Hari Gawai A Jubilant Celebration of Sarawak’s Dayak People

Hari Gawai: A Celebration of Sarawak’s Dayak People

A Look into ‘Dayak Gawai’, its traditions, and what it stands for

Gawai Dayak Parade

Men march in traditional warrior garments during the Gawai Dayak parade | Source: Flickr

It’s a celebration imbued with rhythmic drums, war cries, liquor, and ornate traditional garments. But above all, Hari Gawai – or Gawai Dayak – is a statement of solidarity and communal strengthening of the Dayak people.

The word ‘Dayak’ is an encompassing term referring to the large culture of indigenous people native to Sarawak, where else ‘Gawai’ means ‘festival.

It is estimated that under the Dayak umbrella, over 200 branches of ethnic subgroups exist, including the Iban, the Bidayuh, and the Orang Ulu. These 3 ethnic groups alone account for almost 50% of Sarawak’s total population. Naturally, Hari Gawai is a major occasion in the East Malaysian state.


A thanksgiving harvest

A Dayak lady dressed in traditional costume

A Dayak lady dressed in traditional costumes in preparation for Hari Gawai Celebrations | Source: TimeOut

The origins of Hari Gawai stems from ancient practices that mark the end of the harvest season, where sustenance of rice is bountiful and sufficient to nourish villagers for the season.

Ages ago, great emphasis was placed into praising the deities for the successful harvest. Most notably to the God of War Sengalang Burong, the High Priest Biku Bunsu Petara, the God of Agriculture Sempulang Gana, and the God of Land Semarugah.

 Offerings for spirits and deities

Offerings laid out for ancestors and deities | Source: The Borneo Project

This was a long time ago. Way back even to the times where headhunters would maraud the land in search for their next trophy and animism was still a foundation of Dayak spirituality.

In present day, much of these beliefs have since been backgrounded (thankfully, so have the headhunting), and a new significance to the celebration has since been birthed. As Dayak natives began to shift religions to Christianity and Islam in the 19th century, animism worshipping became less the norm. Still, its practices for Gawai Dayak maintained as a way to preserve the Dayak heritage and pay tribute to its tribal origins.

However, this wasn’t always the case.


A modern holiday for an ancient festival

Despite its hundred years’ worth of history, 1st June 2020 marks only 55 years since Hari Gawai became an official celebration in Malaysia.

Prior to its official gazetting, the British colonial government refused to acknowledge Hari Gawai till 1962. And even after its acknowledgement, had chosen to name it Sarawak Day in order to be inclusive towards all Sarawak native tribes.

A group of Dayak men and women pose with traditional costumes

Source: New Straits Times

It was only on 25 September 1964 when Hari Gawai was officially gazetted – and observed for the first time a year later – that it became an official national celebration. That’s 55 years a recognized holiday despite its centuries of generational significance.

Thankfully, gazetted holidays don’t determine cultural legacies.


A drink to that!

A man downs a shot of Tuak

 Tuak plays an essential role in Dayak Gawai celebrations | Source: Flickr

An occasion as big as this deserves the finest wine, and there’s nothing quite finer than the sweet taste of Tuak­ ­– a traditional Dayak rice wine brewed from glutinous rice, yeast, sugar and water.

The process of brewing Tuak can take up to a whole month and is used in both ritualistic processions and for leisure imbibing. And it isn’t ‘light’ either. A bottle of Tuak contains roughly 20% alcoholic percentage, four times more than a can of beer. It’s easy to underestimate and be misled by the aromatic fragrance of the Tuak, but it’s lights out once it hits.

Varieties of Tuak for guests at longhouses

Varieties of Tuak laid out for guests

Tuak is such a vital centrepiece for the celebrations, so much so that refusing a serving may be considered impolite by the locals. When the festivities of Gawai Dayak are out in full force and the longhouses are open for feast and visitation, a local custom known as Masu Pengabang requires visitors to down a serving of tuak before they are allowed to enter.

Needless to say, there’ll be plenty of Tuak to go around and no one can escape it.


A dance for the ages

Perhaps one of the more distinct components of Gawai Dayak is the Ngajat dance, the age-long dance performed by Iban warriors upon their return from battle.

Both male and female participate in the dance, although the movements for each genders differs.

Male dancers performing the Ngajat Dance

Men performing the Ngajat dance | Source: Tourist Guide Malaysia

Male dancers tend to incorporate sharp prancing movements akin to fighting stances, while wielding an ornate long wooden shield and a sword. Their attires make up a loincloth (cawat), a coat made of animal skin (gagong) and a headgear decorated with plump hornbill feathers (lelanjang).

In contrast, female choreography revolves around the supple movement of the hips and graceful motion of the hands. They will drape a hand-woven cloth (kain betating) around the waist and on the shoulder, and will adorn a tall metallic headwear (sugu tinggi).

Ngajat women performing the Ngajat dance

Women Ngajat dance revolves around hip and graceful arm movements

The intensity of the dance is heightened by the thumping accompaniment of the bebendai (gongs), dedumba (traditional drums), and punctuations of war cries.


Let the celebrations roll

Village elders preparing the offerings for Gawai Dayak

Village elders preparing the offerings for Miring

Preparations for Gawai Dayak begins on the eve, when people set out to gather ingredients for the big feast. The ceremony starts with Muai Antu Rua, a procession where villagers discard unwanted items into a basket carried by two people along each room in the longhouse. This was believed to dispel bad omens and to cast away unwanted spirits.

The festivities proceed with a blessing and thanksgiving ceremony called Miring. Here, villagers place offerings (usually food) around the longhouse to appease ancestors and deities. A cockerel is then sacrificed and is waved over the offering.

An exhibition of the Miring celebration at Muzium Sarawak. Spot the hanging skulls collected during Dayak’s the headhunting era

Finally, to usher in the arrival of Gawai Dayak, the tuai rumah (longhouse chief) will lead villagers in drinking the ai pengayu (tuak of longevity) to signal the start of the celebrations.


Curtain call

After days of boisterous reunions, feasting, dancing, and praying, Hari Gawai officially ends with the procession of Ngiling Tikai.

Rolling up the mat in a ceremony known as 'Ngiling Tikai'

The Ngiling Tikai ceremony to mark the end of Hari Gawai | Source: Sarawak Edition

This is the ceremony where the mats used to entertain guests in longhouses are rolled up and kept until the following year, where once again the proud Dayak bloodline will come out in full throngs to throw another jubilant celebration of culture and heritage.

Selamat Hari Gawai to all of you celebrating! The festivals may be quieter this year but the spirit of the celebration lives on! 

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