On June 1 every year the Dayak people in Sarawak, who are traditionally farmers celebrate Gawai Dayak. It is a day to give thanks to the gods after the rice harvesting season is over; when all the paddy stalks have been threshed and the fresh grains have been neatly stored.
“Gawai” means festival and “Dayak” is a collective name for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the interior of Borneo.
The Dayaks consist mainly of Ibans, followed by the Bidayuhs and Orang Ulu. The Orang Ulu group includes the Kayans, Kenyahs and Lun Bawangs.
Gawai Dayak is one of the most exciting and keenly awaited festivals and as the day draws near, family members studying or working in faraway cities and towns come streaming back to their villages to join in the celebration.
In the days leading to it everyone will be busy, such as doing general tidying up or erecting a “ranyai” (tree of life) in the middle of the “ruai” (common gallery that spans the length of a longhouse), or decorating their “bilek” (room) by hanging beautifully designed, hand-woven ceremonial blankets (pua kumbu), tied cloth (kain kebat) and other handicrafts. Others may be preparing traditional cakes and cookies for the festival.
Dayaks, especially those in the villages and longhouses in the remote interior of the State, are extraordinarily hospitable people and excellent hosts who would spare nothing to please their guests.
Guests would be warmly-welcomed with “tuak”, (traditional Dayak rice wine) and served exotic food prepared in traditional ways.
In any Dayak festival, traditional cakes, delicacies and treats made from glutinous rice flour mixed with brown “nipah” (palm) sugar or cane sugar, such as “sarang semut” (ant nest cake), “cuwan” (moulded cake), “kuih sepit” (pressed cake) and “penganan iri” (a discus-shaped cake) are served.
To complement meat from the animals and fowls they rear, the Dayaks in the interior source their food, meat and vegetable, from the forest and rivers by hunting, trapping and fishing.
Early in the morning on the eve of the gawai, the women would go to the nearby jungle or their farms and gardens to gather vegetables.
Later in the morning, the pigs and poultry they rear are slaughtered. Some meat may be cooked in bamboo to make a traditional dish called “pansoh” or “lulun” (in the Iban language). Glutinous rice may be cooked in the same way to soak up the bamboo aroma. Some, especially the Orang Ulu, are fond of wrapping rice in long green leaves before steaming it inside a pot.
In conjunction with the festival, the villagers make time to visit the graves and pay respect to their departed loved ones.
By afternoon, beautifully decorated hand-woven “tikai” (mats) would have been laid out in the “ruai” for guests to sit on. This marks the beginning of the gawai ceremony.
Although the actual date of Gawai Dayak is June 1, the celebrations formally begin on the evening of May 31 with a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed (muai antu rua).
Just before dusk, a procession to invite and welcome the spirits and deities (Ngalu Petara) to the Gawai is performed several times up and down the “ruai”, accompanied by traditional music.
The pagan Ibans believe in seven deities, each with special functions and responsibilities. They also call upon the legendary and mythical people of Panggau Libau and Gelong, and some good, helpful spirits or ghosts to attend the feast.
At dusk a ritual music called “gendang rayah” is performed followed by an “offering” (miring or bedara) ritual.
A set of offerings usually contains traditional items such as the cigarette made from rolled dried nipah leaves and tobacco, betel nut and “sireh” leaves, glutinous rice in a hand-woven leaf container, rice cakes, glutinous rice cooked in leaves and bamboo, cakes made from glutinous rice flour mixed with nipah sugar, “ant nest” cakes and moulded cakes, pop-rice (made from paddy grains), hard-boiled eggs and rice wine.
After all the offering sets are completed, the chief of the festival thanks the gods for a good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel (bebiau) over the offerings.
The offerings are then placed at the designated and strategic locations, such as the four corners of each family room, for protection of souls; in the kitchen, on the rice jar, in the gallery, the “tanju” (open verandah of a longhouse) and the farm. The offerings are also placed on other highly prized possessions such as precious old jars and modern items like rice-mill engines, boat engines or a car. Those who possess “pengaroh” (amulets) would bring them out for this ceremony and given the offerings to ensure its continuous effectiveness.
(Some Dayaks, like their forefathers, still embraced animism and paganism but in recent times, many have converted to Christianity and refrain from partaking in the rituals practiced in gawai.)
Once the “miring” ceremony is completed every family joins the other families for dinner (makai berami) at the “ruai” of the longhouse. Each family would contribute something to be shared with everyone. All the best traditional foods, delicacies and drinks that have been prepared are displayed and served.
