FOR three days and nights, the priests, men and women of the village gathered in a longhouse balcony to celebrate Gawai their harvest festival.
The offering and ritual ceremony was held on the first day. The feast chief or the Ketua Gawai may sacrifice a pig or a cockerel to thank the gods for the good harvest and to ask for guidance, blessings and long life.
Sitting on a long swing made of a dug-out tree trunk, hung in the longhouse balcony, were the priestesses, reciting the chants in an archaic Bidayuh dialect.
The hymn is called beris in Bidayuh Biatah or boris in Bidayuh Bau dialect.
The priestesses were dressed in mostly black hand-woven costumes, lavishly decorated with antique beads and silver necklaces called sembon, silver belt and cap with a long wide piece of cloth, hanging down the back.
Arrayed on a bamboo shrine or platform are the offerings or sadis, normally consisting of rice and meat, presented to the gods to bestow blessings on the village.
Ritual music — beating of gongs and drums or jubat in Biatah — was played at the stroke of midnight on Gawai Eve.
The curtain raiser of Gawai got merrier when the men and women, decked in their traditional Gawai costumes, danced around the platform, holding a small bundle of items, consisting of glutinous rice, cooked in a small bamboo, rice wrapped in leaf, cigarettes and tobacco.
The dance — part of the rituals — was normally led by the Ketua Gawai. That was the general scenario of the Bidayuh Gawai once upon a time.
The hymn, said to be mantras, were sung by the priestesses to their ancestors, giving thanks and appreciation for the good health and bountiful harvest during the year.
It is also to seek their blessings and guidance for a healthy and good harvest in coming year.
However, this mantra is a dying tradition as not many of the new generation are willing to learn and carry on the tradition.
They are also difficult to learn without any written references, and are passed down orally from one generation to the next.
Gawai is still celebrated by the Bidayuh but in the very different style now.
The days of real or authentic Gawai are long gone as it now comes without the pagan rituals, the birejang and nyerindang (the dances of men and women), ritual music, mantras and hymns.
The one and only village still known for practising the traditional Gawai ritual is Kampung Serasot in Bau. A special house was built mainly to hold the ritual ceremony.
The most-keenly awaited Gawai festival in Serasot, which fell on June 14, could be dubbed up as a mixture of traditional and modern festival. Its original features were seen in the ritual ceremony still practised according to the old customs and beliefs.
The offering, the ritual ceremony, chanting, the recital of hymns, the dances — name them, they are all there.
One can see the feast chief and the male elders of the village as well as the priestesses, dressed in their full and colourful traditional Gawai costumes, in addition to the chanting by the leader of the ritual, and hymns by the priestesses sitting on a long swing.
One can still see a sturdy altar standing on a bamboo platform, holding the traditional offerings of betel nut, rice wine, tobacco, glutinous rice and freshly cooked wild boar to the dieties.
On the verandah of the Gawai house was a selection of gongs and drums to be played during the ceremony.
Gawai Serasot gave one a clearer picture of how the old days Gawai used to be or it could be far merrier than before, given its great accessibility by all kinds of vehicles.
Thousands of people thronged the village for the feast where the lanes were fully occupied with cars, vans, motorcycles and pedestrians weaving around one another.
It was more vibrant at night as visitors flooded the area, strolling from place to place, trying their luck at the many different games of chance being offered.
Minus the festival in Serasot, Gawai in others parts of Bidayuh areas is no longer a ritual festival.
Most Bidayuh now observe Gawai not as religious but social occasion, a festival filled with modern music and singing, visiting and entertaining visitors with chats, food and drinks.
It is also an occasion for family gathering as most of those working and living in town and city will return to their villages for the celebration.
Random visits to some of the Bidayuh villages in Padawan and Penrissen on June 1 and 2 found that most of the villages had not even a gong to show, let alone the ritual ceremony, ritual music, dance and traditionally attired priestesses reciting the hymns.
The Gawai mood, though, could be felt when some villagers — men and women, boys and girls — were seen putting on their modern design Gawai garments.
