Gawai (which in the Sarawak native language, Iban, means Festival) is a cultural festival celebrated by the Dayak people of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, and also in the neighboring region, Indonesian Kalimantan. Groups that celebrate Gawai include the Iban that are known as Sea Dayak, the Bidayuh known as Land Dayak, and the Orang Ulu, group that covers a wide range of small ethnic groups such as Kayan, Kenyah and Lun Bawang.
According to Iban folklore, the festival started when a man travelled back to the world of the gods and spirits where he had been invited to join a feast with them. It is believed that the Gawai ceremony was held in order to materialize God’s words in his dream, and this is why, in the ancient times, whoever performed a Gawai ceremony would have their lives blessed.
For the Iban community, the opening ceremony of Gawai in the villages begins in the evening of 31st of May, with traditional music and a ritual to keep the spirit of greed from ruining the celebration, also called Muai Antu Rua in Iban. On the next day, the head of the festival will sacrifice chickens to show thanks for a good harvest. During this time, he will ask for a good harvest for the coming years too. In the evening, a dinner of rice steamed in bamboo and sweet cakes made from coconut milk will be served. At midnight, the head of the festival will then make a toast with ‘tuak’, a locally brewed rice wine, wishing for a long life. The ceremony then continues with lots of dancing, singing, and drinking. This is of course what happened in the past, when the celebration praised the end the harvesting season and the start of a new farming season, in the period towards Thanksgiving Day.
As for now, Gawai has become a must celebration for the Dayak people. During this occasion, Dayak people pay their visit to family and friends’ houses, a practice called ‘ngabang’ in Iban language.
This story is not only about culture: I am going to share with you a journey to a hidden place immersed in nature, a place where they still practice this traditional happening. If you have never been to a Gawai festival, you must know that in the modern days, when we talk about Gawai, the first thing entering mind is where is the longhouse you heading too. Last May, my family and I planned a trip back to Sri Aman, or the land of pigeons.
The beginning of the journeys was a 4 hours drive from Kuching to Sri Aman; once there, we needed a four wheel drive hicle in order to reach Sebeliau, near Lubok Antu area, where we joined other family members. The road was rough and muddy as it had recently rained. It was such a challenging trip, and we got stuck several times, struggling to pull out the car from the muddy terrain, yet it felt amazing how the family really worked together during those hard moments.
Located 31 kilometers from Sebeliau, Nanga Uyau is a village surrounded by a lush nature of mountains and rivers, where people are warm and the air is clean and fresh, especially in the mornings. Nanga Uyau has around 20 households and no electricity, water supply or any sort of telecommunication, the perfect place if one wants to take a break from city life.
If you will ever visit Nanga Uyau, you will be amazed by the great treatment you will receive by its friendly and warm villagers. The interesting fact about this hidden place is that during Dawai festival, villagers still practice their unique culture which is totally unknown to the world.
Every year, on the 31st of May, the villagers start to gather around dressed in the traditional clothes called ‘ngepan Iban’ in the local language. It is believed that wearing these clothes is important as they are the symbol of Gawai. The head of village will then start to serve ‘tuak’ – the rice wine – to the villagers, making toasts with them. Once the toasts are finished, the villagers start the tradition by bringing food out to the ‘ruai’ – the hall – and eat dinner with their family members. The celebrations will then continue with ‘ngabang’ – visiting – among the other houses in the longhouse.
This is only what happens on the opening day, yet there are a lot more activities between 1st and 4th of June, when you can see the dancing and traditional Iban music, try the ‘ngepan Iban’ rice wine, eat the traditional food and go for a swim in the nearby river. I could be here sharing more and writing forever, but I guess it is enough for now and hope this story has prompted you to make a trip there and try the Gawai festival in person!