thus, Koteka is no longer worn daily, but remains mandatory for traditional rituals and ceremonies. 

In the 1950s, missionaries started the campaign to replace koteka with short pants for daily wear. However, the idea was not welcomed warmly as Dani Tribe from Baliem Valley decided to keep koteka, but do not wear it as often as everyday.

Koteka is commonly made of the long water gourd which flourish in the ground of West Papua. The old and ripped water gourd is more preferred as it is stronger and harder in texture. In making the koteka, the filling must be dug out first and the sleeve dried under the sun.

Philosophy Behind Koteka

Koteka holds deep meaning, great value, and certain philosophy, i.e. togetherness, leadership, pride, greatness, modesty, and many more. Thus, koteka is one of the most important parts of the indigenous Papuan tribe residing in the mountainous ecological area of West Papua. Those people believe that koteka defines the masculinity of a man, especially when he holds the bow and arrow, looking upon the vast and open nature (for instance, hunting). Especially for women of Dani Tribe, muscular men who wear koteka are ideal men to marry.

Koteka and the Symbolism of Social Status

Men wear koteka to cover their genitals, and to prevent it from falling, the koteka is tied with a long string around the waist. How men wear koteka shows their social status:

  1. Upright koteka symbolizes a real man who is also still a virgin (never had sexual intercourse).
  2. Tilting to the right koteka symbolizes a man’s masculinity with a high rank status in his tribe or an aristocrat.
  3. Tilting to the left koteka symbolizes a middle class man whose descendant was a commander.

Koteka in Modern Days

Then what about today? Surely, koteka is still valued and respected as a part of a tangible culture in West Papua. Even though the sight of koteka is not very common, many tourists who visit the region are very eager to try koteka for themselves. They also visit the Baliem Valley Festival where locals tell about the history and legend of koteka.