Today is the start of Gawai Dayak, an annual festival celebrated by the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Indonesia. It is a public holiday in Sarawak and is both a religious and a social occasion initiated in 1957. Gawai Dayak was the concept of the radio producers Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, and taken up by the Dayak community. The British colonial government refused to recognize Dayak Day until 1962. Instead, they called it Sarawak Day to include all Sarawakians as a national day, regardless of ethnic origin. Gawai Dayak comes from “Gawai” meaning festival and “Dayak” a collective name for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the interior of Borneo. The population estimate is 2 to 4 million. The Dayaks, previously known as the Sea Dayak are mostly Iban people. Other ethnic groups such as the Bidayuh people (Land Dayak and Orang Ulu) are included. The Orang Ulu include the Kayans, Kenyahs and Lun Bawangs. There are over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups in the region. Although these peoples have common traits, each has its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture. Dayak languages are generally categorized as Austronesian languages. Originally Dayaks observed various forms of animism or pantheism, but since the 19th century times, many have converted to Islam or Christianity.
On 1 June 1963, Datuk Michael Buma, a Betong, hosted the celebrations of the first Gawai Dayak at his home at Siol Kandis, Kuching. On 25 September 1964, Sarawak Day was gazetted as a public holiday acknowledging the Sarawak part in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The holiday was first celebrated on 1 June 1965 and it became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community. It is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking a bountiful harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or other endeavors ahead. The mode of celebration of Gawai Dayak varies greatly from place to place and preparations begin early.
In those villages where longhouses are the norm, the longhouse is cleaned, repaired and repainted through co-operation amongst its residents. Timber and wooden materials for repairs are obtained from nearby reserve forests (“pulau galau, pulau ban”) or purchased in towns. A “pantar” (long chair) may be built along the upper area of the ruai (gallery). The seat is raised and the tanju (verandah wall) is used as the back rest. Some old wooden longhouses (“rumah kayu”) are renovated with concrete and bricks to make a terraced structure (“rumah batu”). The inside walls of the longhouse are decorated with “ukir” murals portraying tree and wild animal motifs. Men with decorating skills make split bamboo designs. The Orang Ulu are famous for their colorful paintings of the tree of life on their house walls and their house posts are elaborately carved. Highly decorated shields are displayed near the family room door. Heirloom jars and old human skulls obtained during headhunting raids, if still kept, are cleaned and displayed. Deer horns may be secured on the longhouse posts in order to secure highly decorated swords and other household items.
In preparation people gather sago, aping, sawit or coconut palm shoots which are used for making 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. After the gathering of plants and vegetables early in the morning, the poultry is slaughtered. Enough meat is cooked in aged thin-walled bamboo logs to make a traditional dish called “pansoh” (or “lulun” in the Iban language). The meat is first mixed with traditional herbs like lemon grass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Any remaining meat is preserved in salt. Animal heads are roasted over an open fire to be served hot with tuak. Wooden cooking implements are made from small tree logs.
Some glutinous rice is cooked in bamboo logs to soak up the bamboo aroma. Normal rice will be cooked in pots at the kitchen hearth. The addition of pandan leaves gives a special aroma. 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. Rice may also cooked using a gas stove or rice cooker.
Highly decorated mats for guests to sit on are laid out on the longhouse gallery which runs the entire length of the building. The Dayaks make various types of traditional hand-woven mats. There are reed mats woven with colourful designs, 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 the woven Pua Kumbu and the tied cloth (kain kebat) blankets which are made with unique Dayak designs. During the festival, women are keen to display their skills and hard work at mat-making and hand-weaving. Some traditional baskets are also seen.
Men and women may wear “ngepan”, the traditional costume, especially when guests are arriving. The traditional dress of men is a loincloth (sirat or cawat), animal skin coat (gagong), peacock and hornbill feathers (lelanjang) headware, chains over the neck (marik), silver armlets and anklelets along with a shield, sword and spear. 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 backs of the hand indicate the wearer has chopped off a human head or killed a man in military combat. However, some designs are based on marine life which are meant for protection and rescue of the wearers when on the water.
