Last days of Gawai Sowa rituals?
Posted on July 1, 2012, Sunday
FOR three days and nights, the people of Kampung Duyoh beat the traditional gongs and drums in the boli gawai, a special house built to celebrate Gawai Sowa (harvesting festival).
The festival takes place once a year to thank the padi spirits, which the Bidayuh community call eiang podi, for a bountiful harvest.
It also doubles as a ceremony to ask for blessings and better crops in the coming year. The Bidayuhs believe rice is important because each grain has a spirit.
During Gawai Sowa, the spirits of the villagers – both dead and living – and their ancestors’ are invited to dine in celebration of a good harvest.
The ritual is still practised by the remaining traditional priests (penyigar) and priestesses (dayung borih) from the community in Bau and Lundu Districts.
The priests are distinguished from the others by turban-style head gears and long white cotton overcoats trimmed with red.
The priestesses will dress in black, donning sipiah, a cap with a long, wide piece of cloth hanging down the back; silapai, a red sash ending at the hips; pangieh and sombon (necklaces) and porik (a silver belt).
This year, a total of 16 priests and priestesses from Kampungs Stass, Serasot, Duyoh, Krokong and Tugag gathered to perform the ritual.
On the first day, the priestesses made offerings, danced and chanted prayers to invoke eiang podi and ask the spirit to return to the village.
The most-keenly awaited ritual for the kampung folks took place on the last day of Nyigal Nguguoh where the priestesses went into trance to call forth eiang podi.
According to believers, if the padi spirit is happy with the offerings, it will send a sign in which the cloth hanging from the altar will start to vibrate and the padi grains (placed at the altar) will fall into it.
These days, only elderly penyigar and dayung borih perform this ritual. With their declining number, the age-old religious ceremony could one day disappear as the younger generation have no knowledge of it.
Moreover, according to a villager, not everyone can become a penyigar or dayung borih as they are chosen by the padi spirit through a dream.
He said some people who had a such dream would get sick from an unknown illness and they would only recover after the ‘right ceremony’ was held.
“So not many can become a priest or priestess,” the villager noted.
One of the oldest dayung borih is Johei from Kampung Stass who has been part of the ritual for 15 years. And Tuak Kandah, an elderly penyigar, is among the few left from the original group chosen by the spirit many years ago.
According to Kandah, becoming a dayung borih is not easy. During the initiation ceremony, as many as four pigs have to be slaughtered on top of other ritualistic requirements.
“Those chosen must abstain from a lot of things before they can become a true dayung borih,” he said.
Salei, from Kampung Duyoh, is into her first year as pinginang (helper) to the dayung borih.
The 49-year-old explained in order to qualify as a dayung borih, she must not take certain foods or visit graveyards or attend funerals.
Her one-year absention period has ended but before she can take her place as full-fledged dayung borih, there are still some rules to follow but not as strict as the first year’s.
Festival committee Duking said Gawai was held annually to celebrate a bountiful padi harvest.
No matter what their beliefs, the villagers still come and witness the ritual and everyone hosts an open house on the last day of Gawea Sowa.
In 2005, the Bidayuh community tried to promote the festival as tourist attraction with support from the government but it failed to take off due to lack of publicity.
“We welcome any contributions from the government or even travel agents interested in engaging the community to promote the festival as part of the tourism activities in the state,” he suggested.
Meanhile, Corina whose mother is from the village, likes to see the festival promoted with better publicity and a grant for the village committee to build a bigger and better Gawai House in order to keep the tradition alive.
“I turn up to witness the ceremony every year and it’s sad to see such an impressive spiritual ceremony not being included it in the state’s tourism calendar,” she said.