The Gawai Dayak is celebrated in Sarawak in East Malaysia on the 1st of June every year. It is a festival filled with merry making, one that is eagerly anticipated by the Dayaks and non-Dayaks alike. The term “Dayak” today refers to the Ibans, the Bidayuhs and the Orang Ulu communities. Traditionally, it is celebrated to mark the end of the rice harvesting season and offer their thanksgiving to the gods and spirits.
*From Fred Kamea‘s photo album on Facebook
In the rural longhouses, the festivity begins on the eve with the traditional ceremonies and chanting of prayers. The community gathers at the main hall or ruai of the longhouse where the tuai rumah or headman will perform the miring ceremony to bring blessings upon the inhabitants of the longhouse. He recites sacred verses as he swings a live cockerel in the air to drive away evil spirits. The bird is then sacrificed and the blood sprinkled over the offerings of food that are laid out on the floor. Grains of rice are then strewn over the heads of those present to protect them from harm. After the miring, the merry-making begins with the feasting and drinking of tuak and the dancing of the ngajat. There may even be the selection of the Kumang, the festival queen, and the male equivalent, the Keling.
*Fred Kamea‘s photo on Facebook
Around the same time, on the 31st of May, the Pesta Kaamatan or Harvest Festival is celebrated in the other east-Malaysian state, Sabah, which lies to the north-east of the island of Borneo. This is the Kadazandusun equivalent to the Gawai Dayak Festival in Sarawak, and certainly bears a lot more similarities than differences.
The Kadazandusun is the largest ethnic group in Sabah. Traditionally, they were farmers whose beliefs centred around rice-planting and harvesting with bobohizan or female priestesses presiding over the rituals. Like the Gawai Dayak, the Pesta Kaamatan is celebrated in honour of the rice spirits to thank them for their blessings. The feasting, drinking and dancing are similar as well, but one unique feature that may be found only in Sabah is the buffalo races. During the festival, visitors will be enthralled by the sight of the beautiful maidens in their traditional costumes bedecked with beads and bangles while the men adorn flamboyant feathers and animal skins. Traditional dances such as the sumazau are performed to the musical accompaniment of gongs, drums and flutes, and the party will go on until the wee hours of the morning.
To all my relatives and friends celebrating the Gawai Festival, “SELAMAT HARI GAWAI DAYAK…Gayu Guru Gerai Nyamai, Chelap Lindap Lantang Senang Nguan Menua!” Translation, thanks to Chrisanakapai: Happy Gawai Dayak Day. Long life, health and comfort, no problems, no hardship and a prosperous life. And to those celebrating the Kaamatan Festival, “Kotobian om kounsikaan do tadau tagazo do kaamatan. Bah Aramai ti!” According to my blogger-friend in Kota Kinabalu, Melbie, this basically means: Wishing you a Happy Harvest Festival. Let’s party!!!