The Gawai Dayak is an annual festival celebrated by many of the indigenous local tribes of Sarawak and Kalimantan, the Indonesian state that borders Sarawak. In line with the major holidays of the other main religions of Malaysia, Gawai is celebrated over two days from 31st May to 1st June every year.
Gawai is the Iban word for ritual or festival and Dayak is a collective name for Sarawak’s indigenous communities. The festival is a celebration of unity, aspiration and hope, and is an integral part of the Dayak community’s identity, especially for the Iban who make up 30% of Sarawak’s population and many of whom come from areas within SCORE.
Unique to Sarawak and Kalimantan, Gawai Dayak owes its origins to the age-old traditions of rice planting and the festival symbolises the end of the rice planting cycle, providing the occasion to give thanks for the year’s harvest and pray for a better one next year. Many Sarawakians living and working outside of the State travel great distances to be home for the holiday to help out at the end of the season and join in the Gawai celebrations with some coming from as far as the USA and Europe.
In a typical Iban longhouse, various preparations are made as the big day approaches. Tuak, or rice wine, is brewed and many foreign visitors, from tourists passing through to rugged oilmen working the rigs off the coast of Miri, have overindulged in this potent brew and stumbled from a longhouse much worse for wear.
Hangovers are part of the Gawai tradition and the morning after delicacies such as penganan, a cake made from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk; and ngelulun pulut, glutinous rice roasted in bamboo; will soon cure all but the most severe headaches.
Gawai is a festival of many colourful rituals, traditional music, cock fighting, feasting and games. During which almost everyone dresses in traditional costumes, while the elders perform traditional dances.
These multicultural celebrations showcase and preserve the rich heritage of diversity and tradition, as well as contributing to tourism in the area. Since 1986 the local government and Dayak cultural society have supported Gawai Dayak, helping with funding and organisation.
The idea for Gawai Dayak originated back in 1957 during a radio forum presented by Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, two local radio programmers. The idea generated a lot of interest from the Dayak community. However, the British colonial government initially refused to recognise Dayak Day, citing a concern that other minority groups would expect the same recognition. So it was instead called Sarawak Day, and was meant to be celebrated by all Sarawakians as a national day. However, in 1962, Gawai Dayak was officially recognised.
Today the state puts great emphasis on preserving such traditions and recognises Gawai Dayak as an important opportunity to preserve. Recently, Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem stated, “The Gawai Dayak is a symbol of unity for all the communities in Sarawak,” a fitting tribute to a very Sarawakian event.