Gawai Dayak versus Gawai Kenyalang

28 May 2012| last updated at 09:16AM
Nurturing spirit of Gawai

GIVE THANKS: Younger generation must learn to appreciate their roots

KUCHING: IT is that time of the year again in June, where familiar smells permeate Dayak villages throughout Sarawak.

The sweet pungent smell of fermented rice wines and gravies of native cuisine boiling in bamboo over open fire as well as sounds of slaughtered hogs fill the air.

A feast prepared and fit for the gods who helped to provide a good harvest for villagers is a must on June 1 when Gawai Dayak in Sarawak is observed.

The rice gods are not really sought on that day, for the ceremonies are mainly symbolic, a part of the culture that should be preserved for the younger generation — ceremonies like Miring and Ngalu Petara or welcoming the spirits.

When I was younger, my folks in the longhouse in Bua, Engkilili would carry out all these ceremonies during Gawai Dayak and various other Gawai celebrations.

Yes, I said it right, various other Gawai celebrations.

Gawai, which literally means festival in my other mother tongue, Iban, simply means that.

Other than the normal Gawai which I experienced, I was part of my grand uncle’s Gawai Kenyalang festival; a festival exclusively for warriors who had killed numerous enemies and only he could decide when the date for the celebration was to be held.

The difference with this Gawai is that a sacred hornbill statue, intricately carved is thought to represent the chief of all the worldly birds and oversees all mankind.

That is what I was told and another important part of Gawai Kenyalang is that, only an outstanding warrior can hold such Gawai and my granduncle was a former decorated Sarawak Ranger.

My granduncle is not around and I never got the chance to listen to all of his war stories. And being half Iban, honestly, I do not know much about my own heritage and I have to really do some research to know more.

Like any celebration, Gawai is the time to give thanks for any success that we achieve, but the nitty-gritty of how it is celebrated makes it different and gives it an identity.

Iban people
Saribas River region, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia

Ceremonial effigy of a hornbill [kenyalang] early 20th century
wood, paint
100.0 (h) x 20.0 (w) x 80.0 (d) cm
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

The rhinoceros hornbill, native to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and Borneo, is a popular and powerful motif, appearing often in the ancestral art of the region. In Iban belief, hornbills are associated with the upper world, and act as intermediaries between Singalong Burung, the principal deity and ancestor, and the human world.

During gawai burong or gawai kenyalang festivals honouring Singalong Burung and his messenger, hornbill carvings are paraded around communal longhouses. The ceremony was once a precursor to headhunting raids. With headhunting outlawed, the ceremony has been incorporated into rice harvest celebrations. Adorned with jewellery, clothes and offerings of food, kenyalang are placed on top of long poles where they symbolically remit messages to the upper world.


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