MIRI: The chatter in the longhouse fell silent as all eyes turned to two primary schoolboys squaring off with each other, waiting for the referee’s go.
Seconds later, the two strove to outdo each other in arm-wrestling competition – one of many games held every Gawai Dayak at the longhouse in Machan, thanks to the initiative by its chieftain Mayang Umpi.
Other fun activities were gulping down hot coffee, ‘tuak’ (rice wine) and soda drinking, three-legged races, retrieving coin from a plateful of flour and even Halloween-like contests.
Head of Gawai Dayak celebrations Mapang Sebang said these traditional games derived from a showcase of strength and special abilities of the past generations.
“Tuak was the only prize for the Gawai games back then,” he reminisced of the era of his late father, who was a legendary figure in Kanowit and Julau.
Drinking hot coffee actually honoured an elderly man Aki Tinko from the longhouse, who had a supernatural resistance to heat. He even took up the challenge of dipping his hand in boiling water as a testimony of his integrity, or to clear the air whenever his reputation was questioned.
It was also a sight to behold as the longhouse women effortlessly carried their husbands on their backs during a piggy-back race. Laughter broke as the husbands struggled to lift their spouses for the return leg, where many stumbled.
Gawai is a festival celebrated by the Dayaks in Sarawak and West Kalimantan, with June 1 being officially regarded as a public holiday in Sarawak. To the Dayaks, it is a time for family reunion as well as for them to touch base with their ancestral roots.
The idea for Gawai Dayak was first mentioned in 1957 during a radio forum conducted by Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, a radio programme organiser. Up till 1962, the British colonial government refused to recognise ‘Dayak Day’ – instead, they called it ‘Sarawak Day’ to be celebrated by all Sarawakians regardless of tribes.
Still, the Dayaks continued celebrating their harvest festival up until after Merdeka and formation of Malaysia. It was on Sept 25, 1964 that the state government officially gazetted June 1 as the day to observe Gawai Dayak every year.
As far as the festival is concerned, nothing beats the atmosphere in a longhouse – the sound, smell and merry-making and everything that come with Gawai Dayak every year. Obviously, celebrations in towns and cities are just not the same as those in longhouses.
Traditional cakes such as ‘sarang semut’ – named for its honeycomb-like texture resembling an ant’s nest, ‘cuwan’ (molded cake), the crunchy ‘kuih sepit’ and ‘Penganan iri’ (discus-shaped cakes) are made several days ahead of celebrations.
At longhouses, Gawai Dayak means a rendezvous for all, young and old, with the ‘ruai’ (front public veranda) coming alive with a cacophony of sounds coming from ‘bertaboh’ and ‘gendang’ (traditional drum beating), running children, prayers as well as ‘ngajat’ (traditional dance) and ‘bepantun’ (recital of Iban rhyming verses).
The festival is truly a reflection of one’s life journey and hopes for the future – gathering the older generation with the present ones.
The joy of reunion would bring happy tears to grandparents seeing their children and grandchildren returning home. Many would be busy stocking up on food, from ‘daging salai’ (smoked meat) to ‘kasam ikan’ (fermented fish) and ‘ensabi’ vegetables, for their returning family members. The whole activity also introduces the younger ones to these traditional culinary specialties.
Nevertheless, traditions do evolve and with many longhouses undergoing modernisation – having water and electricity supply and being connected with good road accessibility as well as rising number of the younger generation seeking greener pastures in towns and cities here and abroad – this can be seen here too.
Sending longboats to fetch their loved ones home has increasingly become a thing of the past, Nowadays, one can see many four-wheel drive vehicles (4WD) arriving at many longhouses in droves come Gawai Dayak.
The Christianisation of the Dayaks is also seen as a factor in the decline of many pagan traditions such as ‘bedara’, ‘miring’ and ‘bebiau’ performed during the festival.
Still, certain rituals remain such as the symbolic felling of the ‘Ranyai’ tree before the midnight toast of ‘Ai Pengayu’.