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 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 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.
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.