KUCHING: It is that time of year again, when Sarawak’s rich diversity of culture is showcased at its best.
Traditionally, the Dayak community welcomes the Gawai celebrations to give thanks to the gods for another successful harvest of the paddy, while praying for another good season up ahead.
Celebrated in the State on June 1 each year, Gawai Dayak is both a religious and social occasion.
Gawai Dayak simply means a ritual or festival celebrated by the native ethnic groups of the
Iban and Bidayuh people of Sarawak and neighbouring Kalimantan of Indonesia.
Even though many of the younger generation have migrated to the city and are not involved in paddy planting anymore, Gawai Dayak remains
an integral part of the Dayak traditions and customs.
Evolving with time and social changes, Gawai now symbolises a time to give back, to reunite with family members, friends, the community and above all, to strengthen the understanding and appreciation of the traditions, cultures and the roots of oneself.
Although the colourful cultural extravaganza
and fiesta of the Gawai Dayak runs through June until its ‘Ngiling Tikai’ (closing ceremony), it is the rituals, prayers and celebration to welcome Gawai that would
be considered its highlights.
For the Iban community, be it in the longhouse or the urban housing communities, celebration starts on the eve, on May 31 itself.
During the evening, a ceremony among the Ibans, a ceremony called Muai Antu Rua (to cast away the spirit of greed) is conducted to ward off the spirit of bad luck .
Around 6pm (twilight), an offering ceremony called ‘miring’ would take place.
The longhouse chief or the most respected senior figure in the community would conduct the miring ritual by thanking the gods for the good harvest, asking for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings.
The cockerel would then be sacrificed and a little blood is used together with the offerings. Before the ceremony, ‘gendang rayah’ (ritual music) would be performed.
Once the offering ceremony has been carried out, dinner would then be served at the ‘ruai’.
Just before midnight, a procession along the ‘ruai’ for seven times called ‘Ngalu Petara’ (welcoming the spirit gods) would be performed.
It is usually during such procession that a beauty pageant to choose the festival’s queen and king (Kumang and Keling Gawai) would be held.
However, in this modern time, with the growing interest of the Kumang Gawai festival, the pageants would be held days or weeks earlier leading to Gawai Dayak.
On the eve of Gawai, it is the approaching midnight that would be the main attention of the people. At the stroke of 12 midnight, the gong would be beaten to call the celebrants to attention.
The tuai rumah or festival chief would lead everyone to drink the ‘Ai Pengayu’ which is normally tuak (rice wine) to represent longevity and at the same time, to wish one another a ‘gayu guru, gerai nyamai’ (long life, health and prosperity).
The celebration would last till morning with traditional dances, feast, games and other fun filled activities.
The next day, every household, be it in the longhouse or urban housing areas, would practise the tradition of the ‘ngabang’ (house visiting) in full joyful spirit.
Guests would be served traditional food, cakes, tuak, non-stop as the spirit of ‘nyibur temuai’ (watering of guests) is practised wholeheartedly.
For the Bidayuhs, at the wee hours of the June 1 morning (3-4 am), young men and women would perform the ‘ngajat’ around an offering structure called the ‘bawal’.
The men would climb the structure to shake it (nguguh) while shouting ‘tara! tara! tara!’ as to give toast to the celebration.
The women would continue to dance circling the ‘bawal’. An earlier offering to call guardian spirits to protect the people will be held at the structure.
The village’s most high priest (must be done in pairs) would perform the ceremony.
In addition, the priests would also perform a ‘pisien’ to call for the guardian spirit of the paddy to come home.
As for those who embrace Christianity, the eve of Gawai would no less be spectacular except for the ‘miring’ ceremony that has been replaced by church services.
Efforts to recognise the Gawai Dayak celebration was first mooted in a radio forum in 1957 by Ian Kingsley who was a radio programme organiser.
His effort generated a lot of interest among the Dayak community.
Up to 1962, the British colonial government refused to recognise a day specially gazetted for the Dayaks.
Instead, the government introduced a special Sarawak Day on June 1.
The first official celebration of Gawai Dayak was held on June 1, 1964, following suggestions and efforts made in 1962 in the Council Negeri by Datuk Tra Zehnder.
She had wanted June 1 of every year to be set aside to be called Dayak Day in recognition of the Dayaks’ existence in Sarawak.
Only when the late Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan became the Chief Minister back in 1963 that the Gawai Dayak was officially approved as a state celebration from June 1, 1965.
The date has since become a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community.