Gawai Dayak

Gawai Dayak

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Gawai Dayak
Gawai Dayak
Iban girls dressed in full Iban (women) attire during Gawai festivals in Debak, Betong region, Sarawak
Official name Gawai Dayak
Also called Ari Gawai (Iban),Andu Gawai (Bidayuh)
Observed by Sarawak, West Kalimantan
Type Religious, Social,Traditional ethnic festival
Date June 1
Celebrations Gawai Dayak

Gawai Dayak is a festival celebrated by Dayaks in Sarawak and West Kalimantan which is officially public holidays on 31 May and 1 June every year in Sarawak, Malaysia. It is both a religious and social occasion.

The word Gawai means a ritual or festival whereas Dayak is a collective name for the native ethnic groups of Sarawak (and neighboring Indonesian Kalimantan): the Iban, also known previously as Sea Dayak and the Bidayuh people, also known as Land Dayak and the Orang Ulu (inclusive of Kayans, Kenyahs, etc.). Thus, Gawai Dayak literally means “Dayak Festival”.

Dayak would visit their friends and relatives on this day. Such visit is more commonly known as “ngabang” in the Iban language. Those too far away to visit would receive greeting cards. If there is a formal invitation to visit, the ngalu pengabang/temuai (welcoming guests/visitors) procession will be performed by the inviting longhouse.

It started back in 1957 in a radio forum held by Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, a radio programme organiser. This generated a lot of interest among the Dayak community.

The mode of celebration varies from place to place and the other place and to this place. Preparation starts early. Tuak (rice wine) is brewed (at least one month before the celebration) obviously using the rice from the recent bountiful harvest mixed with home-made ciping (yeast) for fermentation. The longhouse itself may be repaired and repainted if necessary before the celebration.

Just before the gawai, traditional delicacies like sarang semut or penganan tatok” (ant nest, deep-fried in oil, hardened and dried cake), “cuwan or penganan celup” (cake made by dipping a metal mold in the form of flower and deep-fried in oil), “penganan iri (cakes from mixture of rice flour, sugar, coconut milk and eggs, which is scooped and poured into oil to form a dome-disc like shape) are prepared. As the big day approaches, everyone will be busy with general cleaning and preparing food and cakes.

On Gawai Eve, ‘asi pulut lulun or pansoh’-glutinous rice (lemang is a Malay term for this) is steamed in bamboo (ngelulun or mansoh pulut). In the longhouse, new mats (berancau tikai or bidai) 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 blankets).

A visit to clean the graveyard is also conducted and offerings offered to the dead before the actual gawai. After the visit it is important to bathe before entering the longhouse to ward off bad luck.

The celebration starts on the evening of 31 May. In most Iban longhouses, it starts with a ceremony called Muai Antu Rua (to cast away the spirit of greed), 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 or as the sun sets, miring or bedarak (offering ceremony) will take place, normally at every family room. Before the ceremony, gendang rayah (ritual music) is performed. The Feast Chief thanks the gods for the good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings. He then sacrifices the cockerel and a little blood is used as genselan (sacrifice) together with the offerings.[1]

Once the offering ceremony is done, dinner is then served at the ruai which is contributed by every family in the longhouse. Just before midnight, a procession up and down the ruai seven times called Ngalu Petara (welcoming the spirit gods) is performed. During this procession, a beauty pageant to choose the festival’s queen and king (Kumang and Keling Gawai) is sometimes conducted based on completeness of traditional costume and of course a bit of beauty. Meanwhile, food, drinks, traditional cakes and delicacies are served.

At midnight, the gong is beaten to call the celebrants to attention. The longhouse Chief (tuai rumah) or Festival Chief will lead everyone to drink the Ai Pengayu (normally tuak for long life) and at the same time wish each other “Gayu-Guru, Gerai-Nyamai, Senang Lantang Nguan Menua” (Long life, Good health and Ample prosperity or Longevity, Wellness and Wealth).

