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Gawai Dayak Festival

Gawai Dayak Festival 2018 Dates

When: 1st June 2018
Where: Sarawak, Malaysia

Gawai Dayak is a harvest festival, which is celebrated by the indigenous people of Sarawak, particularly the Ibans and Bidayuhs. They wear their traditional costumes and the festivities include ceremonial offerings of various local traditional delicacies and home-made rice wine known as tuak to the gods of rice and prosperity.

The festival, Gawai Dayak is celebrated with much enthusiasm and fanfare across Sarawak both in cities and villages and is a two day festival that honours the indigenous people of the Dayak community that comprise of Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut tribes in Sarawak.

The History of Gawai Dayak

Although the traditions related to Gawai Dayak are ancient, the holiday is not. The first Gawai Dayak festival was held in 1965 after several years of renewed cultural pride within the oppressed Dayak community. It is believed that Dayak community were refused the demand of a public holiday by the colonial government as the government was worried that other minority groups will follow suit. Instead, the government declared June 1 as Sarawak Day and once Sarawak got independence the holiday was officially changed as Gawai Dayak.

Although the festival is steeped in the headhunting traditions of the past, currently the only head removed during the Gawai Dayak belongs to a chicken, which is sacrificed in order to honour a successful rice harvest.

Gawai Dayak Celebrations

From time immemorial the Gawai Dayak festival is a celebration of the culmination of one season and the beginning of the other and for the members of Sarawak’s Dayak communities, the Gawai Dayak Festival commemorates the garnering of the rice harvest and proclaims the onset of a new planting season. However, initially it was not the case. It is believed that Dayaks and Ibans were head-hunters, who prayed to their gods for a good harvest of heads at the annual festival.

People of the Dayak community wear their ceremonial dress and gather at longhouses for prayers and offer food and drinks to the gods. One of the person who has been designated as a priest of the tribe chants specially written litanies to appease the gods and birds and animals were sacrificed to mark the festivities. War dances, cockfights, and blowpipe competitions are some other celebrations of the festival.

The celebrations for the festival begin on the eve of May 31 with traditional music and Muai Antu Rua - a ritual aimed at keeping the spirit of greed from ruining the celebration. During this ritual two men drag a basket along the longhouse and families in each room throw some clothing and household items into the basket. This basket is later dumped on the ground as a "sacrifice" to prevent interference from evil spirits.

After sunset, the appointed festival chief sacrifices a chicken to show his gratitude for a good harvest and requests for the same next year as well. After the sacrifice dinner is served, which essentially features bamboo-steamed rice and sweet cakes made of coconut milk.

Another interesting ritual of the festival is a just before midnight procession known as Ngalu Petara, which passes the community seven times in order to welcome the gods to the festival and at midnight the appointed festival chief holds a toast with tuak for longevity. After this the festival is open to all for dancing, singing and drinking. Gawai Dayak as a festival is more than a demonstration of indigenous culture for tourists and is considered as an auspicious occasion for weddings and family reunions.

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