Let us all celebrate Gawai with our Dayak friends


TODAY is June 1. It’s the first day of the Gawai festival in Sarawak and a joyous day for our Dayak brethren.

I have not written much about Gawai in this column in the past. So allow me to do justice to this popular harvest festival on this Gawai Day today.

This is supposed to be a week of festivities and merrymaking. It’s the holiday season and time for families and neighbours to get together. Cries of jubilation and happiness should fill the air.

But then it had to happen!

The Belaga boat tragedy must have dampened the celebratory mood for many of us. So it was too for me. I share the grief of the families of the victims and my heartfelt condolences to all of them.

It is unfortunate that people should lose their lives on the eve of Gawai. It is even more heart-breaking that they were on their way home to celebrate Gawai when tragedy struck.

Some politicians are saying that if only a road has been built from Sibu to Belaga, the express boat accident would not have occurred and lives would not be lost.

But what an irony it really is!

In Peninsular Malaysia, we have super highways all the way from Perlis to Johor. Yet, road fatalities during the balik kampung rush on festive occasions keep rising year after year.

A few thousand motorists and other road users lost their lives every year in the country. Road accidents certainly claim more lives in Malaysia than river mishaps.

So who should be blamed here? You tell me.

One life lost is too many. Let us be vigilant and watch out for our own safety at all times. In public areas, it is even more crucial to think safe and act safe.

Well, the show must go on. Let’s move on to celebrate Gawai.

The celebration falls every June 1-2 for the Dayaks of Sarawak, similar to Kaamatan on May 30-31 for the KadazanDusunMurut (KDM) groups in Sabah.

These public holidays, at the state level, form part of the Malaysian government’s national unity strategy to persuade Sarawakians and Sabahans that they are not left out of the ‘nation-building’ project. This government strategy is certainly working well in the two Borneo states. If the just-concluded 13th general election is any indication, it appears that the Dayaks of Sarawak and KDM communities of Sabah are truly happy with the current government.

The communities voted overwhelmingly for the BN to help retain the two states as the coalition’s ‘fixed deposits’.

As this is my first Gawai article in years, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look into the history of Gawai Dayak.

Believe it or not, although I’m a Sarawakian, I still had to do some reading about this famed festival of my fellow Sarawakians. For writers, it’s a learning process every day and I think that’s a blessing of the job.

Here’s an interesting take on the history of Gawai Dayak from a tourism brochure.

The traditions celebrated during Gawai Dayak are ancient, but the holiday is not. The first Gawai Dayak festival took place in 1965 after several years of renewed cultural pride within the oppressed Dayak community.

When first asked to create a public holiday in celebration of the Dayak people in Sarawak, the colonial government refused; they were afraid that other minority groups would make similar demands.

Instead, the government declared June 1 as Sarawak Day. Eventually, once Sarawak gained independence, the holiday was officially changed to Gawai Dayak.

Since 1965, two years after Sarawak gained independence from Britain by forming the new nation of Malaysia, the Dayaks have been celebrating the

Gawai annually on June 1 without fail.

While Gawai is a thanksgiving day for the bountiful harvest and a time to plan for the new planting season, it is also religious ritual in accordance with the animist belief of the indigenous people of Sarawak.

For centuries, the Dayaks have lived on their land by shifting cultivation. The land they live on is not property or capital in modern economic terms. The land is their backbone, their soul, their mother.

Their jungle and the rivers are full of spirits. The god Pulang Gana – the son of the god father Patera – presides over the land on which they depend for their sustenance.

Throughout the entire process of growing their precious rice, from clearing of the jungle, to planting the first seed, to the final harvest, the Dayaks have to make various offerings to their gods in various Gawais of different names.

Celebrated with enthusiasm across Sarawak both in cities and rural villages, Gawai Dayak is a multi-day festival to honour the indigenous people.

Gawai Dayak translates to ‘Dayak Day’ – the Dayak people include the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut tribes which once roamed Sarawak and relieved unsuspecting traders of their heads.

Although steeped in headhunting traditions of the past, the only head removed these days during Gawai Dayak belongs to a chicken sacrificed to honour a successful rice harvest.

More than just a touristy demonstration of indigenous culture for tourists, Gawai Dayak is celebrated with genuine joy and enthusiasm. Weddings take place, singing and toasts fill the air, and families are reunited with one another after being separated all year.

According to a Bernama story, the Gawai festival starts on the evening of May 31 with the miring (offering) ceremony in the longhouse ruai or common space, or in the community centre if the community lives in a village.

This is where the feast chief would give thanks to the gods for the good harvest and to ask for guidance, blessing and long life as he sacrifices a cockerel.

At the stroke of midnight, the ai pengayu (tuak for long life) is out with everyone sharing a toast. There will be eating and drinking, singing and dancing until the next day.

The longhouse never sleeps during Gawai. In the morning, those who are still sober would be doing the ngabang (visiting friends and relatives).

Gawai is the time for the Dayaks to showcase their rich cultural heritage and a time for the non-Dayaks to learn the tradition.

Like in any celebration, when there is a beginning there will be an end.

Celebrated over two weeks, Gawai comes to a close with the Ngiling Tikai or rolling up the mat ceremony.

And the Dayaks would again go about their daily lives and routines; until the next Gawai comes around, that is.

Today, let us join our Dayak brethren and celebrate Gawai with them. Let us bask in their warm hospitality and appreciate their rich cultures and traditions.

Selamat Ari Gawai. Gayu Guru Gerai Nyamai.

To our friends in Sabah, Kotobian Tadau Tagazo Do Kaamatan (Happy Kaamatan Festival).

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