Sacred and captivating Baining Fire Dance is unique to the Baining people living in the mountain forests of East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea. Performed only on rare occasions, the initiated young men, wearing stunning giant masks, dance barefoot on fire. Their murky silhouettes moving in the darkness combined with hypnotising chanting, bamboo thumping, flickering firelight and fire sparks make the Baining Fire Dance a spectacular sight.
Papua New Guinea culture and traditions: Baining people
The sun begins to set while my husband and I are heading deep into the mountain forests of East New Britain. Luckily, it didn’t rain for the last few weeks, otherwise, the road would have been all mud. Soon, we find ourselves driving in a complete darkness on a bumpy road. We are trying to get to a Baining village of Gaulim, about one hour and half drive from Kokopo town to attend the ceremonial Baining Fire Dance.
The Baining Fire Dance is a sacred ceremony unique to the Baining people, who live in the mountains of the same name located in East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea. Baining people, or “bush people” in Tolai language, are the original inhabitants of the Gazelle Peninsula. They are believed to have been driven deep into the mountains by the local Tolai people, who migrated from New Ireland to East New Britain. They have also possibly moved due to the volcanic activity by Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes.
The Baining people have a unique ceremony, the Baining Fire Dances, which are performed only on special occasions such as the initiation of young boys into adulthood. They can be also performed to commemorate the dead, to celebrate harvest and the arrival of a new child, for a wedding, and other special occasions. This time it’s performed for the occasion of the National Mask Festival.
Traditionally, it’s an event reserved only for men. The Baining women and girls weren’t allowed to participate or even watch the ritual dance. The forest spirits, represented by the masks worn by the fire dancers, are believed to be harmful to them. Even today, the Baining women and girls don’t get close to the performance site. It’s also taboo for women to visit the location, where the young boys make their masks.
Once in a village, I find myself sitting on the ground in a complete darkness around a huge bonfire and chatting with the friendly locals. The flames of fire are illuminating the night sky allowing me to see the faces of my neighbours. While we are all waiting for the Baining Fire Dance to start, the local tribesmen are getting ready for the dance. They put on skirts made of pandanus leaves and bark cloth, and huge Baining masks, which embody the spirits living in the forest.
These iconic elaborately decorated Baining night fire dance masks, called “Kavat”, are almost as big as the dancers’ bodies but relatively light. Made from pounded fine white bark cloth, or tapa, and stretched over a bamboo and reeds, they have giant startled round eyes and a broad-billed mouth with a dangling appendage painted with red and black natural colours. There exist many kinds of these masks representing the spirits of different animals and plants.
Unlike Baining day dance masks, which are usually discarded and left to decay in the jungle after each ceremonial dance, the night fire dance masks are reused and stored for the next occasion. While the day dances are dedicated to female fertility and gardening, the night dances are dedicated to forest spirits and hunting.
I am chatting with a local family and getting some interesting details about the Baining Fire Dance when a rhythmic and powerful beating starts rising from the darkness. Soon the thump is joined by the chants of men giving a signal to begin the ceremony.
As the fire is getting higher and higher, a shamanic-looking man in a conical hat, called “Lingen”, arrives, with his arms and legs painted in white, pandanus leaves hanging all around his conical hat, and bark cloth tail pinned at the base of the spin. He will be leading the spirits of the night during tonight ritual performance.
A group of village elders is sitting on the ground at the edge of the dance area. Chanting and making a beat with bamboo poles by hitting large logs, they produce hypnotic rhythmic music.
The dancers, the initiated young Baining men, suddenly appear from the darkness wearing their stunning masks with giant eyes gazing wildly around.
One by one, men dance solo in front of the chorus for the duration of the song before joining other men around the fire. When all the dancers are reunited, they start their frantic wild dance around the fire to the accompaniment of chanting and bamboo beating.
The man in a conical hat proves to be the most energetic among all the dancers.
The flames illuminate their stunning masks making them look like mysterious creatures.
The pace of bamboo beating and chanting slowly rises towards a crescendo. Now the dancers are getting closer and closer to the fire as if building up their confidence and kicking the embers as if testing the heat. Eventually one young man summons his courage and runs barefoot all the way through the raging fire and kicks at the flames, sending a massive shower of sparks into the night sky.
The dancers now take turns jumping into the fire. With the hypnotic and evocative chanting by their elders and rhythmic bamboo beats in the background, one by one, they run through the huge fire with high rising flames.
“One. Two. Three….Ten….,“ I often count until fifteen when some of the bravest men frantically dance in the middle of the blazing fire, barefoot and almost engulfed by flames. But they manage to escape unharmed.
As men jump, they wildly kick the embers and smouldering wood sending clouds of sparks flying in the air. If the locals make sure the fire is constantly burning, I try to make sure the projections don’t ruin my camera.
The flames are illuminating the young men’s huge masks producing gigantic dancing shadows.
During the dance ritual performance, some men are walking around the fire with beautifully painted banners made of bark cloth.
There are no lights except for the fire and a few torches held by some locals. I decided against using a flash. Although it’s hard to get photos with such a light, or rather its absence, I didn’t want to be intrusive. I also think that the natural light coming from the fire make images look more compelling by transmitting the mysterious atmosphere of the event.
As the evening progresses, more and more locals arrive from the nearby Baining villages to watch the Baining Fire Dance. The dances go on all night, and young boys keep the fire going until dawn.
With no fire and the sun slowly rising in the sky, the ceremony that has just happened now appears as dream. But a few ash stains on my clothes remind me that it was very real.
Baining Fire Dances take place at night time in several villages in East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea, such as Gaulim and Kainagunan located about 1.5h drive from Kokopo.
The dances aren’t easy to see as they are performed only for special occasions. The easiest way to witness them is to come to the East New Britain Province during the National Mask & Warwagira Festival. The Baining Fire Dances are performed in conjunction with the festival. For more information, please refer to the article National Mask & Warwagira Festival.
Additional information: Women and girls MUST NOT touch the masks.