Gawea Sowa or what is more commonly known today as Gawai Dayak has long been an integral part of the culture of the Bidayuh folks. For them, as it is for the Iban and other Dayak folks observing it, Gawai marks the end of the rice harvest season and is held to celebrate a bountiful yield. Although the reason for observing Gawai remains the same then and now, there are differences in the way the festive occasion is celebrated in the past and how it is celebrated today.
With most Bidayuh folks embracing Christianity, the old ways are no longer widely practiced. Only the remaining few still make it a point to observe ancient animistic rituals as important aspects of their Gawai celebration. The setting up of a Sangar is one of those rituals. A Sangar is shrine constructed out of bamboo, where ritual offerings are made to ask for blessings. Part of the ritual is a dance performed around the Sangar, led by the Ketua Gawai. Participants of the ritual dance around the shrine would carry in their hands some items for offering, such as glutinous rice cooked in bamboo and perhaps a pack of hand-rolled cigarettes.
While most villages no longer practice the old ways, the Jagoi-Bratak Bidayuh of Kampung Duyoh, Kampung Stass and Kampung Serasot in Bau still keep their traditions alive and well, with practices like boris and ngrinang still held every Gawai. Most of their old rituals are performed by women known as Dayung Boris, with the Ketua Gawai leading them in performing these rituals.
Unfortunately, these practices are in danger of dying out completely. For example, the Dayung Boris face a future that’s very uncertain, especially because to become one, you will have to be chosen by the spirit realm. That’s no longer the case since most Bidayuh are now Christians.
In any case, the Bidayuh folks have been putting in much effort to keep the traditional aspects of these practices alive, leaving out the ritualistic parts. This way, future generations can still appreciate these traditions. By preserving the old traditions, they will also be able to showcase the beauty of their old ways to foreign tourists who come here to learn about local cultures and traditions.
These days, Gawai is celebrated differently. Instead of performing old rituals, families attend church services. Family members from far and wide would gather at the family house in the village to celebrate together this joyous festivity.
Open houses are a must and a time when people would go visiting (ngabang) from one house to another, enjoying the food served at each open house and of course catching up with relatives and old friends. Prior to Gawai Day, members of the family would each lend a hand to make sure preparations go smoothly. Delicious meals are prepared starting in the wee hours to make sure that they are all ready before visitors (pingabang in Bidayuh) start coming through the door.
On the menu are pansoh (a traditional dish of bamboo chicken enjoyed to this very day), glutinous rice in bamboo, rice wrapped in leaf, kuih jala and kuih penyaram. Back in the old days, a simple dish of free-range chicken soup with just lemongrass and ginger is a delicious Gawai favourite, and coffee was served instead of carbonated sodas or beer. Meanwhile, non-traditional dishes introduced to the modern-day menu usually include chicken curry, pork stir-fried with soy sauce and pak lo duck.
Music would be blaring from the home speakers, playing the latest joget, dangdut or local rock & roll hits, while some families would set up a karaoke system for visitors to enjoy singing. Open houses would last even until the next morning.
For some villages, the highlight of their Gawai celebration is a special programme normally held in their community hall, which would include live music and karaoke competition among other things. They would also include traditional dance performances, accompanied by the beating of the gong among other things, to showcase the beauty of their culture and traditions.
Sure as time changes, so change the ways in which Gawai is celebrated. But thanks to the effort of those who see great value in preserving their culture and traditions, Gawai will remain a significant celebration for the Bidayuh people, as it is for the Iban and Orang Ulu who also celebrate Gawai, albeit in their own unique ways.