Gawai – Steep in tradition

Gawai Dayak is a regional public holiday in the Malaysian state of Sarawak observed on June 1st and 2nd. This holiday is a harvest festival used to showcase the heritage and traditions of the indigenous people.

Gawai Dayak this year is not going to be like all the Gawai of the past, but conditional movement control order or not, traditions do have a way with old folk. Gawai is not Gawai without the ‘poek’ (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo) for this Salako octogenarian, who has just returned from the jungle for the bamboo in the company of man’s loyal friend. She should be cooking the ‘poek’ tomorrow, which should ensure their freshness at the Gawai table come June 1.

Gawai Dayak – A vibrant Dayak ethnic festival, marking the end of the harvest season in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Gawai Harvest Festival is celebrated by the Dayak ethnic group in Sarawak, Malaysia, and West Kalimantan, Indonesia on Borneo Island. Gawai means ‘festival’ in the Dayak language. On this day, people express their gratitude for a bountiful harvest and pray for the next successful farming season.

The most massive Gawai celebrations can be seen in Kuching and across Sarawak. The festival in Kuching features parades along the waterfront a few weeks before the holiday. The Sarawak Cultural Village (Kampung Budaya Sarawak) is a good place for tourists to learn more about Dayak people and their culture, where the major festivities start.

On Gawai eve, the Iban community conducts blessings and thanksgiving ceremonies called miring, with offerings to the departed ancestors, deities and spirits,’ says Agustus. The ceremony also invites spiritual entities to celebrate with the longhouse community, and then continuing with open houses with friends and families from afar. The merrymaking may carry on for weeks, going up to a month. This scenario is the same with Bidayuh community today, only without the spiritual blessing ceremony and traditional rituals.

On Gawai Eve people make soup from sago or coconut palm shoots and other vegetables. Animal heads are roasted. The traditional Dayak beverage—tuak—is made. Tuak is rice wine brewed a few weeks before the Gawai from the glutinous rice mixed with yeast variety called ciping. After distilling tuak over a fire, a stronger alcoholic drink is produced. Other dishes include rice flour cakes penganan iri, sarang semut, cuwan, and kuih sepit. The cakes are usually deep-fried in oil until thoroughly hardened.

Salako women carry bamboo from the jungle nearby to Kampung Pueh, Sematan. Photos: Mohd Alif Noni

Dayak people live in longhouses that are cleaned and freshly painted before the holiday by the whole community. Walls are painted with “ukir” murals, decorated with handwoven blankets and other crafts. Men wear “nigepan,” the traditional costume consisting of a loincloth, animal skin coat, and feathers. Women wear hand-woven cloth and a brass ring corset.

The Dayak of West Kalimantan across the border also celebrated Gawai Dayak with much flair. The capital city Pontaniak hosts Gawai Dayak festival in late May. Celebrations feature parades and parties across the city. Major Gawai events take place around the Rumah Adat Radakng, an enormous Dayak longhouse replica. The festivities particular focus on the Gawai Dayak traditions of the Kanayatn (Dayak Kenyan) tribe, yet with some tourist-friendly atmosphere. Celebrations boast 16 different traditional arts, from music and dances to oral literature and traditional games.


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