Gawai Day or Gawai Dayak is a festive celebrated in Sarawak on 1st June every year is both a religious and social occasion. The word Gawai means a ritual or festival whereas Dayak is a collective name for the natives races in Sarawak; the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Murut people and a few more. Thus Gawai Dayak literally means “Dayak Festival”. Dayak would visit their friends and relatives on this day. Such visit is more known as “ngabang” in Iban language. Those far away would receive greeting cards.
How it all started can be traced back to a 1957 radio forum held by Mr Ian Kingsley, a radio programme organiser. This generated a lot of interest among the Dayak community. The mode of celebrations varies from place to place. Preparation starts very early. Tuak (rice wine) are brewed and traditional delicacies like penganan (cakes from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk) prepared. As the big day approaches, everyone will be busy with the general cleaning and preparing the food or cakes. On Gawai Eve, glutinous rice is roasted in bamboo (ngelulun pulut). In the longhouse, new mats will be laid out on the ruai (an open gallery which runs through the entire length of the longhouse). The walls of most bilik (rooms) and the ruai are decorated with pua kumbu (traditional blanket).
The celebration starts on the evening of 31st May. In most Iban’s longhouse, it starts with a ceremony called Muai Antu Rua (to cast away the spirit of greediness), signifying the non-interference of the spirit of bad luck in the celebration. Two children or men each dragging a chapan (winnowing basket) will pass each family’s room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse for the spirit of bad luck.
Around 6 pm, miring (offering ceremony) will take place. Before the ceremony, gendang rayah (ritual music) is performed. The feast chief thanks the gods for the good harvest, ask for guidance, blessings and long life as he sacrifices a cockerel. Dinner will then be served at the ruai. While waiting for midnight, the folks gather and mingle at the ruai and berandau (talk/converse). Meanwhile, drinks, traditional cakes and delicacies are served.
At midnight, the gong is sounded. The tuai rumah will lead everyone to drink the Ai Pengayu (normally tuak for long life) and at the same time wishing each other “gayu-guru, gerai-nyamai” (long life, health and prosperity). A procession up and down the ruai called Ngalu Petara (Welcoming the Spirits) will follow. The celebration by now will get more merrier. Some will dance to the traditional music played. Others will sing the pantun (poems). In the town, the Dayak will gather at the community centres or restaurants to enliven the evening.
Other activities that may follow the next day include cock-fighting, demonstration of blowpipe skills and ngajat competitions. On this day, 1st June, the homes of the Dayaks will be opened to visitors. In the longhouses, there is a practises called masu pengabang where guests will be served with tuak by the host before they can enter the longhouse. Dayaks will attend a church mass to thank God for the good harvest. Gawai Dayak celebration may last for several days. Visitors are most welcome to the homes of the Dayaks during the festival.
Up till 1962, British colonial government still refused to give recognition to the Dayak Day. Gawai Dayak was formally gazetted on 25th September 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day. It was first celebrated on 1st June 1965 and became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community. Today, it is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking good harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or activities ahead.