The celebration now turns merrier and less formal. Some will set up a ranyai rami (tree of life for celebration) at their own ruai for merry-making purposes, dance (ngajat), bepenca {sword dance) or bekuntau (traditional self-defence martial art) around it according to the sound of traditional music played while others will sing the pantun, ganu, jawang, sugi, pelandai which are all traditional leka main pemerindang (entertaining traditional poems). [2]

In urban areas, Dayaks will organise gatherings at community centres or restaurants to celebrate the evening just like in the longhouses. Nowadays, a pre-gawai celebration is common before those Dayaks going home for the actual gawai celebration with their family in the longhouse or village. Ir is considered time for family reunion once a year. A karaoke session may be made available, singing and dancing to the Dayak modern songs. It is time to show some talents!

Other activities that may follow the next few days include: cockfight matches, sumpit (blowpipe) and ngajat (traditional Iban dance) competitions. Other fun games include tuak drinking, bibat lengan (arm wrestling), betarit lampong (log pulling), tarit tali (rope pulling) contests, etc. Mini sports may also be organized on the ground during the day e.g. football, futsal, sepak takraw (rattan kickball).

On this day, first day of June, homes of the Dayaks are opened to visitors and guests. An open house that is organized by the association or Non-government organisation was also held on that day or several days afterwards. It is time to showcase their traditional foods and drinks, and also cultural performances and ritaul festivals.

There are various types of ngajat dance namely ngajat ngalu temuai (welcoming guest dance), ngajat semain (dance by both men and ladies), ngajat indu (lady dance), ngajat pua kumbu (lady dance showing pua kumbu), ngajat niti papan (dance on a wooden plank), ngajat lelaki (gentleman dance), ngajat lesung (rice mortar dance), ngajat pinggai ngau kerubong strom (plate dance with empty bullet cartridge inserted into several middle fingers of both hands), ngajat bujang berani (warrior dance with a shield and a long khife) and ngajat bebunoh (killing dance during headhunting). In addition, matial arts like kuntau and penca may be performed by men. [3]

The Dayak Iban’s musical set is made of a set of engkerumong, tawak, bebendai and bedup. The orang ulu music is played using the sape. Normally during gawai, ladies and gentlemen wear their traditional colourful costumes called ngepan (attire).

Traditionally, when guests arrive at a longhouse, they are given the ai tiki as a welcome. From time to time, the guests are then served several rounds of tuak as ai basu kaki (feet washing drink), air untong (profitful drink), ai basa (respect drink), etc.. This activity for hospitality would be called nyibur temuai which literally means “watering of guests”.

Another merry-making activity here is called bantil (almost forced drinking) of men by ladies to ensure guests are well-served with drinks to overcome shyness. It is common to reject several first offers of food and drinks while it is a custom to offer food and drinks to guests several times as a sign of hospitality and respect to fellow others. As another uti (game), some VIPs may be offered to cut open a coconut placed on a ceramic plate without breaking the plate using a parang (knife).

Christian Dayaks normally attend a church mass service usually held by the village board of management on the first day of Gawai Dayak festival.

The ending of Gawai Dayak or ngiling bidai (mat rolling back) also takes place at the end of Gawai Dayak festival, around 1 month after 1 June. This is the closing ceremony.

Gawai Dayak celebrations may last for several days, which can be several days before and after 1 June. It is also during this time of year that many Dayak weddings (Melah Pinang or Gawai Lelabi) take place, as it is one of the rare occasions when all the members of the community return home to their ancestral longhouse.

Some Dayaks also take this opportunity to hold other traditional gawai types such as Gawai Antu (Festival for the dead), Gawai Bersimpan (Paddy Safekeeping Festival), Gawai Batu (Whetstone Festival), Gawai Burung (Bird Festival), Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill Festival), Gawai Tuah (Luck Festival), Gawai Tajau (Jar Festival), Sandau Ari or Gawai Kalingkang which is first stage of Gawai Burung. [4] [5]

Up till 1962, the British colonial government refused to recognise Dayak Day. Gawai Dayak was formally gazetted on 25 September 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day. It was first celebrated on 1 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.


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