Promoting Gawai Dayak to the world

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The ‘miring’ being performed at Rumah Engkeranji in Betong. Among those witnessing the ritual is Deputy Minister for Youth, Sports and Entrepreneur Development Sarawak Datuk Gerald Rentap Jabu (standing, second right).

THE Gawai Dayak Open House and Parade 2023 last month was more than just a mere gathering to signify thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest and preparations for the next farming season.

Organised by Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF), the event was indeed a grand celebration held with the key objective of promoting this Sarawak cultural festival to the world, with the venue being the Iban heartland of Betong Division.

Supported by both federal and state tourism agencies, it played host to over 50 bloggers, travel content creators, YouTubers, journalists and social media influencers not only from all across Malaysia, but also from Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, China, United States of America, Australia and Poland – all of whom were encouraged to experience first-hand the customs and way-of-living of the Dayak community during this festive period.

‘Enchanted by warm hospitality’

After converging on a hotel in Kuching in the morning, the group embarked on a 250km journey to Betong via the Pan Borneo Highway, stopping by at Lachau town along the way for a quick lunch.

After three hours on the road, they arrived at Rumah Panjang Engkeranji, a contemporary longhouse in Betong that served as their homestay for two nights.

The visitor received a warm welcome from their hosts, who engaged them in the ‘miring’ – a traditional ritual meant to seek good fortune and blessings.

An online travel content creator Tay trying out ‘ulat mulong’ (sago worm) during the lunch stopover at Lachau.

The villagers even took it up a notch – they ‘adopted’ their guests to become part of their families, making the programme even more fun and memorable for the participants.

One of the main events for the programme was a Gawai Dayak open house and ‘ngabang’ (visiting) event hosted by the STF at the nearby Rumah Anyie Rajit at night, an 80-year-old longhouse built with massive ‘belian’ (ironwood) pillars as its supporting structures.

The guests being served ‘tuak’ upon arrival at Rumah Engkeranji in Betong.

There were human skulls hung from the rafters of the longhouse, symbolising the headhunting days in the past where the ancestral warriors would bring home heads of their enemies as trophies from battles.

Shifting to a less gruesome sight, the walls were beautifully decorated with the ‘pua kumbu’ (the traditional hand-woven cloth of the Ibans).

Traditional dances from sub-ethnic groups of the Dayak community were being performed, much to the delight of the visitors, who were also served ‘tuak’ (rice wine) non-stop.

Sarawak Deputy Premier Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, who officiated at the ceremony, hailed the Gawai Dayak 2023 programme as a great opportunity for both domestic and international travellers to witness and appreciate the fascinating tradition and practices of the Dayaks.

“I hope the Sarawak Tourism Federation and the state Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts would make sure that Betong is recognised on the world’s tourism map,” he spoke to a crowd of over 1,500 guests at the longhouse.

Uggah addressing the 1,500-strong crowd at Rumah Anyie during the Gawai Dayak Open House event. — Photo by Chimon Upon

Uggah, who is Bukit Saban assemblyman, also said he had observed more tourist arrivals in Betong, which should translate into more business opportunities for the local community.

In this regard, he said he would engage the federal Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing in discussing the division’s potential of being transformed into a handicrafts production hub.

Furthermore, he said the Sarawak government would look into reviving Bukit (Hill) Sadok, where fierce battles between the army led by the legendary Iban warrior Rentap and the troops of the first White Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke, had taken place.

One of the proposals was to construct a miniature Rentap Fort on the hill.

History of hosting longhouse

A very prominent resident of Rumah Anyie is former Betong MP Datuk Robert Lawson Chuat.

He said the construction of the 28-door longhouse began in 1943 during the Japanese Occupation, and it reached completion two years later.

Little girls looking adorable in their traditional Iban attire, ready to perform at the Gawai Dayak Open House in Rumah Anyie.

“As you walk along the corridor, you may have noticed the human skulls being hung on the ceiling. Those are more than 200 years old,” Chuat told his guests.

“We do not want anyone to feel threatened because as we’re no longer interested in adding to the skull collection, at least not at the moment,” he joked.

Human skulls, a vestige of the past days of headhunting, can still be seen hanging from the rafters of Rumah Anyie.

Chuat estimated that there had not been less than four longhouses being built at the same location as Rumah Anyie over the past 200 years.

Also according to him, the current chieftain, or ‘tuai rumah’ (TR) Anyie Rajit, is the first woman to have held such a position at the longhouse.

“We are very honoured and privileged to be given the opportunity to host this Gawai Dayak open house. I wish to convey our sincere thanks to the STF and the Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Sarawak for choosing our longhouse to be the venue of this event,” said Chuat.

Dinner being served at Rumah Anyie, featuring traditional Iban dishes.

The former parliamentarian also expressed hope that the setting up of Betong Division Development Agency would result in more tourism-related developments being implemented in the region, including the plan to revive Bukit Sadok as a tourist destination.

Rumah Anyie is supported by massive ‘belian’ pillars, seen in this photo.

Meanwhile, the Gawai Dayak Open House and Parade programme organising chairwoman Yvonne Saman said the last time that the STF hosted such event was in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

“The main objective of this event is for the tourists and also the locals, regardless of race or religion in our multicultural community, to experience and partake in the Gawai Dayak celebration in Sarawak, which is unique and might not be found anywhere else,” she said.

The menfolk of Rumah Anyie, all wearing the traditional Iban headgear and vests, raising the ‘tuak’ toast in welcoming their international guests.

Dinner at the longhouse featured traditional Iban dishes and at the same time, some guests took the opportunity to buy traditional handicrafts and accessories sold by the longhouse folks for them to bring home as souvenirs.

At around 10pm, the group of over 50 media personnel headed back to Rumah Engkeranji Homestay, where some of them continued to mingle with the residents with another round of ‘tuak’ and ‘ngajat’ (traditional dance) session that went late into the night.

* This is the first article for the series on Gawai Dayak Open House and Parade 2023 programme run by the STF. Watch out for the final part next Sunday.