Except for Kampung Bunuk in Penrissen, Kampung Mongkos in Serian and Kampung Annah Rais in Padawan, the Bidayuh villages have also done away with longhouses.
Special mini longhouses
Kampung Dunuk and Kampung Senah Reyang, both along the Padawan-Tebedu Link Road, may still have longhouses but they are not as long as the longhouses normally seen in the old days.
A few villages have taken the initiative to build a special mini-longhouse mainly to celebrate their Gawai in an authentic ambience.
One of them is Kampung Maang, a Bidyauh settlement at Mile 26, old Kuching-Serian Road.
The village has just entered its first year of reviving the old style of celebrating Gawai after a lapse of over a decade.
The village’s development and security committee assistant chairman Sem Midot said they wanted to revive their original Gawai culture for fear that the new generation might gradually forget their own root.
“Nowadays, many children can’t even speak their mother tongue fluently, communicating with mixed languages.
“We are worried they may forget their own origin. Indeed, it’s good for the young generation to know their roots.
“And the traditional style of celebrating Gawai is one of the cultures which can keep the young generation aware of their culture,” he said.
Old Gawai ritual ceased
Kampung Maang, which has 83 houses with a population of 510, ceased the old Gawai ritual when the ritual master, Jukui Papet, died in 2003 — and moreover, when only less than 10 per cent of the villagers were still pagan.
Sem said although most of the families had now become Christians, the villagers still wanted to preserve the Bidayuh Gawai culture for future generation.
A special Gawai house known as Remin Gawai has been built for the village to hold the ceremony, and will be used for the occasion in years to come.
The house was built without using nails, except rattan, to fix the bamboos, woods and specially woven sago leaves for roofing.
Engineered by one of the villagers, Daran Jukui, with a few assistants, the house cost them almost RM10,000. It has enabled the village to showcase how the older community, particularly those from the Penyewa tribe, celebrate Gawai.
Every year, people have the opportunity to see the revived ancient Bidayuh festival in the Gawai Carnival, organised by Redeems (Research and Development Movement of Singai Sarawak).
Held from June 11 to 14, this year’s event showcased the full choreographed actual Gawai rituals as practised by the Singgai Bidayuh in the past.
The Singgai Bidayuh also no longer practise the animistic rituals as most of them are now Christians, and what they did during the festival was just a show for people to see how their forefathers celebrated the festive occasion.
Tracing its roots back to as early as 1957, the Gawai Dayak festival was formally gazetted on 25 September, 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day.
The first official celebration being on 1 June, 1965, Gawai Dayak became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community and is an integral part of Dayak social life today.
Dayak is a collective name for the tribes of Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Murut and more.
Living predominantly in Kuching Division, most Bidayuh have left their longhouses and nowadays live in kampungs in modern wood or brick detached-houses.
The Bidayuh can be found living in villages in Serian, Penrissen, Padawan, Bau and Lundu in Kuching Division and along the border with Western Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Three main dialects
Although they are all Bidayuh, the community is linguistically separated by three main dialects — Bukar-Sadong, Singai-Jagoi and Biatah.
The groups are further divided, depending on area of dominical or tribe and the spoken dialects.
Most Bidayuh do not understand each other’s dialects and because of that, Malay and English are the language of choice for communication with each other.
It is believed the ancestors of Sarawak Bidayuh first came to the state, then under the rule of Brunei Sultanate, from West Kalimantan.
Their earliest settlements, among others, were centred at Ulu Padawan and Rabak Mikabuh in Kuching District, Bung Biratak, Mount Singai and Gunung Serembu in Bau District, and Bung Bagak and Sedemak in the Lundu District.
As time passed, many Bidayuh Sarawak were converted to Christianity and left the old Bidayuh tradition and culture.
A small number are converted to Islam either through marriage or out of their own free will.
Despite losing its animistic authenticity, the spirit of Gawai still lives among the Bidayuh.
The Bidayuh Gawai today is a merry and fun time where family members and friends of all races, including foreigners, come together from far and wide to celebrate the festival.