Gawai – Giving thanks to the gods

Gawai – Giving thanks to the gods

In most agricultural-based societies, it is incumbent upon the people to give thanks to the gods for a good harvest. In Sarawak, this thanksgiving ritual is celebrated annually as the Gawai Dayak Festival.

For the Dayaks, this is an occasion not only to thank the gods for a bountiful harvest of rice, but also to entreat them for another good year ahead.

The Dayaks are a collection of tribes indigenous to Sarawak. They include the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kelabit, Murut and several others whose livelihood revolves around rice cultivation. And Gawai, to them, is a ritual.

The Gawai Dayak Festival is the final and grandest event of the seven main rituals observed by these tribes – rituals that include, among others, land clearing, paddy planting and harvesting.

While it is officially marked on June 1 and 2 every year, the celebration actually begins on the night of May 31 with the Muai Antu Rua, a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed, thus signifying the non-interference of the spirit of bad luck in their lives.

The ceremony begins with two children or men dragging a “chapan” (winnowing basket) each, from door to door in the longhouse. Along the way, every family will throw unwanted things, such as old clothes or other household items, into the baskets.

At the end of the long corridor of the longhouse, these items are tossed away to put a stop to the interference of evil spirits.

This is followed by the “miring” (or offering) ceremony at sundown, complete with the accompaniment of music played by villagers with gongs and other traditional instruments. The chief of the feast will conduct the thanksgiving ritual on behalf of the villagers by offering a cockerel as a sacrifice. Dinner is served once the ritual is completed.

At midnight, the gong is sounded and the tuai rumah (village chief) leads everyone in a drinking ritual. “Ai pengayu”, more popularly known as “tuak” (rice wine), is consumed while they chant “gayu, guru, gerai nyamai” which means long life, health and prosperity. At the same time, the villagers walk in a procession up and down the length of the corridor of the longhouse to welcome the spirit “Ngalu Petara”. The celebration continues with traditional music performances, dancing and a recital of “pantun” (poetry).

The celebration continues the following day with various activities such as cock-fighting, blowpipe competition and “Ngajat” or warrior dance.

It is customary to open the door to visitors at this time. This is a practice called “masu pengabang”. This is when the guests are served “tuak” by the host before they enter the house.

The Gawai Dayak Festival usually lasts several days and it culminates in the “Ngiling Tikai” or “rolling of the mat” ceremony. This is when the host rolls up a rattan mat that has been laid out in the middle of the “ruai” (open space in the longhouse), signalling the end of the celebrations.

This is the traditional way to mark the Gawai Dayak Festival.

For visitors and tourists, the occasion this year will be marked on a grander scale with the participation of cultural troupes from outside Sarawak, including the Nitto Rong Organisation of Bangladesh and Kumpulan Batambul Rungus Matunggong of Sabah. This Gawai (Harvest Festival) event will be held at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong from April 27 to 29.

Visitors will get to sample the traditional food and to learn more about the crafts of the many ethnic communities of Sarawak. There will also be a series of workshops hosted jointly by local and invited cultural troupes.

The celebrations will culminate with competitions of beauty and brawn. While the ethnic beauty pageant lends colour and vibrancy to the event, the Ironman World Harvest Festival contest will showcase muscles and masculinity.

The World Harvest Festival, one of the highlights of the Gawai Dayak celebration, sees the highest community participation for any event in Sarawak. It provides the opportunity for non-Dayaks to learn and understand the culture, tradition and aspiration of the Dayak community. This will be the 11th year that this festival is held.

For more information on the event, visit