“There is no difference among people when it comes to rice and its harvest,” said Agustus Sapen, vice-president and co-founder of Persatuan Warisan Sarawak KL and Selangor.
The harvest festival in Sarawak, more illustriously known as the Pesta Gawai is celebrated to thank the paddy spirits for the bounteous harvest. It is solemnised as a thanksgiving ceremony and denotes the end of the harvest season. Gawai means celebration and the harvest festival is also known as either Gawai Padi or Gawai Dayak. There is also Gawai Batu – the celebration of paddy planting and Gawai Bersimpan – a post-celebration of the harvest festival.
The Gawai Dayak is commemorated by the Ibans and Bidayuhs with either authentic or symbolic pagan rituals. Some Bidayuh villages still celebrate the old tradition – a series of seven rituals which begins before the paddy is planted, and it continues during the paddy growth season and ends with the grand celebration to signify the conclusion of the harvest. With the coming of Gawai season, tuak (rice wine) is usually prepared two months earlier and some relatives begin to come home weeks before the celebration begins. It is during this communal preparation that the visitations and merrymaking start to happen. Today, Gawai Dayak dates are fixed for June 1 and 2 to help the public manage their holidays and travel back home. In the olden days, the Dayaks of Borneo relied on omens from birds to determine the exact time of the paddy planting season and other rituals, including the harvest festival.
During the festival, groups of Iban ladies prominently wear sugu tinggi (the headgear) and the lovely coin belt around their waist to complement their colourful attire, whereas the men wear impressive warrior attire with some having hornbill heads as part of their headgear. “Hornbills are believed to be the mediators between humans and God in the ancient Dayak tradition, and this continues till today,” says Agustus. The traditional male attire also consists of ‘sirat’, which traditionally is a 10 to 12-feet-long loincloth made of barkcloth carefully wound around the waist. Traditional Iban ladies’ accessories and ornaments are made of silver and brass while the Orang Ulu’s are made of beads. As for the food, a variety of traditional cuisine is served, such as manok pansuh or chicken cooked in bamboo, glutinous rice cooked in bamboo or ngelulun pulut or lemang, various types of preserved fish and meat and traditional cakes called penganan.
The blessing of the harvest festival is done with the ‘miring’ ritual. Part of this ritual involves the feast chief giving thanks to the spirits for the good harvest. He also asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he sacrifices a cockerel. The thanksgiving and prayers are chanted as he swings and waves the cockerel above plates of food offerings for the spirits.
One important signature ritual of Gawai is the home-brewed rice wine called ‘Tuak’. ‘Tuak’ is prepared with rice, yeast, sugar and water, very similar to Tapai but differs in the aspect of storage. Tuak is stored for a longer period of time till it gets alcoholic.
Other events include dances which are called ngajat in Iban and various names in Bidayuh such as Bilangi and Nyigar. There are different types of ngajat namely ‘ngajat ngalu ka temuai’ which is the welcoming of the guests, ‘ngajat induk’ which is performed by the ladies and ‘ngajat bebunoh’ which is performed by males as their war dance. For the Bidayuh people, they perform ‘Rajang Be’uh’ or the eagle dance, ‘Langie Julang’ to signify the end of the harvest and ‘Totokng’ to welcome the spirits of the harvest, among others.
Just like the Unduk Ngadau ceremony held during the Pesta Kaamatan in Sabah, the Sarawakians hold ethnic pageants during the festival too. These are known as ‘Kumang & Keling’. Kumang signifies the beautiful fair maiden and Keling refers to the handsome brave warrior as told in the endearing Iban legends. When the celebrations all come to an end, the mat on which the Miring ceremony took place is rolled and walked over several times, symbolising the end of the month-long festival. The closing ceremony is called Gawai Ngiling Bidai.
Agustus also said that the harvest festival is now a dying tradition and he has suggested some measures to overcome the issue which includes the initiative of the people to continue their heritage. He has also recommended other experienced Sarawakians organise groups to preserve the culture so the traditions and customs are sustained.
By Jivashni Paramasivam