History

History|Traditional Ceremony|What To Expect|The Birth|Modern Time|The Origin


The History
The traditions celebrated during Gawai Dayak are ancient, but the holiday is not. The first Gawai Dayak festival took place in 1965 after several years of renewed cultural pride within the oppressed Dayak community. When first asked to create a public holiday in celebration of the Dayak people in Sarawak, the colonial government refused; they were afraid that other minority groups would make similar demands. Instead, the government declared June 1 as “Sarawak Day”. Eventually, once Sarawak was awarded independence, the holiday was officially changed to Gawai Dayak.


The Traditional Gawai Dayak Ceremony

Unless advertised otherwise, the opening ceremonies for Gawai Dayak in villages are typically closed to tourists. The festival begins on the evening of May 31 with traditional music and Muai Antu Rua – a ritual aimed at keeping the spirit of greed from ruining the celebration. During Muai Antu Rua two men drag a basket along the longhouse; families in each room throw clothing and household items into the basket. The basket is later dumped on the ground as a “sacrifice” to prevent interference from evil spirits.
At sundown, the festival chief sacrifices a chicken to show thanks for a good harvest and to ask the same for next year’s rice harvest. Dinner – usually accompanied by bamboo-steamed rice and sweet cakes made from coconut milk – is served after the sacrifice. Just before midnight a procession known as the Ngalu Petara passes by seven times to welcome the friendly spirit gods to the festival. At midnight, the festival chief holds a toast with tuak – locally-brewed rice wine – for long life. The festival turns into an informal free-for-all following the toast with dancing, singing, and drinking.


What to Expect During Gawai Dayak
Once the previous night’s formal ceremonies finish, tourists are invited to visit on June 1. Activities differ between longhouses; some allow tourists to shoot traditional blowpipe guns or to watch cockfights. No matter the locale, visitors are always greeted with a shot of strong rice wine; drink up or find a place to hide it – refusing is impolite!
Iban and Dayak homes are opened during Gawai Dayak, allowing visitors a glimpse of daily life. Tourists are invited to wear colorful costumes for photos, participate in traditional dances, and sample delicious cakes and treats.


The Birth Of Gawai Festival
Gawai Dayak, a festive celebrated in Sarawak on 1st June every year is both a religious and social occasion. Dayak would visit their friends and relatives on this day. Such visit is more known as “ngabang” in Iban language. The far would receive greeting cards.
How it all started can be traced back to a 1957 radio forum organized by Mr Ian Kingsley, a radio programme organiser. This generated a lot of interest among the Dayak community. Up till 1962, British colonial government still refused to give recognition to the Dayak Day.
To the Dayak, Gawai Dayak would be a recognition of the Dayak race, their source of national pride and a way to reciprocate social hospitality extended by the other races during their festivals.
After numerous requests, it fell on the sympathetic ears of the First Sarawak Chief Minister, Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan and his cabinet comprising among others, the present State Chief Minister, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud. The then Governor, Tun Abang Haji Openg, who when he was a member of the council Negeri, had always supported the move in the Council, gave his assent.
Gawai Dayak was formally gazetted on 25th September 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day. It was first celebrated on 1st June 1965 and became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community.Today, it is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking good harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or activities ahead.
The word Gawai means a ritual or festival whereas Dayak is a collective name for the natives races in Sarawak; the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Murut and a few more. Thus Gawai Dayak literally means the Dayak Festival.


Gawai Dayak In Modern Times

Forget the romantic stereotypes – not all of Sarawak’s indigenous people still live in longhouses or choose to don a traditional costume during Gawai Dayak. Many Dayak people have moved from their rural homes into the cities in search of work. Urban Dayak communities may choose to celebrate their holiday simply by taking time off work – a rare occasion – to visit family outside of the city. Christian Dayaks often attend mass at a church and then celebrate with dinner in a restaurant.


The Origin
The Gawai festival has always been one of the celebrated festivals in Sarawak. Its origins goes back to the folklore that tells of the adventure of men travelling to the world of the gods and spirits with an invitation to join in a feast, then of their subsequent journey to the world of mortals. It is generally believed that Gawai is being held when one is persuaded by the gods to do so in his dream. After performing this Gawai ceremony, one’s life and the lives of all those who have been touched by the celebration will be blessed – so it is believed!
That is the origin of Gawai from a mystical point of view. But on a more down-to-earth way of seeing it, Gawai festival is the celebration of the end of harvesting season and the start of a new farming season. Today, throughout Sarawak, the Dayak community celebrate Gawai in their villages and urban homes with open invitation, sharing the finest of their hospitality with the other communities.
As another highlight of the night, an ethnic beauty pageant will also be held as a sign of recognition to beautiful and intellectual women. With the gracious sponsorship from Unilever who has the Fair & Lovely whitening facial cream under its wing, the organizers are looking for a maiden who possess grace, pose and charm, articulate with a good knowledge of Sarawak’s beautiful culture and heritage. She must be, in short, a woman of substance.