The Mode Of Celebration
The mode of celebrations varies from place to place. Preparation starts very early. Tuak (rice wine) are brewed and traditional delicacies like penganan (cakes from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk) prepared. As the big day approaches, everyone will be busy with the general cleaning and preparing the food or cakes. On Gawai eve, glutinous rice are roasted in bamboo (ngelulun pulut). In the longhouse, new mats will be laid out on the ruai (an open gallery which runs through the entire length of the longhouse). The walls of most bilik (rooms) and the ruai are decorated with pua kumbu (traditional blanket).
The Celebration Of Gawai Festival
The celebration starts on the evening of 31st May. In most Iban’s longhouse, it starts with a ceremony called Muai Antu Rua (to cast away the spirit of greediness), signifying the non interference of the spirit of bad luck in the celebration. Two children or men each dragging a chapan or winnowing basket will pass each family room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse for the spirit of bad luck.
Around 6 pm, miring (offering ceremony) will take place. Before the ceremony, gendang rayah (ritual music) is performed. The feast chief thanks the gods for the good harvest, ask for guidance, blessings and long life as he sacrifices a cockerel. Dinner will then be served at the ruai. While waiting for midnight, the folks gather and mingle at the ruai and berandau (talk/converse). Meanwhile, drinks, traditional cakes and delicacies are served.
At midnight, the gong is sounded. The tuai rumah will lead everyone to drink the Ai Pengayu (normally tuak for long life) and at the same time wishing each other “gayu-guru, gerai-nyamai” (long life, health and prosperity). A procession up and down the ruai called Ngalu Petara (Welcoming the Spirits) will follow. The celebration by now will get more merrier. Some will dance to the traditional music played. Others will sing the pantun (poems). In the town, the Dayak will gather at the community centres or restaurants for a enliven the evening.
Other activities that may follow the next day include cock-fighting, demonstration of blowpipe skills and ngajat competitions. On this day, 1st June, the homes of the Dayaks will be opened to visitors. In the longhouses, there is a practises called masu pengabang where guests will be served with tuak by the host before they can enter the longhouse. Dayaks will attend a church mass to thanks God for the good harvest. Gawai Dayak celebration may last for several days. Visitors are most welcome to the homes of the Dayaks during the festival.
Although celebrated all over Sarawak in Borneo, your best bet for seeing Gawai Dayak festivities is near the capital of kuching. The Sarawak Cultural Village – the same venue used annually for the Rainforest Music Festival – is a popular and convenient place for tourists to learn more about indigenous culture. Kuching typically holds a celebration on May 31 at the Civic Centre which includes dinner, dancing, and even a beauty pageant.
Do not expect to arrive on May 31 to join the Gawai Dayak celebration; Kuching is busier than ever with parades and demonstrations along the waterfront that begin a week prior to Gawai Dayak.
Another option for the more adventurous is to make your way up the river from Sibu to the small village of Kapit and arrange for a visit to a local family’s traditional longhouse.
There is a push within the Dayak community to unify the celebration, however for now Gawai Dayak remains mostly incongruous with each longhouse holding separate events and itineraries. Do not expect any less from the festival – as many as 30 families can occupy a single longhouse!