Gawai Dayak, Festival of a bountiful harvest

The annual festival of Gawai Dayak is celebrated by all Dayak in Sarawak after the end of Paddy Harvesting. It is the celebration of a bountiful harvest. This is the day where everyone in the villages will prepare a feast.

The Dayaks of Sarawak celebrate the Gawai Festival on 1st June every year. Gawai Festival is celebrated where the Dayaks normally visit/’ngabang’ friends and families on this day.

The manner of festivity varies from place to place but usually the necessary preparation starts early. Tuak (rice wine) is brewed (at least one month before the celebration) and traditional delicacies like penganan (cakes from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk) are prepared few days before the celebration. As the big day approaches, everyone will be busy with general cleaning and preparing food and cakes. On Gawai Festival Eve, glutinous rice is steamed in bamboo (pogang or lemang). A visit to clean the graveyard is also conducted and offerings offered to the dead.

The celebration usually begins on the evening of 31st May. This year Kampung Grogo will kick off the gawai celebration at the ‘Boli Gawea’. Dr Patau Rubis and his Kampung Grogo team of celebrants, one HIGH Priest, One Chief Priestess, three Priestesses and himself as the Priest will be busy the whole month of June and maybe first week of July because they are being booked by three villages already and maybe the fourth one later on. 1st June will be the NGUGUOH which is expected to be in the early hours of the 2nd June. The River ceremony will be in the afternoon of the 31st May around 3-4 pm.

For those who have not witness these celebration, it is advised that they do go and witness it for themselves because this ritual might be the last time we could witness the real life affairs of ‘Nguguoh’, which is a Pagan ritual done only in a few villages in Bau, in the occasion of ‘Gawea Podi’, or in general terms, Gawai.

Due to old age and conversion to other religions, the ritual of gawai is getting less performed. According to the elders, there’s only a few ‘tua gawea’ (leader of the ritual) around and they are being booked by villages who wish to do the ritual one year in advance. It is a very tiring process so most of these priests who are very old can’t manage it alone.

The climax of gawai is the ‘Nguguoh’, in which the ‘tua gawea’ and the elders (in white and red colourful tawuob), together with a group of ‘Dayung Borih’ (priestesses), wearing colourful ‘sipiah’, embroidered black tunics and skirts of rich brocade fabrics with traditional motifs, summons the rice goddess to feast upon the offerings that had been prepared, and to accept the thanks of the people for a good harvest. It is done around an altar, which is locally known as ‘bawal’. The event only begins at the wee hours in the morning and ends sometimes at 4.30am, which also marks the end of Gawai.

While most modern Bidayuh kampungs tend to celebrate Gawai the modern way nowadays, which is with live band performances, dancing (mejeng), and beauty pageants (Kumang Gawai), Kpg Grogo and a few other villages around Bau town have somewhat retained this aged pagan ritual despite most villages nearby already being unable to do so. The whole ritual which stands out the most during Gawai makes the village community somewhat proud of their Bidayuh roots.

Dayak Bidayuh Nasional Association (DBNA) could recreate the Gawai as a show just like other races in Sarawak. Though it is a dying event, DBNA under her leadership of Datu Ik Pahon Joyik and his charge still want it to go on at their headquarters at Jalan Kumpang in Kuching. The atmosphere might not be the same but that’s the least DBNA could do for this dying ceremony. Documentation of it in multimedia and printed materials will some how helps on the understanding of Gawai for our future generation.

As for the Iban communities at Rumah Niru Dandi at Bintangor, it starts with a ceremonial rite called Muai Antu Rua (to cast away the spirit of greed), signifying the non-interference of the spirit of bad luck in the festivity. A few elders and 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, offering (known as miring) rite will take place. Before the ceremony, ritual music (gendang rayah) 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 together with the offerings.

Once the offering ceremony is done, dinner is then served at the ruai. Just before midnight, a procession up and down the ruai seven times called Ngalu Petara (welcoming the spirit god) is performed. During this procession, a beauty pageant to choose the festival’s queen and king (Kumang & Keling Gawai) is sometimes conducted. Meanwhile, 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 Gawai 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” (long life, health and prosperity). The celebration now turns merrier and less formal. Some will dance to the traditional music played; others will sing the pantun (poems).

In urban areas, Dayaks will organise gatherings at community centres or restaurants to celebrate the evening.

Other activities that may follow the next few days include: cock-fighting matches, and blowpipe and ngajat competitions. On this day, 1st June, homes of the Dayaks are open to visitors and guests.

Traditionally, when guests arrive at a longhouse, they are given the ai tiki as a welcome. From time to time, guests are served tuak. This would be called nyibur temuai which literally means “watering of guests”.

Christian Dayaks normally attend a church mass service to thank God for the good harvest.

Gawai Dayak celebrations may last for several days and to that ‘We wish all Dayak ‘Selamat Hari Gawai, ‘Slamat onu gawea, Tara Tara Tara Ooooooooha!’ ‘Gayu Guru Gerai Nyamai, lantang senang nguan menua’.