Sarawak Gawai Festival: The story that you should know

Source: TravelTriangle

The word ‘GAWAI’ denotes festival while ‘DAYAK’ refers to the indigenous community of Sarawak, Kalimantan, and the interior regions of Borneo. Gawai Dayak celebrates the existence of this Malaysian community, estimated to be around 2-4 million people. Originally initiated by two radio producers, Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, the festival was later embraced by the Dayak community and received recognition from the British government in 1962.

On 1 June 1963, Datuk Michael Buma hosted the inaugural Gawai Dayak celebrations at his home in Siol Kandis, Kuching. This multi-day festival commences on the first day of June each year with grandeur and fervor. Today, it symbolizes unity and gratitude towards God and nature for bountiful harvests, as well as prayers for a peaceful and prosperous future.

The festival begins with a cleansing ritual to dispel negativity from oneself and the surroundings. People discard items believed to carry negative energy into baskets carried by two individuals. After sunset, families perform sacrificial rituals or offerings. Gothic ceramic containers filled with food and offerings are placed at four locations to spread blessings. Following the offering, the head of the household seeks blessings and guidance for the future, waving a cockerel over the offerings before sacrificing it to the deities.

Dressing Code:

Traditional attire, known as ‘NGEPAN,’ is worn to welcome guests. Men wear animal skin drapes called Gagong, loincloths known as cawat or sirat, peacock feather crowns, necklaces, armlets, and anklets. They also display tribal tattoos symbolizing ethnicity. Women wear handmade cloth wraps, corsets, shoulder cloths, bead chains, and fancy combs. Previously, it was customary for women to bare their breasts to signify beauty and naturalness.

Dance Traditions:

The NGAJAT dance, performed by men and women together, involves occasional shouts and cries. Different types of NGAJAT represent various moods like harvest joy, warrior rhymes, and ritual dances. Men demonstrate courage, heroism, and mimic the hornbill, the king of birds. Traditional music accompanies the dance, bringing it to life with vibrant beats and tunes.

Besides dance, sword dances and martial arts performances are showcased. Contests crown the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of the festival. Games award winners with symbolic coconuts, representing skulls. The recitation of traditional poetry, including pantun and ramban, adds charm to the event, alongside games like arm wrestling and log pulling. Cockfighting also captivates attendees.

Food And Beverages:

On the eve of Gawai Dayak, sago and coconut palm extracts are collected for soup. Traditional dishes like ‘Pansoh,’ meat cooked in bamboo, and ‘Tuak,’ served with roasted animal heads, are popular. Rice is cooked in mud utensils and hearths. Following the offerings, a festive meal known as Makai Rami is served.

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