Gawai celebration unifies Dayaks across Borneo


Cornelis (front row, second left) with his family members and local Dayak community leaders at the Hari Gawai assembly in Ngabang, West Kalimantan.

THE Gawai celebration remains one of the common traits that links all the native communities in Borneo – a day when they show thanksgiving for a bountiful paddy harvest and pray for a plentiful year ahead.

As a rose is still a rose by any other name, these communities call their festival differently – for the Ibans, it is ‘Ari Gawai’; the Bidayuhs in general call it ‘Onu Gawea’; while the Kadazan-Dusuns in Sabah celebrate ‘Kaamatan’.

Officially, Gawai Dayak in Sarawak is observed on June 1 and 2 – first gazetted as a public holiday in 1965, while Kaamatan in Sabah is celebrated on May 30 and 31.

The Dayaks in Indonesian Borneo also celebrate their own version of the festival, with rituals based on those practised by the Kanayatans – a Dayak sub-ethnic group in West Kalimantan.

It is learned that in West Kalimantan, the occasion was first held on a large scale in 1964 and like Sarawak, the Dayaks there also call the celebration ‘Hari Gawai’. However unlike Sarawak, there is no official date for Gawai in the Indonesian province – it can be held at any time from late April to June.

The local governments in the West Kalimantan have made the initiative to preserve the tradition by holding the celebration on regency, provincial and national levels. Originally, Gawai was only observed at village level or at the most, district level.

The rituals

In West Kalimantan, the first thing on the list of rituals would be the ‘ngampar bide’ – literally, the rollout of the mat. This symbolises the wish for the celebration to run smoothly, apart from marking the start of the festival. This ceremony would be attended by local Dayak community leaders who apart from overseeing all the preparations for the occasion, would also discuss issues and happenings affecting their communities.

After the ‘ngampar bide’, an assembly will take place at the main venue of the celebration the following day. This is perhaps the most spectacular of events where Dayaks from all across the province would arrive in their colourful traditional attire and gather to display them to the public.

It is also during this time that top-ranking local government officials – for the province-level celebration, it would be the governor – would deliver their special Gawai address to the crowd.

Regardless of which level of celebration – regency, province or national – this event would gather thousands of visitors.

Next comes the core ritual known as ‘Naik Dango’, where the dancers deliver harvested rice to the ‘dango’ (rice silo). This elaborate dance is known as ‘ngantat ka dango’, which leads to the ‘nyangahatn’ – the recital of prayers and mantra upon the arrival of the rice at the ‘dango’.

The ‘nyangahatn’ is performed by a ‘Panyangahatn’, whose chanting contains words of gratitude for the sustenance and also songs to invoke the good spirits to come and gather inside the ‘dango’.

At the same time, the ‘nyangahatn’ also seeks for permission from the spirits to consume the rice for daily needs.

Additionally, the dancers also bring with them some steamed rice, meat, boiled eggs and other traditional Dayak dishes to the ‘dango’.

These items are offerings to the rice spirit as a token of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest.

The manner in which these items are sent to the ‘dango’ is quite grand and elaborate – the dishes would be placed inside a ‘special transport’ which can either be in the form of a miniature hut or a miniature boat. Either way, each vessel has exquisite carvings or drawings on it.

This vessel is carried by a group of people, who would dance their way to the ‘dango’.

Symbol of Dayak culture

Essentially, ‘Naik Dango’ sums up the key Gawai rituals for the West Kalimantan Dayaks but the festivities are far from over after that.

The celebration is further enlivened with many side activities such as Dayak folk games and sports, singing contests, cultural performances and other community-based competitions taking place over the next several days.

Nevertheless, ‘Naik Dango’ represents the Indonesian government’s seriousness in maintaining the local culture and tradition.

West Kalimantan Governor Cornelis MH sees the celebration as the unifying factor for all members of the diverse community in his province.

“The local government in West Kalimantan wants to keep the celebration alive not only because it is one of our efforts to preserve our culture, but it is also a tourism attraction for those wanting to savour an authentic Borneo native cultural experience.

“This celebration also helps local businesses – big and small traders in the area,” the governor said.

However, Cornelis also warned the Dayaks against treating Hari Gawai or even the ‘Naik Dango’ ritual as an excuse for them to get drunk or indulge in gambling.

“This festival is our pride – we do not want outsiders to think that this is a festival where one gets to be drunk, or gets to indulge in gambling. The real meaning of this celebration is to give thanks and be grateful for a bountiful harvest,” he stresses.

West Kalimantan hosted the province-level Hari Gawai celebration known as the ‘Pekan Gawai Dayak Kalimantan Barat XXXII 2017’ at its capital Pontianak from May 19 to 22.