Gawai Dayak – The Celebration of Bountiful Harvest
Dear friends around the world,
I have lived in Malaysia for over 20 years, and I have since developed a great appreciation for Malaysia’s various culture and customs. During this time, I have developed a great appreciation for the cultures and customs that exist in Malaysia, which has inspired me to share more about the aspects of Malaysia that enrich its culture.
One such tradition is the Gawai Dayak, a harvest festival widely celebrated by the Dayak people in Sarawak and Kalimantan, respectively the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of the isle of Borneo. This article will focus on the Gawai Dayak celebration in Sarawak, and we will take you through its origins, the activities that take place during the festival, and how visitors can participate in this celebration.
The Dayak People of Sarawak
The Dayak community in Sarawak consists of two major ethnic groups, the Iban and the Bidayuh, as well as several smaller tribes such as the Murut, the Kelabit, the Kenyah, and the Kayan. Sarawak has the highest Iban population in Borneo, where about 745,400 people, or 28% of the state population (based on the 2016 survey) are Ibans. The Bidayuh ethnic group, sometimes called the Land Dayak because they traditionally live near limestone mountains, mainly live in the Southern Sarawak region. Although the Dayaks’ faith was originally mostly Paganism, the majority of Iban and Bidayuh people have since converted to Christianity.
Traditionally, a Dayak family lives in a Rumah Panjang, or Longhouse, alongside several other families. Each longhouse has a Tuai Rumah, or a longhouse chief, a designated leader of the house. A relatively small longhouse has approximately 10 to 30 family rooms. A medium longhouse can house 31 to 50 family rooms, while a big longhouse can have up to 100 family rooms.
The history of Gawai Dayak
Gawai Dayak is a festival that marks the end of the rice-planting cycle, and is celebrated by the Dayak ethnic group to show gratitude for the bountiful harvest and pray for a better result in the coming year. According to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia, the festival “has become a symbol of unity, aspiration, and hope for the Dayak community.” The adoption of Gawai Dayak into the Malaysian culture shows how the authority acknowledges the multi-ethnic nature of the Malaysian population, and embraces the various customs to enrich Malaysia’s culture and identity.
Gawai is a term in the Iban language that means “festival” and Dayak is the name of a collective indigenous ethnic group in Sarawak. Gawai Dayak is formally celebrated on 31 May and 1 June of each year. However, the festival traditionally lasts until the end of June. The idea of celebrating Gawai Dayak was first proposed in 1957 by two local radio hosts, Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, and their suggestion received a warm reception from the Dayak community. However, Sarawak was still occupied by Britain at the time, and the British Colonial Administration were concerned that if they allowed a festival specifically for the Dayak community, other ethnic groups would request the same recognition. Therefore, Gawai Dayak was initially known as Sarawak Day in order to include all ethnic groups in Sarawak.
On 31 August 1957, Malaysia gained its independence from Britain, and in 1962, Gawai Dayak was recognised as a Dayak celebration. On 25 September 1964, upon the establishment of the Malaysian Federation, the 1st of June was recognised as the Gawai Dayak public holiday, and the first celebration of this holiday was in 1965.
What happens during the Gawai Dayak celebration?
Preparation: Food and drinks
When a longhouse is to host the Gawai Dayak, its residents have to prepare the food and drinks beforehand. They ensure that an adequate amount of paddy is available to prepare tuak, the traditional Dayak liquor. Tuak is a type of rice wine, made by distilling glutinous rice and yeast one month ahead of the celebrations.
The hosts must prepare traditional snacks and cakes such as Kuih Sepit (folded wafers), Sarang Semut (Ant Nest cake), Cuwan (molded cake) and Penganan Iri (a discus-shaped cake). Most of these snacks, except Penganan Iri, can be prepared several days in advance and kept inside sealed jars. Often times, the longhouse chief organises fishing and hunting trips to obtain meats to be preserved for the festival.
Preparation: Longhouse decoration
Prior to the Gawai Dayak celebration, the longhouse residents work together to clean, repaint and repair the house. The walls inside the longhouse are decorated with mural carvings, and traditional, hand-woven rattan mats are also laid out for guests to sit on.
What happens on the eve of Gawai Dayak?
The cooking continues
On the eve of Gawai Dayak, those who are participating in the festival gather early in the morning to collect the necessary food and ingredients, such as palm oil, aping, sago, coconut palm shoots, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves, brinjals, fiddle head ferns, and so on. These ingredients will be used to make soup and other dishes. The Dayak cook glutinous rice in bamboo logs that will result in a unique aroma. The rice can also be cooked using a gas stove or rice cooker. Upon gathering the necessary ingredients, the participants cook the preserved and fresh meat with various herbs such as lemon grass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Tuak is often served with roasted animal meat.
