The Truth Revealed

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Celebrating Gawai Dayak

By Jennie Soh

A Gawai chief performing the “miring”.

Gawai Dayak, recognised as a festive celebrated in Sarawak on June 1st. and 2nd. every year, is a cultural tradition and social occasion.

It has become part of the events under the Sarawak Tourism Board to promote tourism. It has an “Open House” concept to receive guests in our multi -acial society. Such visit is commonly known as “ngabang” in the Iban language.


During the British colonial rule, the government refused to give recognition to the Dayak Day. This disappointed the Dayak community because the festival was their source of national pride and a way to reciprocate social hospitality extended by other races during their festivals.

After numerous requests, the first Chief Minister of Sarawak, Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan and his Cabinet, our present Chief Minister, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud, Tun Abang Haji Openg, who was a member of the Council Negeri, at that time, persistently pushed through the proposal to recognise Gawai as a festival.

Gawai Dayak was formally gazetted on September 25, 1964 as a public holiday in place of Sarawak Day. It was first celebrated on June 1, 1965 and became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community.

Since then, the Dayak community have been celebrating June 1 as a thanksgiving day to mark a good harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season.

Meaning of Gawai Dayak

“Gawai” means a ritual or festival while “Dayak” is a collective name for the native races in Sarawak namely the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Murut and other ethnic group. A combination of the word “Gawai Dayak” means Dayak Festival.

Gawai celebration

The mode of celebration is merry making with traditional delicacies like “penganan” (cakes from rice flour, sugar and coconut milk) and usually rice wine (tuak) is served.

Longhouses welcome the celebration by laying new mats on the open gallery which runs through the entire length of the longhouse. The celebrations starts in the evening of May 31 with a ceremony called “Muai Antu Rua” (casting away of the evil spirit of greediness) which signifies non interference of the spirit of bad luck in the celebration.

Then a winnowing basket (chapan) would be dragged past each family’s room. Every family will throw unwanted stuff into the basket. The unwanted stuff will be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse for the spirit of bad luck.

In the evening around 6 o’clock, the offering ceremony (miring) will take place. Ritual music (“gendang rayah”) is performed. The chief will lead the ceremony with a sacrificed cockerel and smear blood over these offerings as a symbol of good harvest, blessings and long life.

While waiting for the dinner to be served at midnight, the people will gather and mingle among themselves till the gong is sounded at midnight. Dinner is then served with traditional cakes and delicacies and home made rice wine (tuak) to the gods of rice and prosperity.

The highlight is the drinking of the rice wine led by the chief of the long house. Rice wine (“Ai Pengayu”) symbolised long life. Greetings of “Gayu-guru, Gerai nymai” which means long life, health and prosperity are exchanged among the people in the longhouse.

A procession up and down the gallery (“ruai”) is held from one end to the other end to welcome the spirits (“Ngalu Petara”). The celebration is made livelier by the sounds of gong and traditional music is played with a lot of dancing. Other activities may include cock-fighting, demonstration of blowpipe skills and ngajat competitions.

The unique dance “ngajat” is a form of entertainment which involves a lot of precise body turning movements. The “ngajat” for men is more aggressive and depicts a man going to war and the woman’s form of “ngajat” is softer and more graceful.

In the longhouses, there is a practice called “masu pengabang” where guests will be served with tuak (“masu pengabang”) by the host before they can enter the longhouse.

In the town areas without the longhouse concept, the homes of the Dayaks have an “Open House” concept; guests are served with food catered from outside or food cooked at home.

Christian Dayaks will attend church mass to give thanks for their good harvests. Gawai Dayak celebration may last for several days.

Gawai today

Since it was gazetted as a state public holiday, Gawai has been an annual festival held every June all over Sarawak. It shares a similar concept of “Open Houses” like the Chinese New Year and Hari Raya. Some Dayaks may go back to the longhouses while those who have migrated to the urban areas celebrate on a smaller scale.

This festival is a combination of merry making, feasting and drinking of rice wine. Beauty pageants have become very popular as part of the celebrations to display the priceless antique beads and the Iban maiden’s silver jewellery.

Gawai today is not only acknowledged as a harvest festival but is celebrated like a New Year celebration, religious ritual and family reunion all at the same time. Some longhouses no longer practise the traditional way of gathering the folks together.


Sarawak Tourism Board has included Gawai Festival as part of the tourism activities for tourists to experience the culture of merry making among the Dayak community. It also creates an environment of peace and harmony among the different races in multi-racial Sarawak.

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