In short

Gawai Dayak is an annual festival celebrated by the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Indonesia on June 1-2. It is a public holiday in Sarawak and has been both a recognized religious and social occasion since 1957.

Gawai Dayak

Gawai Dayak, recognition of the Dayak people

As the day of the festival approaches, everyone will be busy with general tidying up, visiting graves, drying and grinding paddy, collecting and preparing food, and final decoration of the house, if necessary. . The mode of Gawai Dayak celebrations varies from place to place and preparations start early.

When a longhouse agrees to welcome Gawai Dayak with large ritual feasts, it may need to plant additional paddy and organize a labor exchange (bedurok). Rice can be bought in towns if the festival takes place in a place where rice cultivation is absent or insufficient. The traditional Dayak liquor is a rice wine called tuak, brewed at least a month before Gawai Dayak. 

The drink is brewed from sticky rice from a recent harvest mixed with homemade yeast called ciping. Traditionally, tuak was made with only rice milk, but it is now cut with sugar and water in a process called mandok. A stronger alcoholic drink made by the Iban is langkau (called arak tonok, "burnt spirit" by the Bidayuh). This drink is made by distilling tuak over a fire.

Traditional cakes are made from glutinous rice flour mixed with sugar. Cakes include sarang semut (ant nest cake), cuwan (molded cake), and kuih sepit (twisted cake). Cakes can last well when stored in a jar because they are fried until hard. Penganan iri (disc-shaped cakes) are prepared just before the day of the festival as they do not keep well. This is because the cake is removed from the hot frying oil when it is not completely hardened. The sugar used can be nipah brown sugar or cane sugar.

Before Gawai Eve, residents of the longhouse can organize a hunting or fishing party to gather wild meat and fish. Both can be preserved with salt in a jar or smoked on a firewood platform above the fire pit. Inedible animal parts such as horns, teeth, claws and feathers are used to decorate and repair traditional costumes.

The longhouse is cleaned, repaired and repainted with the cooperation of its residents. The longhouse is built as a unique place to live and worship. Its main post (tiang pemun) is the designated starting point of all building materials (pun ramu) and must remain intact. 

Wood and wooden materials for repairs are obtained from nearby reserve forests (pulau galau or pulau ban) or purchased in towns. A pantar (chaise longue) can be built along the upper part of the ruai (gallery). The seat is raised and the tanju (veranda wall) serves as a backrest. Some old wooden longhouses (rumah kayu) are renovated with concrete and bricks to form a terraced structure (rumah batu).

The interior walls of the longhouse are decorated with ukir murals depicting designs of trees and wild animals. Men with decorative skills make designs out of split bamboo. The women decorate the walls of the living room by hanging their hand-woven ceremonial clothes called pua kumbu and other handicrafts. The Orang Ulu are famous for their colorful paintings of the tree of life on the walls of their houses, and the posts of their houses are intricately carved. Highly decorated shields are displayed near the family room door. 

Heirloom pots, brassware, and old human skulls obtained from raids or trade sojourns, if still preserved, are cleaned and displayed. Stag horns can be attached to the poles of the longhouse to hold highly decorated swords and other household items.

On the eve of Gawai, people collect shoots of sago, monkey, sawit or coconut palm which are used to make meat stews. Vegetables such as wild Midin fern, bracken fern, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves, and Dayak round eggplants from nearby jungles, farms, or gardens are also picked.

After picking the plants and vegetables early in the morning, the poultry is slaughtered. Enough meat is cooked in thin-walled middle-aged bamboo logs to make a traditional dish called pansoh (Iban: lulun). The meat is first mixed with traditional herbs like lemongrass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Any leftover meat is preserved in salt and mixed with detoxified kepayang leaves and seeds. Animal heads are roasted over an open fire to be served hot with tuak. Wooden kitchen utensils are made from small tree logs.

Glutinous rice is cooked in bamboo knots to soak up the aroma of bamboo. Normal rice will be cooked in pots in the hearth of the kitchen. Adding pandan leaves also gives a special aroma. The smoke from the firewood also imparts a distinctive aroma. Some Dayaks, especially the Orang Ulu, wrap the rice in long green leaves (daun long) before steaming it in a pot. Rice can also be cooked using a gas stove or rice cooker.

Highly decorated mats for guests to sit on are arranged on the longhouse gallery which runs the length of the longhouse. The act is called beranchau (“mat spread out and adjoining”) which marks the opening of the gawai. The Dayaks make various types of traditional hand-woven mats. There are reed mats woven with colorful patterns, lampit rattan mats, bidai tree bark mats and peradani mats. 

