Gawai, the harvest festival that glues Dayaks together

KUCHING: At last! It’s the day that all Dayaks – Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu – are waiting for. Happy Gawai, you all!

In case you forgot or didn’t know, Gawai is also celebrated by Dayaks in Kalimantan, Indonesia as both a religious and a socio-cultural occasion.

In Sarawak, today, being June 1, is a public holiday as recognised officially since 1965.

Traditionally, Gawai Dayak is a harvest festival regardless of whether the harvest was bountiful or not. Thus, the time of celebration was indefinite except that it always marked the end of the rice farming cycle and the start of the new planting season.

The Dayaks celebrate many festivals, but the harvest Gawai is the most significant. As recently described by Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri James Jemut Masing, it is the knot that binds, and the glue that seals Dayaks into one.

The Bidayuh celebrate Gawai thankful for the rice they have harvested. Here, the folk of Kampung Gumbang, Bau perform some old Gawai rituals.

Besides the merry-making, nativistic or animistic rituals and prayers are also performed to both thank and ask the gods/spirits for their blessings of the past and good fortune for the coming year. For Christian Dayaks they just go to church before they celebrate.

Among the sights and sounds usually associated with Gawai Dayak are “ngajat” (Iban traditional warrior dance), “Kumang” pageants (for girls and women) and “Keling” contests (for men), drinking of “tuak” (rice wine) and the serving of “sarang semut” (Iban delicacy) which is something of a necessity during the festival in some places.

Gawai Dayak is also the season when many urbanised Dayaks return to their villages and/or longhouses to partake in the festival with their friends, families and relatives.

Traditional delicacies as well as ‘tuak’, modern soft drinks, wine and liquor are in abundance for the celebrants and their guests to enjoy.

“It is a day of relief. This is the day when we meet friends and relatives in our villages, chatting and exchanging news over food and drinks, and generally feeling joy, thrills and happiness even over mundane things just because we are in a festive mood,” said chairman of Bung Bratak Heritage Association, Datuk Peter Minos.

“Yes, just the thought of Gawai is enough to excite us. That’s the magic of Gawai which is hard to explain.

“If you ask me what I like the most about Gawai, I just say that it’s the fact that it is a special day meant to be enjoyed and for rest,” he said.

“And I like the people, especially friends and relatives who visit us. Several of them are those that I have not seen for quite a while.”

Strangely, he explained, even the loud noise (especially the gongs being played) in the village, the sight of happy playful kids and people chatting noisily away … all bring joy and fun.

“Everything reminds me of the old annual ‘gawae sowah’ (Gawai spelled and pronounced in Bau dialect) in the 50s and 60s … those were days of thrills … real thrills … truly original native Gawai. Fantastic, they were, and really great for us kids then. Oh, how I miss those 70 years …,” he trailed off with a yearning look on his face.

After a while he perked up and said, “Have a happy Gawai! Just be happy. One day in one whole year, reserve that for some real joy and happiness. Cheers!”

For Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) president, Datuk Ik Pahon Joyik, Gawai Dayak is a time for family and friends to come together, to remind Dayaks of their rich past tradition, customs and heritage that must be pass down to the younger generation.

“Be proud of our rich cultural heritage. Be thrifty, don’t over-consume anything, drive cautiously and may you reach home safely. Selamat Gawai!” he said.