Gawai Burung Iban (Iban bird festival)

Gawai Burong, celebrated to honour the War God Sengalang Burong, is one of the greatest of all Iban festivals or ceremonies and was first celebrated by Sera Gunting himself on his return from this grandfather longhouse.

The other festivals of bird rituals, by order of importance and expense, includes Gawai Mata’, Enchaboh Arong, Gawai Kenyalang and Gawai Burong, the latter being celebrated in nine ascending stages known as:

1) Gawai Kalingkang
2) Gawai Sandong
3) Gawai Sawi
4) Gawai Salangking
5) Gawai Mulong Merangau or Lemba Bumbun
6) Gawai Gajah Meram
7) Gawai Meligai
8) Gawai Ranyai or Mudur Ruruh
9) Gawai Gerasi Papa

For each stage of the gawai burong, a different pole called “tiang chandi” is built, on which the statue of hornbill is placed during the gawai feasts. The materials for the construction of Tiang Chandi are as follows: For Gawai Kalingkang, the sacred pole is made of payan bamboo, about nine feet high, with a jar attached in the mid of the pole, acting as its knots (bungkong); For Gawai Sandong, the sacred pole is made of Selangking tree; For Gawai Sawi, the sacred pole is made up of illipeanut palm trunk (pinang) or core of durian trunk (kah rian); For Gawai Selangking or Lamba Bumbun, the sacred pole is made of the heart (kah) of the selangking tree; For Gawai Mulong Merangau, the sacred pole is made of durian wood and is cleverly curved like an old sago palm tree when all of its fruits has fallen to the ground; For Gawai Gajah Meram, the sacred pole is made of a strong wood with branches decorated with skulls and isang palm leaves; For Gawai Meligai, the sacred pole is made of decorated strong wood; For Gawai Ranyai or Mudur Ruruh, the sacred pole is made from a bunch of warriors’s spears which have been used in fighting the enemies in war and for Gawai Gerasi Papa, its sacred pole in constructed with a figure of a demon huntsman or antu gerasi papa curved on the top. Similarly the chants by the lemambang vary for each stage, but the ceremony, on the whole, maintains basic outlines except that each concludes with a different line of verse. At this juncture, it is timely to briefly describe other Iban festivals and its order of importance to better understand the significance of Gawai Burong in Iban society.

Gawai Mata’ is a small ceremony (implicit in its name for mata’ which literally means “unripe”) that may be performed by any warrior who received instructions in a dream to make food offering to his guardian spirit (orang Panggau or other guardian spirits like Enting Naing). It is also held as curing ceremony for the sick. No bard is required to recite chants; one piglet is used as sacrifice, food is served for the guest, spirit and human alike, only once. Guest is usually from same longhouse or just a selected few close relatives from neighbouring longhouses.

Enchaboh Arong is formerly performed to receive a newly taken head into the longhouse and is sponsored by anyone who has taken an enemy head or killed an enemy in war or battle. A piglet is sacrificed to provide an offerings and food served to the human guest and spirit alike similar to gawai mata’.

Gawai Kenyalang, like Gawai Burong, is a big ceremony, involving bards, cock fight, many sacrificial pigs, brewing of tuak with invitations extend to surrounding longhouses and with preparation period of a farming season (umai bedandang). This gawai should only be sponsored by an outstanding warleader or his descendant, and should not be given by a young man, for fear it will shorten his life. The sponsor decides to perform the ritual as proof of his greatness and not necessarily from instructions received in dreams. The centrepiece of this gawai is an elaborate rhinoceros hornbill statue mounted on the towering pole called tiang chandi at the climax of the festival.

Traditionally, only warriors who has killed an enemy was allowed to fell the tree used to construct the hornbill statue without fear of supernatural repercussions. Similarly, a warrior who has killed numerous enemies on a single expedition should cut the piece of wood used to construct the hornbill’s beak. This rule have been modified in modern times with the role of the warriors being taken over by senior men of respected positions. The Kenyalang statue becomes sacred after it has been consecrated in a Gawai Kenyalang ceremony. Old statue are placed and stored in the longhouse loft (sadau) and are brought out for display on top of Tiang Chandi on another bird festival to receive the offerings. This Kenyalang bird statue is thought to represent the chief of worldly birds and it is used to welcome the god of the augural birds, Sengalang Burong, to the feast and celebrations of humankind. 

Before Sera Gunting celebrated the Gawai Burong proper in stages, he performed the first stage of the gawai called Enchaboh Arong to celebrate the spoils of war (a jar and a gong) he brought home and to commemorate the first three heads he obtained in a war expedition with his uncles, the omen birds, when he was visiting Sengalang Burong longhouse.


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