The walls of most family rooms and galleries are decorated with traditional blankets such as woven Pua Kumbu and knotted cloth blankets (kain kebat) which are made with unique Dayak designs. During the festival, women are keen to display the products of their skills and hard work in carpet making and hand weaving. Some traditional baskets are also seen. A few sets of traditional musical instruments are also on display in the gallery.

Both men and women may wear the nigepan, the traditional costume, especially when guests arrive. The traditional dress for men is a loincloth (sirat or cawat), animal skin coat (gagong), peacock and hornbill feather headgear (lelanjang), neck chains (marik), silver bracelets and anklets with a shield, sword and spear. 

The men are decorated with tribal tattoos (kalingai or pantang in Iban) which signify their life experience and journey. A frog design on the front of the man's neck and/or tegulun designs on the back of the hand indicate that the wearer has severed a human head or killed a man in military combat. However, some designs are based on marine life and are intended for the protection and rescue of wearers while on the water.

Women wear a hand-woven cloth (kain beating) worn around the waist, a high rattan and brass corset around the upper body, a selampai (a long piece of scalp) worn over the shoulders, a chain beads woven on the neck and shoulders (marik empang), a high decorated comb (sugu tinggi) on the tuft of hair (sanggul), a silver belt (lampit), an armband, an ankle bracelet and a purse with orb fruit. In the past, it was customary for Dayak women to bare their breasts as a sign of beauty. In the Bidayuh Dayak society, the Dayung Boris are the young girls of the Gawai Festival.

The celebrations begin on the evening of May 31 with a ceremony to cast out the spirit of greed (Muai Antu Rua). Two children or men, each dragging a winnowing basket (chapan), will each pass through the family room. Each family will throw an unwanted item into the basket. Unwanted items will then be thrown to the ground from the end of the longhouse.

At dusk, a ritual offering ceremony (miring or bedara) will take place in each family room, one after the other. Before the ceremony, ritual music called gendang rayah is played. Old ceramic plates, tabak (large brass chalices), or containers made of split bamboo skins (kelingkang) are filled with food and drink to offer to the deities.

The Iban Dayaks believe in seven deities (the people of the hornbill's nest, Orang Tansang Kenyalang) whose names are Sengalang Burong (the god of war represented by the Brahmin kite); Biku Bunsu Petara (the high priest, who is the second in command), Menjaya Manang (the first shaman and god of medicine), Sempulang Gana with Semerugah (the god of agriculture and land), Selampandai (the god of creation and procreativity), Ini Inee/Andan (the god of justice) and Anda Mara (the god of fortune). 

The Iban Dayaks also call upon the legendary and mythical people of Panggau Libau and Gelong, and other good and helpful spirits or ghosts to attend the feast. The whole pantheon of gods is cordially invited to the Gawai festival.

The offerings to the deities are placed in strategic places: at the four corners of each family room for the protection of souls; in the kitchen; to the pot of rice; in the gallery; the tanju; and farm it. Other highly prized goods such as old precious jars and modern items like rice mill engines, boat engines or a car can also be placed with offerings. Any pengaroh (charm) will be brought out for this ceremony to ensure its continued effectiveness and to avoid the madness that afflicts the owner. Wallets are placed among the offerings to increase the tuah or fortune of the owners.

Each offering set usually contains specified odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 7) of traditional items: 

nipah cigarette leaves and tobacco, betel nut and sireh leaves, sticky rice in a hand-woven leaf container (senupat), rice cakes (tumpi), sungki (sticky rice cooked in buwan leaves), glutinous rice cooked in bamboo logs (asi pulut lulun), penganan iri (glutinous rice flour cakes mixed with nipah sugar), ant cakes and molded cakes, poprice (made from paddy grains stickies heated in a wok or pot), hard-boiled chicken eggs and tuak rice wine poured over or contained in a small bamboo cup.

After all the sets of offerings are completed, the festival leader thanks the gods for a good harvest and asks for guidance, blessings and long life by waving a rooster over the offerings (bebiau). The rooster is sacrificed by cutting its neck. Its wing feathers are plucked and brushed from its bleeding neck, after which each feather is placed as a sacrifice (genselan) on each of the sets of offerings. The offerings are then placed in designated places.

After the offering ceremony is over, the family sits down for dinner, makai di ruai (gallery meal) or makai rami (celebratory meal) in the gallery of the longhouse. Each member of the family brought something. All the best traditional dishes, delicacies and drinks that have been prepared are displayed.

Just before midnight, a welcoming procession of spirits (Ngalu Petara) is performed several times up and down the gallery. A beauty contest to choose the queen and king of the festival (Kumang and Keling Gawai) is sometimes held. The winners are chosen for the completeness of their traditional costumes and their beauty. The chief and elders organize a begeliga to remind everyone to maintain order, peace and harmony. Heavy fines (ukom) are imposed on those who break the customary rules of adat and festivals through fighting, quarreling, drunkenness or vandalism.

