The spirit of Gawai will not be dampened by CMCO restrictions


Temenggong Wilfred Billy Panyau (left) leading a ‘miring’ ritual at Fort Sylvia in Kapit recently. — Photo by James Ling

THIS year’s Gawai Dayak will be a new experience for the celebrants as they have to adapt their festivities to adhere to the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) standard operation procedure (SOP).

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Dougas Uggah Embas last week announced that the Sarawak Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) does not allow house-to-house or longhouse-to-longhouse ‘ngabang’ or visits during Gawai as part of the CMCO to break the transmission chain of Covid-19.

However some people questioned if this SOP would ruin the spirit and significance of Gawai as many rituals such as ‘miring’ may not be able to be performed properly.

However, Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Jemut Masing, who is also a Deputy Chief Minister, assured that banning visits and gathering for the rituals during Gawai is not against the Iban ritual ethics because ‘miring’ or offering which accompanies the rituals is very individualistic.

He said the ‘petara’ or gods would be asked to assist the family who holds the Gawai, and the assistance sought would be very specific in nature and would focus only for their own family benefit.

“It is for this reason that each ‘bilek’ or household is asked to make their own offering during Gawai festivity in the longhouse.

“Thus CMCO prohibiting visitation during Gawai is not against the Iban ritual ethics. It just reduces the merry-making activities which accompany the religious festivities,” he explained.

What is Gawai Dayak

The word ‘Gawai’ itself in Iban literally means ‘Festival’. So Gawai Dayak, which is celebrated every June 1, would literally mean Dayak Festival.

It is basically a festival of thanksgiving, marking a bountiful harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or other endeavours ahead.

Usually, on the eve of Gawai Dayak, the Dayak community will be busy with general tidying up, visiting the graves of their family members, drying and milling the newly harvested paddy, collecting and preparing food and final house decoration. The mode of celebrations of Gawai Dayak varies from place to place, and longhouse to longhouse.

Commonly, it is done with a toast of ‘Ai Pengayu’ or ‘toast for wellbeing’ at the strike of midnight on June 1, followed by some fireworks. Before fireworks existed back in the old days, the midnight signal was indicated with the firing of guns or small cannons into the air.

Then it is followed by a feast and merry making among friends and relatives at the ‘ruai’ of their longhouse.

As the celebration continues to daylight, families and friends will visit each other’s ‘bilek’ or household in a longhouse, or even visit the neighbouring longhouses. This is called ‘ngabang’ or open-house visiting.

When Sarawak was under British colonial rule, Gawai was initially supposed to be called the Dayak National Day. But this name was objected to by some government officials who feared that Dayak nationalism would factor in the celebration.

In the Council Negri (now Sarawak Legislative Assembly (DUN)), the late Dato Sri Tra Zehnder, Sarawak’s first woman member of the august House, strongly fought to gazette Gawai Dayak as Dayak National Day but was rejected, until the late Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan became chief minister in 1963 when it was finally accepted.

It was to be called Gawai Dayak Day instead, as a compromise. It was not to be a religious festival but gazetted as a public holiday on June 1 of each year.

The first official Gawai Dayak Day was hosted by Datuk Michael Buma, a native Iban from Betong, at his house at Siol Kandis in Kuching on June 1, 1963.

This was supposed to be a combined Gawai celebration for all Dayaks, including the Bidayuhs of all the districts in the then First Division, the Ibans from all over Sarawak and the other non-Muslim ethnic groups classified as Orang Ulu in the northern region of Sarawak.


The ‘miring’ ritual is usually carried out by an elder to give offerings to the ‘petara’ or gods as a sign of gratitude. Back in the old days, a ‘manang’ ( a priest) will carry out the ritual.

For Gawai, it is usually done during the eve of the festival to give offerings to the gods for the year’s harvest, and for continued prosperity and bountiful harvest in the coming year.

Traditionally the ‘miring’ ritual was carried out by each ‘bilek’ or household of a longhouse. But nowadays a grand ‘miring’ ritual is done as the main event at a village or a longhouse during Gawai.

The ‘miring’ ritual is also carried out as a thanksgiving ceremony on other days or other important celebrations besides Gawai.

Gawai Dayak celebration may last for up to a month. Throughout the month, other than ‘ngabang’, various other festivals and rituals may also be held such as weddings or ‘melah pinang’, or those of the Christian faith may hold a special Gawai Mass or service.


‘Tuak’ or rice wine is synonymous with the Gawai celebration, not only as a merry-making beverage but also used for the ‘ai pengayu’ or toast. The drink is brewed by fermenting glutinous rice from a recent harvest mixed with home-made yeast called ‘ciping’.

Other ingredients such as fruits may be added to the brew to give it flavour.

‘Ciping’ being prepared to make tuak.

Some say the quality depends not just by how well and how long it is being fermented, but also the purity of the ingredients used. Taste varies from brewer to brewer. Some are sweet and mild but pack a lot of punch, while some have a strong matured taste.

With the advancement of time, many Dayak communities now use modern alcoholic beverages such as beer and liquor as substitute for or addition to the ‘tuak’.

The ‘tuak’ is also used as one of the components for the religious ritual ‘miring’, carried out on the eve night of Gawai.

Pun Ranyai

‘Pun Ranyai’ or Tree of Life, is a decorative tree set up before the start of Gawai Dayak celebration, and will remain there throughout the Gawai period, which sometimes can go for up to a month.

In a longhouse, the tree is usually set up at the most central part of the ‘ruai’ or the common section.

It is decorated with all sorts of trinkets and packed food items, and even canned or bottled drinks are hung on the branches. It is very similar to the Christmas Tree concept, decorated with many colourful trinkets and decorations and gifts are put under the tree.

Tuai Rumah Jemat Ulak performs the ngajat next to the ranyai tree during a Gawai celebration at Rumah Martenus Nyuram in Sungai Assan, Sibu. — Photo by Othman Ishak

At the end of Gawai, especially during the Ngiling Tikai or Ngiling Bidai ceremony, a ‘Ngajat’ is to be performed around the tree while it is to be stripped of the decorations and all the food items or ‘gifts’ hung on the branches to be given away, and the tree to be ‘chopped down’.

Ngiling Tikai/Ngiling Bidai

At the end of the Gawai celebration, a last or closing ritual or celebration called ‘ngiling tikai’ (rolling the mat) or ‘ngiling bidai’ (rolling the curtain) is carried out to mark the end of that year’s harvest festival.

A ‘ngiling tikai’ ceremony at Rumah Meikle Ding, Sungai Sekutan Sebauh in Bintulu last year.

It is literally ceremoniously rolling up the mat, symbolising the closing of this year’s Gawai, and putting the mat away before it is opened up again for the coming year’s Gawai.

Just like Gawai, the ‘Ngiling Tikai’ ceremony is done with feasting and the ‘miring’ ritual.