Gawai Batu in the Christian way

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Gawai Batu

by Chang Yi. Posted on March 3, 2013, Sunday

EVER since the dawn of history, man has related in one way or another to the presence of a special spiritual being.

SEEKING BLESSING: Occasionally, a padi farmer breaks into a dance during the ceremonial walk.

He has devised ceremonies and prayers to establish the special communion between man and the spirits.

According to both the Torah and the Old Testament of the Bible, Adam and Eve bore two children. One of them, Abel, was a shepherd who found favour with God.

His brother Cain, a grower of crops, was jealous and so he killed Abel. This was the first crime recorded in mankind’s history by the two holy books.

Abel found favour with God because his prayers were from the heart. Thus, prayers said in this way continue to play a very big role in the spiritual lives of most people.

According to a learned friend, the Ibans, following traditions, stay close to the teachings of Sempulan Gana.

“Gawai Batu” is one of the many Gawai practices of the Ibans, the purpose of which is to safeguard their padi farms.

This belief stems from the teachings of Sempulang Gana and is not practised yearly but several years in between, normally when one feels one’s production or harvest has declined through the years.

This is not very different from modern-day prayers for a better life, offered by people of other faiths.

Sempulan Gana is the Iban God of Earth (Tanah).

Elaborating on Sempulang Gana, Gregory Mawar said: “When he returned, all that was left for him was an earthern box. At first Sempulang Gana was angry but he was later informed by his father-in-law, Petara Semarugah, of the box’s value.

“He discovered he had received the most valuable inheritance of them all — the Earth itself. As such, all the other gods and all human beings had had to make offerings to Sempulang Gana to obtain his permission before farming the earth.”

Another Iban professional said rice cultivation is actually very ritualistic for the Ibans.

“Every step of their farming is like a religious rite because the farmers have to respect the order of Nature and the presence of God. Without respecting the presence of God in their farming life, they will not have successful crops,” he explained.

WOMEN CELEBRANTS: Gawai Batu celebrants are women because they are the ones who will till the land and head planting after Gawai Batu.

Mrs Mail, a rice cultivator, does not harvest all the padi she planted, leaving some sheaves of grains for “the others” to eat.

She prays in church and whenever she tends her padi field she leaves grains for the birds to feed on, God will be pleased because I am sharing my crop with God’s other creations.

Other rice cultivators also perform ceremonies before their planting season.

In Thailand, for example, an age-old ceremony was held on an auspicious day, determined by a royal astrologer, sometime in May, to mark the beginning of the rice-planting season. Today, the ceremony continues to be practised.

Traditionally, the culture of the Ifugaos (the Philippines) has been intimately connected with the cultivation of rice.

Twelve rice rituals, performed by the native mumbaki, define the Ifugao agrarian calendar. These rituals, conducted throughout the rice growing cycle, helped maintain the balance the Ifugaos had with their environment and ensure a bountiful harvest — (Dulawan 1982).

According to one of the tourist brochures on Japan, the Emperor, embodying the god of the ripened rice plant, plants the first rice of the Spring and harvests rice from the plants of the autumn.

In one of the most solemn Shinto ceremonies of the year, the Emperor, acting as the country’s chief Shinto priest, ritually sows rice in the royal rice paddy on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

It is also a well-known fact that Emperor Akihito tends a rice plot on the imperial grounds in Tokyo.

An indigenous group in Sarawak, the Bidayuh hold an elaborate June Gawai for the Padi Goddess. It’s very colourful and the priestesses who go into trance provide blessings for the farmers for the whole year.

GENDANG SOUND: Gawai Batu blessing ceremony is not complete without the beating of the gendang.

The Iban Gawai Batu, witnessed recently in Limbang, was an all-female, solemn, although simple, ceremony.

Led by the only male member of the ceremony, in accordance with his social status (longhouse headman or tuai rumah aling), the service started with singing of praises.

Prayers were led by the local catechist, the daughter of one of the longhouse members.

This 38-door longhouse holds this historically significant ceremony only once every few years. This was their first Christian-based Whet Stone Ceremony or Gawai Batu.

A learned witness brought out several salient points about the ceremony, touching on long, treasured features of both the ceremony and the importance of rice cultivation among the Ibans:

Gawai Batu is so called because the ceremony, first and foremost, asks for the blessings of the whet stone (or sharpening stone) so that the implements used are sharp and swift for cultivation and final harvesting.

The whet stone and the knife are the main implements the women place in their baskets of offerings.

The catechist and these women prayed in unison for God’s blessings. Without these two and others like seeds, vegetables, the farmers could not sustain their farm throughout the year.

The Cross as the focus of offering for the first time. The Gawai Batu was special because the women had made wooden crosses which they brought to their farms as a symbol of God’s presence with them. Thus, the ceremony was also for the blessing of their wooden crosses.

Memories of friends who passed on. Many of the women shed tears because they were thinking about those “who had been going down to the padi fields with them all their lives but had now gone to heaven to be with angels.”

Sisterly affections are very strong among the Iban women, especially when they farm together. They stay close to each other and share food. They go to their farms early in the morning in groups and come home at the same time everyday for security and companionship.
This has gone on for more than 30 years in some cases.
Pantan, for example, has been planting padi for almost all her life. She is now 64 and still a very efficient padi grower. She fondly remembers her late aunties, and especially her late mother who had been with her at the farms during the ceremony.

Asking for blessings from God. The catechist led the women of the longhouse in prayers for better crops in the year ahead. Besides planting padi, the women also grow corn and vegetables like ensabi. All the special offerings were placed before the makeshift altar with lighted candles and the Bible.

Asking for permission to cultivate the land. The women ask God to give them the right to cultivate the soil and grant them good weather for the seeding season, the growth of the padi and the cooperation of the bird and rat population.

Asking for mutual respect.

A special prayer was said by the catechist for all the farmers so that they have mutual respect for each other and for greater care of each other’s well being.

The catechist then read from the Bible and sang a final hymn before pronouncing the benediction. The candles were lit throughout the ceremony.

Later, the women with their baskets of offerings walked down to the end of the longhouse and then back to the other end. This was made together with the anointing of each door with holy water by the catechist.

The longhouse people had expressed the hope that this won’t be the last of the Gawai Batu or the Planting of Padi on their rich land.

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