After dinner, celebrations are less formal. A beauty pageant to choose the festival’s queen and king (“Kumang” and “Keling” Gawai) is sometimes held. The winners are chosen for completeness of their traditional costumes and beauty.
For merry-making, the men would show off their ngajat (traditional dance), skill, such as sword dance “bepencha” (sword dance) or “bekuntau” (martial art) and “ajat perang” (war dance).
There are many variations of the traditional ngajat dance. Basically, both the male and female dances consist of graceful and precise movements of the body, hands and feet. Examples are the “ngajat lesong” (rice mortar dance) and the warrior dance for men. The male dances are more aggressive, showing strength and bravery with occasional shouts of a battle cry. Women perform the graceful “ngajat pua kumbu” (ritual cloth dance). The ngajat dance is accompanied by “gendang” (music) from traditional instruments. In the Orang Ulu dance music is played using the “sape”, a guitar-like string-instrument. Nowadays, recordings of the music may be used in the absence of a live band.
Bidayuh dances include the “tolak bala” (danger repealing), a dance performed before the harvest to ask for blessing and protection of the community; the “totokng” dance that is performed during the harvest festival to welcome the paddy soul and guests; the “langi julang” which is performed at the closing of the harvest festival to thank the gods for bestowing good health and a rich harvest; and the eagle-warrior fight dance performed after the harvest season. Hands are held outstretched imitating the movements of the eagles as they flap their wings in flight.
Way back in the past the singing of traditional songs and poems such as “pantun”, “ramban”, “jawang”, “sanggai” and “pelandai” were an important activity during any gawai. But sadly, nowadays there are hardly any old people who are good at these traditional songs and poems left. Many have passed on. The younger generations are not interested.
Other activities include mini sports and traditional games, karaoke singing, dancing, “kebaya” dress and body art (tattoo) contests.
Just before midnight May 31, a gong is beaten to call the guests to attention. The longhouse chief (tuai rumah) or host will lead a toast to longevity (Ai Pengayu) and the new farming year with a short prayer (sampi). At the stroke of midnight, everyone downs their glasses of “tuak” as a barrage of gun-fire or fire crackers rang loud into the night sky to usher in the new farming year. The festival greeting, “Gayu-guru, gerai-nyamai, lantang-senang nguan menua” which roughly means “live long, healthy and comfortable life” is repeated to each other. Mistakes and quarrels are forgiven.
The next day, June 1, Dayak homes are opened to guests. This practice is called “ngabang”. In the longhouse the guest-of-honour is received with a “miring” (offering) ceremony outside the longhouse. Upon approaching the stairs to the longhouse, the guest-of-honour is asked to open a “fort” (muka kuta). This is represented by the slashing of a bamboo fence with a sword and accompanied by reciting a poem. Then, at the foot of the longhouse stairs, an animal (usually a pig) is speared (mankan) as sacrifice. As the guests proceed up the stairs, they are met by two rows of women, one on each side of the stairs “nyambut pengabang” (receiving the guests) with glasses of “tuak” named “ai tiki” (welcome drink) and “ai aus” (thirst quencher).
In “ngelalu ke pengabang” (welcoming the guests), the guests are led by ngajat dancers and followed by the traditional music band as they proceed to their seats along the longhouse gallery. Then, when the guests are seated and settled, further rounds of “tuak” called “ai basu” (washing drink), “ai untong” (profit drink) and “ai basa” (respect drink) are served. This activity is called “nyibur temuai” (watering the guests).
Speeches are made to introduce the guest-of-honour and his entourage, followed by the “biau pengabang” (blessing the guests) that is usually recited by a “lemambang” (bard), the “tuai rumah” (longhouse headman) or a talented reciter as he waves a chicken in a circular motion over the heads of the guests.
Before the guests are allowed to have the food and drinks, the guest-of-honour is required to recite a special speech (called “muka kujuk” in Iban) as the “key” to open the traditional cloth that covers the food containers. (This is considered part of the fun! Nothing serious!) Once uncovered, the food and drinks are there for them to feast on.
In the cities and major towns open houses may also be organised by Dayak associations or non-government organisations.
Gawai Dayak celebration formally comes to a close around the end of June. The closing ceremony is symbolised by rolling back a ceremonial mat (called “tikai” or “bidai”) by the women elders and outstanding women of the longhouse.
To experience Gawai Dayak, the best time of the year to visit Sarawak is from the last week of May through the first week of June.
For tourists and visitors who love adventure and like to experience gawai or life in the rural and remote villages and longhouses, some of these places provide accommodation or homestays. Be sure to look up details and information on the locations and how to get there.