Getting Rid of Greed
On 31st May, one day before Gawai Dayak, two men or two children will go around the longhouse with a basket each to gather unwanted items from the other families. These unwanted items are then thrown out the back end of the longhouse to get rid of the spirit of greed.
Offerings to the deities
When dusk comes, a ritual offering is performed in each family room, where ceramic plates, tabak (brass trophy), and split bamboo skin containers are offered to the deities. According to Sadin B. in his literary work, Raja Durong, the Dayak people believe in seven main deities:
- Sengalang Burong – the god of war
- Biku Bunsu Petara – the great priest’s second in command
- Menjaya Manang – the first shaman and god of medicine
- Sempulang Gana with Semerugah – the god of agriculture and land
- Selampadai – the god of creation and procreation
- Ini Inee/Andan – the god of justice
- Anda Mara – the god of wealth
In addition to invoking the gods’ blessings, the Dayak people invoke spirits that have been helpful to them in the past. Offerings to the deities are put at the four corners of each family room, in the kitchen, inside the rice jar, in the gallery, the tanju (verandah wall), and in the farm. Other precious possession can also be offered to the deities and spirits.
The seven traditional offerings are tobacco nipah leaves, betel nut, betel leaves, glutinous rice, rice cakes, sungki (glutinous rice cooked with buwan leaves), glutinous rice cooked in bamboo logs, Ant Nest cakes, moulded cakes and Penganan Iri (glutinous rice flour with nipah and sugar), pop rice (glutinous paddy grains heated in a wok or pot), hard boiled eggs, and rice wine in a small bamboo container. After the offerings have been laid out, the longhouse chief presides over the festival to show gratitude to the deities for the bountiful harvest, and requests the deities’ blessings, guidance and longevity. The chief then offers a dead rooster to the deities by including the roosters’ blood-soaked wing feathers in each offering set.
After the offering ritual is completed, all the longhouse families gather and eat their dinner in the gallery. This activity is called makai rami or festival meal. Each family who lives in the longhouse has contributed to this festival meal. Before midnight, a procession to welcome the deities and spirits is performed in the gallery. Sometimes the longhouse residents also organise a pageant to choose the Gawai’s king and queen, also known as Keling and Kumang Gawai. The elders and the chief of the longhouse then give advice about the importance of peace, harmony and order. Fines are imposed to those who break the customary tradition and ground rules by fighting, quarrelling, behaving drunkenly or vandalism.
For the Dayak community members that have converted to Christianity, instead of participating in the deity offering ritual, they go to the church to show their gratitude to God for the harvest before going back to the longhouses and participating in the dinner celebration.
At midnight, a gong is rung to summon the guests and residents of the long-house. The chief then offers a toast of longevity (Ai Pengayu), recites a prayer of good wishes, and the attendees reply with the festival greetings, “Gayu Guru, Gerai Nyamai, Senang Lantang Nguan Menua.” If a poet is amongst the attendees, he can be asked to recite “timang ai pengayu” to bless the longevity water. All past conflicts and faults are forgiven during this time.
After the dinner, there are less formal performances such as the traditional Ngajat (welcome) dance, the sword dance, and self-defence martial arts performances. For the Bidayuh Dayak, they may dance the Tolak Bala (Danger Repealing Dance), the Before Harvest Dance to request protection for the community, Totokng dance to invoke paddy soul and guests, and the Langi Julang Dance performed at the end of Harvest festival to show gratitude to the deities for the bountiful harvest and good health.
After dinner, the guests are lined up based on their social rank. The women offer the men a bowl of tuak accompanied by a woman singing. This is followed by traditional poem recitations including pelandai, ramban, pantun, jawang, and sanggai.
Gawai Dayak in Sarawak, Malaysiahttp://video.tsemtulku.com/videos/GawaiDayak.flv
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On 1 June, the longhouses are opened to ngabang (guests). Open house events can also be organised by the longhouse residents, non-governmental organisations, or Dayak community associations. Visitors and tourists are often invited to join Gawai Dayak on this day. When the guests arrive, the women of the house stand by to water the guests in the tradition of Nyibur Temuai where several rounds of tuak are served, such as the Nyambut Pengabang (welcoming drinks), Ai Aus (thirst quenching drinks), Ai Basu (washing drinks), Ai Untong (profit drinks), and the Ai Basa (respect drinks).
During the open house, the chief or chosen elder makes a jaku ansah or sharpening speech to introduce the guest of honour. After the guest of honour arrives, he is expected to perform Muka Kuta (opening a fort) by slashing a bamboo fence with a sword and reciting a poem. Then, at the foot of a ladder, an animal is speared (mankan). During the event, the Ngajat dancers and the band lead the guests to their respective seats. After everyone is seated, either the chief or the poet recites prayers for the guests while swaying a chicken over their heads. Before the food is offered to the guests, a special speech called Muka Kujuk is delivered to open the traditionally woven cloth that covers the food. During the Bantil or persuaded drink activity, women give tuak drinks to men while singing traditional pantun (poem) to overcome the opposite sex’s shyness. It is customary for the men to reject the first drink as a sign of respect for the host.
