It’s beginning to look a lot like Gawai

It’s beginning to look a lot like Gawai

From May, a series of pre-Gawai fun activities kick off to usher in the age-old rice harvest festival

IN November when winter intensifies in the western world, they sing “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”.

In the Land of The Hornbills, when April turns to May, “it begins to feel a lot like Gawai” so Dayak folks roll out their mats to “Buka Gawai”.

And from here on, a series of pre-Gawai fun activities kick off in conjunction with the age-old rice harvest festival.

This period preceding Gawai is called Mandau Gawai – a term which means “Pre-Gawai”, where joyful shindigs ramp up the communal mood and festive spirit.

While the older generation looks forward to re-connect with relatives and old friends in the typical Malaysian-styled open house jollity or ngaban (visiting friends) during Gawai – the younger folks of the digital age are in their element during the Mandau Gawai period.

The annual rice festival takes place on June 1 and 2. Still, it continues till the end of the month or till early July when a closing ceremony called “Gulung Tikar” signals the end of the festivities.

“Gulung Tikar” means to “roll up the mat” on which people sat to watch the Mandau Gawai activities – although plastic chairs and stools are more popular than mats today.

And of course, between “Buka Gawai” and “Gulung Tikar” the splendour of Sarawak’s kaleidoscopic colours are showcased through its ethnic pageants, dances, and songs, and its multi-facetted ritualistic traditions – including the newer version of the “miring” ceremony.

Jamboree of events

The millennial generation of Dayaks while knowing very well that Gawai is all about thanksgiving to God for the bountiful harvest – looks forward to merry-making by taking part in the jamboree of activities hosted during Mandau Gawai.

Among the many events is the Bazaar Gawai. This is like the Ramadan Bazaar, but with accompanying entertainment shows, pageants, and other activities tailored to younger people.

Last Sunday a throng of young Sarawakians gathered at the Bazar Serian 2022 to take part in a special Gawai pageant where men and women vied for the Pimagan (Warrior) and Dayung Timengun (Beauty Queen) titles. The winners are selected based on the traditional costume that they had worn for the contest.

Among the winners was Becham anak Copta who was the first runner-up for the Pimagan category and Valerie Mimi anak Johnny took the crown as Dayung Timengun 2022.

Cutting a dash for the season

Just as the baju Melayu is a must for Hari Raya and the Cheong-sam for Chinese New Year, the Dayaks comprising 40 sub-ethnic groups look forward to wearing their very own traditional attires during Gawai.

Every ethnic group proudly seeks to showcase their own traditional costumes to cut a dash for the season.

In the Serian district and the surrounding areas, Dayaks make a beeline shopping for these costumes and the “go-to” place is the Borneo Traditional Shop. This outlet sells traditional costumes of every ethnic group together with intricate costume jewellery and accessories.

What is most striking about this outlet is that the proprietors are Chinese and the designs are authentically cut and made by a Chinese designer.

Francis Goh and his wife Tracy Chin manage the outlet while Goh’s mother is the designer. Today, his 55-year-old mother, Yun Liew, has a team of five tailors who work under her supervision.

“But Yun Liew still sews the smaller things like the headgear (topi) that are worn with the dresses,” says Chin.

She says the shop was established in 2020.

“April and May are extremely busy months for us. Our Bidayuh costumes have already been sold out as Serian and the surrounding areas are largely populated by the Bidayuh people.

Chin said: “The tailors are too busy finishing the costumes for our ‘pre-order customers’ and they are also rushing to make more sets as Gawai is next week.”

When The Vibes visited the shop it was bustling with shoppers, and among them was Carolyn Kaloni, a Bidayuh early childhood educator from Kuching.

Carolyn was surveying the outlet for her Bidayuh traditional costume which she had planned to wear for the Gawai parade on the first day of the festival.

“Gawai this year will be extra special as we were not able to celebrate it in the last two years due to the pandemic,” she said.

The typical 25-year-old Gen-Z loves the Mandau Gawai activities and is also looking forward to attending the Gawai dance fest in Serian on Sunday.

“These pre-Gawai activities are really fun and help to raise the tempo of the festive mood as we proceed towards the big two days of Gawai where there will be much more feasting and merry-making.”

Carolyn said decorations are another aspect of Gawai which puts her in the mood to celebrate.

