Gawai Dayak this year is not going to be like all the Gawai of the past, but conditional movement control order or not, traditions do have a way with old folk. Gawai is not Gawai without the ‘poek’ (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo) for this Salako octogenarian, who has just returned from the jungle for the bamboo in the company of man’s loyal friend. She should be cooking the ‘poek’ tomorrow, which should ensure their freshness at the Gawai table come June 1.
Gawai Harvest Festival is celebrated by the Dayak ethnic group in Sarawak, Malaysia, and West Kalimantan, Indonesia on Borneo Island. Gawai means ‘festival’ in the Dayak language. On this day, people express their gratitude for a bountiful harvest and pray for the next successful farming season.
Hari Gawai is officially celebrated on June 1, but the festivities continue for as long as a month
Hari Gawai was officially recognised and first celebrated formally on June 1, 1965. Before that, the Dayak people would typically begin the festivities after the harvest season in April or May. Nowadays, preparation for the auspicious day begins almost a month beforehand with the older generation brewing tuak (a ritual drink part and parcel of Gawai), and general prep work usually starting a week before June 1 with the procurement of food and drinks for merrymaking (that’s literally what ‘Gawai’ means in the Iban language). It’s all about community spirit during Hari Gawai, with everyone lending a hand in the preparation; this still rings true in most longhouses and small villages today.
On Gawai eve, the Iban community will conducts blessings and thanksgiving ceremonies called miring, with offerings to the departed ancestors, deities and spirits. The ceremony also invites spiritual entities to celebrate with the longhouse community, and then continuing with open houses with friends and families from afar. The merrymaking may carry on for weeks, going up to a month. This scenario is the same with Bidayuh community today, only without the spiritual blessing ceremony and traditional rituals.
Gawai is generally celebrated by the Dayak communities of Sarawak
A majority of the Dayak people in Sarawak are Christians and within the Dayak tribes are the Iban, Bidayuh and upriver people called Orang Ulu. However, today only the Iban and Bidayuh prominently celebrate Gawai. The upriver people – the Orang Ulu – prioritise Christmas more and only participate in the Gawai celebrations held by the Iban and Bidayuh community. However, very few Bidayuh communities presently still conduct the thanksgiving rituals as most of them choose to stand by their belief in Christianity, compared to the Iban who still have a strong connection with the traditional Gawai practices and ancient customs.
There’s lots of food to be had on Gawai Eve
On the morning of Gawai Eve, people gather sago, aping and coconut palm shoots to make soup. Vegetables such as wild miding fern, fiddlehead fern, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves and Dayak round brinjals from nearby jungle, farms or gardens are also gathered. Chicken and pigs are slaughtered after gathering the plants and vegetables, resulting in meat cooked in bamboo logs to make the traditional dish of lulun. The meat is mixed with herbs like lemongrass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Pig heads are roasted over an open fire to be served hot with tuak. Some glutinous rice is cooked in bamboo logs to soak up the bamboo aroma. Pandan-infused rice will be cooked in pots at the kitchen hearth and smoke from the fire wood also gives a distinctive aroma. Some Dayaks, especially Orang Ulu, will wrap rice in long green leaves before steaming it inside a pot.
The many celebrations during Hari Gawai
After the more serious rituals on Gawai Eve are observed as thanksgiving to the deities, the celebrations are merrier. The Dayaks erect a tree of life called ranyai as a backdrop to performances of the ngajat dance, sword dance (bepencha) or self-defence martial art (bekuntau). Another important activity is the singing of traditional songs. Honoured guests may be asked to break a coconut to symbolise the actions of Sengalang Burong (the god of war) during the Iban timangincantation called ngelanpang (chopping off the head skull to present various kinds of beneficial seeds to humankind).