Gawai Dayak also includes a fortune-telling element. In the activity called uti, a special guest is asked to open a coconut placed on a ceramic plate, using a blunt knife, and without holding the coconut or breaking the plate. If the coconut shows white flesh, it means good fortune, while black flesh spells bad fortune. Although Gawai Dayak is celebrated on the 1st of June, the festival can last for several days to a month. During that month, many Dayak weddings often take place. To mark the end of the celebrations, the tradition of Ngiling Bidai or rolling the hand-woven mats that are laid out at the beginning of Gawai Dayak is performed.
When attending the Gawai Dayak celebrations, visitors can either wear Dayak traditional attire, ngepan (a traditional costume), or ordinary modern clothing. Usually, the chief wears a traditional outfit made out of a loincloth, an animal skin coat, and peacock feathers on his head. Oftentimes, the men are decorated in traditional tattoos that signify their experience. For example, a frog design on the front neck, or a tegulun design on the back of the hands signifies that the person has killed another person in war. The tattoos can also be in the form of marine life designs that signify protection from water elements.
Traditional Dayak clothing for women are kain betating, a sort of hand-woven cloth, worn on the waist, and a rattan corset on the upper part of the body. Women can also wear a selampai or scarf over the shoulders, or a woven bead chain over the neck. Their hair are typically tied up and secured with a high comb, and they also wear a lampit (silver belt), armlets, anklets, and a purse. If you wish to visit, remember that Malaysia is a tropical country, so most its people wear clothing made from light and breathable fabrics. It is recommended to bring several lightweight tops, shorts and skirts that are about knee-length, dresses, slacks, sunglasses, hat, sweaters and at least one scarf or shawl. You can also consider bringing flats or comfortable shoes.
Visiting Malaysia and Sarawak
Travel document requirements to enter Malaysia
Visitors who wish to visit Malaysia should have passports with at least a six-month validity. Citizens of ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) can stay in Malaysia up to 30 days without a Malaysian visa. Visitors from other nations can either apply for the visa in advance or apply for Visa on Arrival (VOA) for RM 330 (USD75). Recently, citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), India, Bangladesh, and Nepal have been made eligible to apply for e-Visas.
Where to stay
If you wish stay with the Dayak throughout their celebrations and get a full cultural experience, there are several longhouses that provide homestay services for visitors such as:
Anna Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
According to their website, the Anna Rais Bidayuh Longhouse has 175 years of written history and over 500 years of unwritten history. One of the key attractions at the Anna Rais Bidayuh Longhouse a natural hot spring located nearby.
Kampung Annah Rais
Padawan, 94700 Kuching
Phone: +65 9004 9762
How to get there:
Anna Rais longhouse is located at the Padawan District, about 60 kilometres away from Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak. Since the Anna Rais Bidayuh Longhouse is located in a remote location, visitors will need to arrange for a taxi service, which can be done through the longhouse coordinator.
Rumah Nyuka Longhouse
The Rumah Nyuka Longhouse is the first longhouse in Sarikei Division that was approved by the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism’s National Homestay Programme. This longhouse was built using Belian wood in 1955, and still stands strong today. Visitors can join the longhouse residents’ daily activities, such as tapping rubber or go Dabai – collecting local olive fruits. Visitors can also go swimming in the nearby waterfalls.
C/O Rh. Nyuka Ak. Itam, Lubuk Lemba
How to get there:
The Rumah Nyuka Longhouse is located approximately 17 kilometres from the Bayong Junction at the Sarikei highway. It can be reach by taxi, which you can arrange with the longhouse coordinator.
The Sarawak Tourism Board also recommends visitors to check out the Bawang Assan Iban Longhouses in Sibu, and various other longhouses in Kapit Town. Visitors can also find recommendations from local travel agents, or arrange for special tours to visit one of these longhouses.
What to do when staying in longhouses
Visitors can enjoy various activities such as jungle trekking, hunting with blowguns, bamboo rafting, barbecuing by the riverside, harvesting rice between the months of February and April, rubber tapping, and Dabai during the fruit-bearing seasons from November to December.
Visitors can learn how to cook traditional dishes such as bamboo rice, play traditional musical instruments, weave baskets from natural materials, or taste local foods and drinks such as Cempedak or tuak. Longhouses residents will also organise indoor sporting activities for visitors, such as blowgun competitions, or Dayak traditional dance lessons.
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