“The malls and hotels are decorated and even compete with one another to showcase the best native-styled props that resonate with the old-world charm of the harvest festival.

Sarawakians can cherish their indigenous heritage forever through the decorations at the Lepau Restaurant in Padungan, near Kuching, according to her.

“The restaurant has displayed the pua kumbu which is a patterned, customary, multi-coloured ceremonial cotton cloth up in its ceiling in a wave-like fashion. It is so appealing and welcoming. Even though I am part of the digital Gen-Z fraternity, it strikes a chord within me.

“I also noticed cashiers and sales girls at the Le Pappa shopping mall in Serian dressed in pua kumbu costumes and the Spring Mall in Kuching has hosted an elaborate traditional house with hornbills flying above it.”

Carolyn says Gawai is also a time for a song and dance. If Christians have Christmas carols, the Malays have their Raya songs, and the Chinese sing their festive genres, the Dayaks have theirs too – both traditional and modern Gawai hits that are pop-pish and “jogetty”.

“Of course, the modern Gawai hits appeal to the younger generation who simply want to get off their burit (butts) to mejeng or dance,” quips Carolyn.

Tuak, Gawai then and now

Hari Gawai was officially recognised and first celebrated formally on June 1, 1965. Before this, the Dayaks would begin the festivities with just a thankful prayer, minus the big fanfare that we see today.

During that time, after the harvest is done in April or May, the older generation of farmers down their tools to celebrate Gawai quietly, thanking God for the bountiful gift of grain from their land.

Nowadays, preparation for the auspicious two-day celebration which is a public holiday begins almost a month earlier, and sometimes even in April.

In the nearby town of Salim in Sibu recently, a Manduk Tuak was held. It is a ceremony to prepare and brew tuak. The event, a Dayak traditional custom was hosted by the women’s division of Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) in conjunction with the rice festival.

Tuak or rice wine is a “welcome drink” that is served to guests who visit the longhouses. This alcoholic beverage is offered to the gods and is also used in blessing ceremonies. The traditional sweetish-sourish brew is made from glutinous rice and a ready stock is always available in every Dayak home.

Speaking to The Vibes, the party’s women chief Susan George said the recent Manduk Tuak event was a fellowship gathering in conjunction with Gawai. In addition, the event imparted to its women members the traditional art of making tuak.

According to her, tuak is an important component in every Dayak ritual and any Iban or Bidayuh feast would not be the same without a sip of the tuak.

She said: “Gawai is all about community spirit, with everyone lending a hand in the preparations for the festival. This still rings true in most longhouses and small villages today,” she added.

According to PBDS Secretary-General, Sai Melaka, there are certain aspects of the old Gawai that is slowly fading out with the times, especially with the Christianisation of the natives.

He pointed out that the Ibans used to hold a special ceremony on Gawai eve. This ceremony held late in the night is called miring where blessing rituals and offerings are made to the spirits.

“In those days, skulls, sometimes centuries old and trophies from previous tribal wars, were used in ceremonies as a spiritual conduit.

“Today, this practice has drastically changed its form. Instead of skulls, chicken and eggs are offered, but to Petara (God) and the long-dead ancestors of the community, no longer to the spirits,” said Sai, who is himself a Roman Catholic.

According to him, the force of Christianity finds this practice in conflict with the teachings of the Church.

Sai said, apart from this aspect of the old Gawai all its other attributes are still celebrated with gusto.

According to him, the Dayaks also erect a tree of life called ranyai to serve as a backdrop for the performances of the ngajat dance, sword dance (bepencha), or a display of martial arts (bekuntau).

“Traditional songs are also sung and the guest of honour is invited to break a coconut to symbolise the victory of the Sengalang Burong, the God of War which also means victory for the well-being and protection of the communities as well.

“Of course, there is food. The old-time, traditional fare is enjoyed as it was in the olden days. The feasting can go on for days,” he added.

Malaysia is a land of diverse cultures. We have heard this line to death. Various cultures have their own festivals that are spread out across the calendar, each with its own unique significance.

Before we are done celebrating one, another one appears. Now Gawai is rising on the horizon.

Like all festivals, Gawai hosts a huge cast, a palette of colours, and a montage of spirited slogans and all of these, uttered in a carnivalesque of gleeful greetings – gayu guru gerai nyamai!

source – The Vibes

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