At midnight, a gong rings to call the inhabitants to attention. The head of the longhouse (tuai rumah) or host will toast longevity (Ai Pengayu) and the new year with a short prayer (sampi). The festival greeting, “Gayu Guru, Gerai Nyamai, Senang Lantang Nguan Menua” (“I wish you longevity, well-being and prosperity”) is repeated. Mistakes are forgiven and disputes are resolved. When a bard is available, they may be asked to recite a short chant called timang ai pengayu ("Singing the water of longevity") to bless the water of longevity before the chief says the short prayer.

After dinner, the celebrations are less formal. A tree of life (ranyai) is erected in the center of the gallery to symbolize the ritual sanctuary with precious fruits. Around her, performances of ngajat dance, sword dance (bepencha) or self-defense martial art (bekuntau) are performed after some traditional symbolic activities. The first order among the activities after dinner is the badigir, a line of elders and/or guests if there are any according to their social rank. 

A tabak (chalice) of food and drink is offered to each elder in line by a few women of high social standing in the longhouse, normally a wife offering to her husband. A group of women in costumes led by an expert sings a pantun (song of praise) befitting the status of each elder while offering a jalong (bowl) of tuak and some tabas (delicacies) to several key elders with outstanding life achievements .

The chief of them will then be asked to symbolically split a coconut. which symbolizes the skull trophies traditionally cherished by the Iban Dayak as the skull is believed to exhibit various types of valuable seeds for men whether for agricultural or procreative purposes. In more elaborate events, the warrior chief will perform the symbolic act of clearing the way (ngerandang jalai). He is then followed by his warriors in performing the symbolic act of handrail on the way (ngelalau jalai).

Then follows a procession of men and women, ladies, youths and children in traditional costumes along the gallery in honor of the elders of the queue, normally three rounds depending on the length of the longhouse. One of the results of this procession is the anointing of a kumang (princess) and a keeling (prince). After that, some of the participants in the procession may fetch the tuak contained in several medium-sized pots (kebok or pasu) after paying a token of their appreciation to the respective owners who are normally expert brewers. 

This tuak is normally the pure liquid of sticky rice which tastes sweet but contains a high concentration of alcohol. Tuak is normally drunk after eating, just like grape wine. Some food and beverages were served for all gifts. Rice cakes are eaten as a dessert.

Another important activity is the singing of traditional poems. These include pantun, ramban, jawang, sanggai and pelandai. All honored guests of longhouses may be asked to crack a coconut to symbolize the actions of Sengalang Burong (the god of war) during the Iban timang incantation called ngelanpang (cleansing the skull from the head to present various types of seeds beneficial to mankind). 

During the actual cleaning of the freshly taken heads, the troop leader would eat some of the brain with a piece of sticky rice before discarding the rest of the brain using a piece of rattan swirled by him inside the skull and slice the flesh with his war sword. This coconut splitting ceremony is a sign of respect and honor for the guests who are offered to do so.

Other festive activities that can continue into the next day include blowpipe competitions (sumpit) and traditional games such as arm wrestling (bibat lengan), small log pulling (betarit lampong), rope pulling (tarit tali) and the kick (bapatis). Some engage in cockfighting. In modern contexts, sports include football, sepak takraw (rattan kickball), and futsal. Other parlor games are played such as rolling eggs, passing plates to the beat of taboh music, running in burlap sacks and blowing up balloons, while karaoke and joget dancing are also popular.

There are many variations of the traditional ngajat or ajat dance. The male and female dances consist of graceful, precise and surprising movements of the body, hands and feet, sometimes with battle cries. Examples are male ajat freestyle dance, warrior dance, lesong ngajat (rice mortar dance), ngasu hunting dance or muar kesa (ant harvest) comedy dance for men. Women perform freestyle female ajat dance or ngajat pua kumbu (ritual cloth waving dance). 

The male dance shows strength and bravery and can imitate the movements of the hornbill, which is considered the king of birds in the world. The ngajat dance is accompanied by a traditional orchestra consisting of an engkerumong (percussion), tawak (large gong), bebendai (small gong) and bedup (drum) ensemble. Orang Ulu music is played using the sape. Recordings can be used in place of a live band.

Bidayuh Dayak dances include the tolak bala (abrogation of danger), a dance performed before the harvest to ask for the blessing and protection of the community; the totokng dance which is performed during the harvest festival to welcome the soul of the paddy and the guests; the langi julang which is performed at the closing of the harvest festival to thank the gods for granting good health and a rich harvest; and the eagle-warrior battle dance performed after the harvest season. 