Women wear a hand-woven cloth (kain betating) worn around the waist, a rattan and brass ring high corset around the upper body, selampai (a long piece of scalp) worn over the shoulders, a woven bead chain over the neck and shoulders (marik empang), a decorated high-comb (sugu tinggi) over the hair lump (sanggul), a silver belt (lampit), armlet, anklet and orb fruit purse.
Celebrations begin on the evening of 31 May with a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed (Muai Antu Rua). Two children or men, each dragging a winnowing basket (chapan) will pass by each family’s room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will then be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse. At dusk, a ritual offering ceremony (miring or bedara) will take place at every family room, one after the other. Before the ceremony, ritual music called gendang rayah is performed. Old ceramic plates, tabak (big brass chalices) or containers made of split bamboo skins (kelingkang) are offered to the deities.
The Iban Dayaks believe in seven deities: Sengalang Burong (the god of war which is represented by the brahminy kite in this world); Biku Bunsu Petara (the great priest’s second in command), Menjaya Manang (the first shaman and god of medicine), Sempulang Gana with Semerugah (the god of agriculture and land), Selampadai (the god of creation and procreativity), Ini Inee/Andan (the god of justice) and Anda Mara (the god of wealth). Iban Dayaks also call upon the legendary and mythical people of Panggau Libau and Gelong, and some good helpful spirits or ghosts to attend the feast.
Offerings to the deities are placed at the four corners of each family room, in the kitchen, at the rice jar, in the gallery, the tanju and the farm. Other highly prized possessions such as precious old jars and modern items like rice milling engines, boat engines or a car may also be used as offerings. Any pengaroh (charm) will be brought out for this ceremony to ensure its continuous effectiveness and to avoid madness afflicting the owner. Wallets are placed among the offerings to increase the tuah or fortune of the owners.
Each set of offerings usually contains seven traditional items: the cigarette nipah leaves and tobacco, betel nut and sireh leaves, glutinous rice in a hand-woven leave container (senupat), rice cakes (tumpi), sungki (glutinous rice cooked in buwan leaves), glutinuous rice cooked in bamboo logs (asi pulut lulun), penganan iri (cakes of glutinous rice flour mixed with nipah sugar), ant nest cakes and moulded cakes, poprice (made from glutinous paddy grains 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 offering sets are completed, the chief of the festival thanks the gods for a good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings (bebiau). The cockerel is sacrificed by slicing its neck. Its wing feathers are pulled out and brushed on to its bleeding neck after which each feather is placed as a sacrifice (genselan) on to each of the offering sets. The offerings are then placed at the designated locations.
When a longhouse agrees to host Gawai Dayak, they may need to plant extra paddy and organize labor (“bedurok”). Rice may be purchased from the towns if the festival is in a place where paddy farming is absent or insufficient. The traditional Dayak liquor is rice wine called tuak. It is brewed at least one month before the Gawai Dayak. The drink is brewed from the glutinous rice from a recent harvest mixed with home-made yeast. Traditionally, tuak was made with rice milk only but is now cut with sugar and water in a process called ciping. A stronger alcoholic beverage made by the Ibans is “langkau” (called arak tonok” (burnt spirit) by the bidayuhs). This drink is made by distilling tuak over a fire.
Traditional cake delicacies are prepared from glutinous rice flour mixed with sugar. The cakes include sarang semut (ant nest cake), cuwan (molded cake) and kui sepit (twisted cake). The cakes can last well whilst kept inside a jar because they are deep-fried until hardened. Penganan iri (a discus-shaped cake) are made just prior to the festival day because they do not keep well. This is because the cake is lifted from the hot frying oil while not fully hardened. The sugar used can be the brown nipah sugar or cane sugar.
Before the eve of Gawai Dayak, the longhouse residents may organize a hunting or fishing trip to gather wild meats and fish. Both can be preserved with salt in a jar or smoked over a firewood platform above the hearth. Any wild animal parts like the horns, teeth and claws, and feathers are used to decorate and repair traditional costumes.
Contemporary city-dwelling Dayak who are Christian or Muslim hold a much more Western-style celebration, but it still involves traditional foods. Unless you have a wood fire, green bamboo stems, banana leaves and Sarawakan herbs and spices to hand, not to mention vegetables, I suggest taking a Malaysian trip if you want to sample Dayak food. Here’s a video to give you an idea: