KUCHING: This year’s eagerly-awaited Gawai Dayak celebration was on fire.

Gazetted as a public holiday in 1965, Gawai Dayak has since been celebrated on June 1 every year. The celebration was originally held to express gratitude over bountiful rice harvest for the Dayaks.

Though the present generation has undergone transition to modern living and no longer having any specific season of harvest, Gawai is still recognised as a relevant authentic celebration for the Dayaks.

Traditionally known as a religious occasion, many Dayaks who have left animism and paganism and embraced Abrahamic religions still celebrate the festival as a social occasion where family members and relatives get together.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo (7th left) came all the way from Kuala Lumpur to celebrate Gawai Dayak in Kampung Triboh Serian on May 31. Also present are Works Minister Baru Bian (8th left), Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs deputy minister Chong Chieng Jen (9th left), Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii Lee Wuen (10th left), Pending assemblywoman Violet Yong Wui Wui (11th left) and Serian Iban Remun Association (SIRA) president Eli Luntai (5th left). Photo: State Information Department.

As the festival day approaches, everyone is busy with general tidying up, grave visits, paddy drying and milling, collecting and preparing food and house decorating, where necessary. The mode of celebration of Gawai Dayak varies from place to place and preparations begin early.

The Gawai celebration begins on the night before with offerings and sacrifices such as “Muai Antu Rua” (a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed) and “miring” or “bedara” (a ritual- offering ceremony).

A man performs the Rara’s community traditional dance known as Tari Pianuk Sang Kancil during Gawai Dayak at Kampung Pueh in Sematan. Photo: Mohd Alif Noni

Once the offering ceremony is completed, the family sits down for a festive meal in the gallery of the longhouse.

Just before midnight, a spirit-welcoming procession (Ngalu Petara) is performed several times up and down the gallery. Apart from that, a beauty pageant to choose the festival’s queen and king (Kumang and Keling Gawai) is also conducted.

Three women race to the finishing line in a traditional game known as Lumba Panchon at Kampung Pueh longhouse in Sematan. Photo: Mohd Alif Noni

During the dinner, the chief and elders hold a “begeliga” to remind everybody to keep order, peace and harmony. Heavy fines (ukom) are imposed on those who break the customary “adat” and festive ground rules with fighting, quarrelling, drunkenness or vandalism.

At midnight, a gong is rung to call the guests to attention. The longhouse chief (tuai rumah) or host will lead a toast to longevity (Ai Pengayu) and the new year with a short prayer (sampi).

A man carries the traditional Gong of Salako to be played for the opening ceremony of Gawai Narankg ceremony at Kampung Pueh. Photo: Mohd Alif Noni

The festival greeting, “Gayu Guru, Gerai Nyamai, Senang Lantang Nguan Menua” is repeated to each other. Mistakes and quarrels are forgiven. Where a bard is available, he may be asked to recite a short chant called “timang ai pengayu” to bless the longevity water before the chief says the short prayer.

Among other activities associated with Gawai Dayak are casual entertainment such as “ngajat” (Iban traditional warrior dance), sword dance (bepencha), self-defence martial art (bekuntau) and “tolak bala” (Bidayuh Dayak dance).

Some elders play Pangkak Gasing while others look on at Kampung Pueh. Photo: Mohd Alif Noni

They also do sumpit (blowpipe) contests, mini sports and traditional games such as drinking of “tuak” (rice wine), “bibat lengan” (arm-wrestling), “betarit lampong” (small log pulling), “tarit tali” (rope pulling) and “bapatis” (foot-banging).

During the festival, Dayak homes are open to guests and welcome the practice of “ngabang” (visiting). Traditional cakes are served such as “sarang semut,” “cuwan” and “kuih sepit.”

Dayung Sangon Lundu 2019 beauty pageant at Kampung Pueh in Sematan. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

According to former senator and deputy speaker of the Dewan Negara, Datuk Seri Doris Brodie, Gawai is a time for people to come together regardless of whatever divides or differences they may have.

“It should also be a time to reflect on the past years and to make plans and adjustments for the betterment of the future,” she said.

Traditional food served to Education, Science and Technological Research Minister Datuk Seri Michael Manyin Jawong and guests during the Gawai Dayak celebration at Kampung Pueh. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

Meanwhile, Youth and Sports Assistant Minister Datuk Snowdan Lawan recently mentioned his concerns over changes in time which may affect the beautiful festival.

“Time changes and community evolves. Traditions are kept but with innovations, especially in dressing, communications and music,” he said.

The traditional costumes of various Dayak ethnics in Borneo. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

To him, youths are more inclined towards technology such as smartphones compared to oral communications.

No matter how busy you are, it’s your loss if you miss out on Gawai!

The Bidayuh from Serian, Puncak Borneo, Padawan, Bau and Lundu as well as guests enjoying their time during  Gawai Dayak at Annah Rais longhouse. Photo: Ghazali Bujang
Manyin (7th left) poses with the Dayaks dressed in traditional costumes at Annah Rais longhouse. Also present are Ministry of Modernisation of Agriculture, Native Land and Regional Development Sarawak permanent secretary Datu Ik Pahon Joyik (8th left) and Padawan Municipal Council (MPP) chairman Lo Khere Chiang (10th left). Photo: Ghazali Bujang