Harvest Festival with the Dayaks in Sarawak
By Bo Jeansson - BGS 21.


Sarawak's period as the personal kingdom of the Brooke family of 'White Rajahs' ended with the arrival of the Japanese in WWII. Following the war the Brooke family handed Sarawak over to the British government thus putting Britain in the curious position of acquiring a new crown colony at the same time as they were shedding others. Sarawak remained under British control when Malaysia gained its independence 1957 but then joined Malaysia when it was formed in 1963. Today, with its oil production plus timber, pepper and some rubber, Sarawak is of great economic importance to the nation. Although Sarawak suffered even more the Peninsular Malaysia from the Emergency and the Confrontation today things are quite peaceful. For the visitor Sarawak's interest is in its diversity of tribes and the many areas of untouched jungle. Many of the tribes up the great rivers of Sarawak live in longhouses, "villages" where the entire population live under one roof with separate rooms leading on to one long communal verandah. Hospitality to visitors is a way of life in these longhouses and many travelers in Sarawak stay overnight at one during their travels.

Gawai Dayak

For a start, what is "Gawai Dayak" all about? In a simple word, it is a festival marking the end of a harvest season.

As with other festivals, "Gawai" has its own special characteristics and significances especially for the Dayak community of Sarawak.

Gawai marks the beginning of the New Year with the ending of the harvesting season and the upcoming activities connected with preparation for the new harvest season.

The festival is an occasion to rest after the strenuous work carried out over the past year and consists of both religious and social elements.

It is also an ideal occasion for the various Dayak races in Sarawak to display their rich heritage of traditions and customs and offers an excellent opportunity for people of other races to learn more of the customs and traditions of Dayaks of Sarawak.

Gawai is an occasion for the community to give its thanks to God for providing them with their daily needs over the past year and to pray for future blessings and religious guidance for the year ahead.

As a festival which is participated in by all sectors of the community, Gawai plays a role in strengthening the inter-communal relations of the people of Sarawak.

Various differences in the way Gawai Dayak is celebrated can be observed among the different Dayak races while difference can also be observed from one area to another. In the uran areas, the method by which Gawai Dayak is observed is different from the method in the interior regions where there is greater adherence to traditional forms of celebrating Gawai Dayak.

In both cases, the basic idea behind the Gawai festival is maintained - that of merry making and thanksgiving to God.

Those, who are working far from their longhouses, make a point to return home to join their families for Gawai Dayak. It is a time when families try to re-unite in order to celebrate the festival together.

In the towns, each Dayak family will gather together on the night of May 31st to have a Gawai feast. This is a time for them to renew the resolutions for the coming year and pray that the coming year will be one of health, happiness and prosperity. This is of course very fitting when it is realized that the majority of the Dayak people are rural farmers who must spend the whole year seeking a living in the fields and jungles of the interior.

The most interesting feature of the Gawai Dayak festival for most visitors is the crowning of Kumang, the most beautiful of the Dayak maidens. This is followed by the selection of Keling, the most attractive of the young Dayak men.

On the first day of Gawai Dayak, the various Dayak families are visited by their friends from other races and religions for they always start off the festival by holding open houses. Cakes and other delicacies are served and the traditional Dayak drink of tauk is also brought out.

However, for those who wish to observe a more traditional form of Gawai Dayak, a trip to the rural areas is a must. In the longhouses, a feast is also held for all the inhabitants of the longhouse and each family contributes its share of the food and drinks for the feast.

The beginning of the festival would is heralded by the beating of gongs at midnight on the night of May 31st. Everybody dresses up in their traditional finery which is a must for this occasion.

No Gawai Dayak festival would be complete without the 'miring' ceremony which is the manner by which the Dayaks pray to Betara, the major God of the Iban religion.

The ceremony is conducted by the religious man of the longhouse who carries in one hand a red chicken and in the other a white chicken. With these he circles around the 'miring' objects praying. It is believed that through this prayer he can ensure prosperity and health for everyone.

The white chicken is believed to represent the souls of all people who have passed away while the red chicken represents life and success for the coming year.

In the longhouse, the Gawai ceremony will end when the Tuai Rimah cuts down a special post which has been erected especially for the Gawai festival. However this does not mark the end of Gawai itself for the people continue with their merry making and feasting with their families and friends.