The hands are held outstretched mimicking the movements of eagles flapping their wings in flight. The eagle eventually falls unconscious, leaving the warrior victorious. It is practiced by men looking for a female partner.

On the first day of June, Dayak houses are open to guests. This practice is called ngabang. Open days can also be organized by Dayak associations or non-governmental organizations. This will continue until the end of June when the gawai will be closed in a ngiling bidai (carpet rolling) ceremony.

When the guests arrive, a tuak is offered and the women line up in two rows on either side of the ladder (nyambut pengabang). The welcome drink (ai tiki) is followed by the thirst quencher (ai aus). Then, when the guests are seated, other rounds of tuak like washing drink (ai basu), profit drink (ai untong) and reverence drink (ai basa) are given. This activity is called guest watering or nyibur temuai.

Speeches are made such as the jaku ansah (sharp speech) which introduces the guest of honor. The guest of honor is received by a mirage offering ceremony outside the longhouse. Approaching the ladder of the longhouse, the guest of honor is asked to open a fort (muka kuta). This is depicted by cutting a bamboo fence with a sword and a poem. Then, at the foot of the ladder of the longhouse, an animal is pierced (mankan).

In the ngalu pengabang, the guests, led by ngajat dancers and followed by the group, make their way to their seats in the gallery of the longhouse. After that, a guest prayer (biau pengabang) is recited by a skilled speaker like the leader or bard lemambang while he swings holding a chicken above the heads of the guests. Before the guests are given food, a special speech (muka kujuk in Iban) to open the traditional cloth covering the food containers is recited.

After eating, the families in the longhouse are visited by guests. A small longhouse may have ten to thirty family rooms while a medium longhouse may have thirty to fifty family rooms. A very long longhouse may have fifty to one hundred family rooms. It is common for Dayak people to recite and discuss their genealogy (tusut in Iban) to strengthen kinship ties. 

In the activity called bantil (persuaded drinking), women offer drinks to men to help them overcome their shyness. Men traditionally reject first offers as a sign of respect for the host. Women sing a traditional poem called pantun while offering tuak. In the activity called uti, a special guest is asked to open a coconut placed on a ceramic plate using a dull knife without handling the coconut or breaking the plate. The coconut offered to be split by ordinary guests tells of one's heart and destiny: white flesh is good and black flesh is bad.

Gawai Dayak celebrations can last for a month. It is at this time of the year that many Dayak organize authentic ritual festivals and weddings (Melah Pinang or Gawai Lelabi).

Most Iban will hold minor rites called bedara which may be bedara mata (an unripe offering) inside the family bilek hall or bedara mansau (a ripe offering) in the family ruai gallery. Berunsur (cleaning) is done at the family tanju (veranda). The rituals called gawa are the Sandau Ari (midday feast); Tresang Mansau (red bamboo pole); and Gawai Kalingkang.

Ritual festivals in the Saribas and Skrang region include Gawai Bumai (agricultural festival) which includes Gawai Batu (whetstone festival), Gawai Benih (a paddy seed festival) and gawai basimpan (paddy storage festival) ; and Gawai Burong (a bird festival). The Bird Festival is celebrated earlier in the holiday season to prevent the Indai Bilai spirit from spoiling the rice wine if the Entombment of the Dead (Gawai Antu or Ngelumbong) festival is also held in the same house long.

In the Baleh region, Iban ritual festivals include the Gawai Baintu-intu (wellness festival); Gawai Bumai (agricultural festival); Gawai Amat (feast appropriate for seeking supernatural divine assistance); Gawai Ngelumbung (tomb-building festival) and Gawai Mimpi (festival based on spirits' dream messages).

Fortune-related festivals include a Gawai Mangkong Tiang (main house hammering festival) for all newly completed longhouses; Gawai Tuah (fortune festival) which consists of three stages, namely Gawai Ngiga Tuah (fortune-seeking festival), Gawai Namaka Tuah (fortune-welcoming festival) and Gawai nindokka tuah (fortune-saving festival) and Gawai Tajau (pot festival). Health-related festivals that can be held are the Gawai Sakit (healing festival) which takes place if belian, sugi sakit (supernatural cleansing) or renong sakit (supernatural healing) rituals fail.

For most of these traditional festivals, sacred invocations and incantations called pengap or timang are performed throughout the night by a bard (lemambang) and his assistants or a manang (healer).

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Today the Dayak people of Malaysia and Indonesia celebrate Gawai Dayak. Many religious, family and community rites take place over two days. #mythology #myth #legend #June 1 #dayak


Gawai Dayak