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Home » Gawai Dayak, Discover Borneo’s Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving

Gawai Dayak, Discover Borneo’s Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving

Oooohaaa! Celebrated annually on the 1st of June and throughout the rest of the month, Gawai Dayak is originally a festivity of the old religion, celebrated by a majority of the native tribes of the island of Borneo. It is a celebration of thanksgiving to the gods and spirits for a bountiful harvest and to signify a new start in the farming season. But that was back when the old faith and headhunting is still in practice, back when Christianity and Islam was just a foreigners’ faith, and you can read your future from the skulls of your dead enemy.

The modern Dayak and Orang Ulu would prepare lots of food before the 1st of June, some would even prepare their own tuak (rice wine) a month or more before the festival. Family members from near and far will be coming back to their home be it a modern terrace in the city or a traditional longhouse in the kampung, the Harvest Festival is a time for families to come close together and remembering their heritage. On the day of celebration itself (1st June), friends, neighbours and relatives are all invited to come visit each other.

Read on to find out more on the Gawai Dayak festival of Borneo, in this blog I’ll talk about old rituals and what to expect when visiting the island during the Harvest Festival..

Origins and rituals

Why we celebrate Gawai Dayak

It is fair to say that paddy cultivation was the main activity of almost all of the native tribes of Borneo. So when the harvesting season for the paddies is arrived, the people are left with an abundance of rice for all to share. In the present day, Gawai Dayak is not so much a celebration full of serious rituals and praying for the future, but rather an exciting and fun festive season for everyone to enjoy. Gawai Dayak is celebrate as a symbol of remembrance of the roots of origin of each tribe on the island, which was paddy cultivation. In order to maintain a generous flow of rice for the next harvesting, appeasing to the Gods and spirits is why Gawai Dayak existed.

How Gawai Dayak is celebrated

The peak of the harvest festival is on the 1st of June, but traditionally it starts earlier as there are offerings and sacrifices to the gods and spirits to be done beforehand and then only the fun begins as celebrations carry on throughout the whole month of June.

The best place to experience Gawai Dayak is by visiting a rumah panjai (longhouse). This is because rituals and proper celebrations were done in a longhouse since long ago, plus you get to participate and try for yourselves how it feels to live in a kampung (village) with the locals. Depending on which longhouse you decided to visit, you’ll experience no internet, long boat rides to reach the kampung, starting your own fire to cook, eating on the floor with your fingers, taking baths in the chilly rivers, hear the locals folklore are many more! 

Muai antu rua’ (31st of May) – expelling the spirit of greed

On the 31st of May, starting with a ceremony known as muai antu rua’ (expelling the spirit of greed). The elected person will drag a chapan (basket) from one end to the other, to collect unwanted item or possession from each family or pintu (the Iban refer to each separate house as pintu in English meaning door) respectively within the longhouse. Once the last door / house has dropped an item into the chappan, the items are then tossed out from the door at the end of the longhouse.

Collection of unwanted item. Photo credits: TROPAW

Miring (31st of May) – Offering to the Gods and Spirits

As soon as the sun has set, an offering ceremony to invite the 7 Gods and good spirits or ghosts, some of which are those of departed relatives to celebrate the festivities together. Every families in the longhouse will have to take part in the ritual by offering food. Miring is a complicated ritual that can only be performed by someone who is experienced. It requires specific types of offerings in a precise order, placing of protection from unwanted bad spirits and the chief who performs the adat miring is required to first prepare himself for the ritual. Before the ritual take place, a ritual music is performed. At the end of the ritual a cockerel is sacrifice by slicing its throat, as a final offering and sign of gratitude for good harvest. Today, miring is done in a less strict and complicated way, sometimes breaking taboos is even allowed, as miring is now performed to remember old practices.

Keling ‘ngau Kumang Gawai ngalu Petara – Beauty pageant to welcome spiritis

While having dinner at the front porch of the longhouse, a beauty pageant will be held to elect the new king and queen of the Harvest festival to welcome the spirits, this ritual is known as ngalu petara. Participants are unmarried and are dressed in full traditional clothing and would compete to win by demonstrating skills such as dancing or reciting traditional poems.

The Bidayuh tribe costumes. Photo credit: Frampton Panchong

Ranyai – Tree of life

After dinner, at midnight the tree of life is erected in the middle of the longhouse or in-front of the door of the tuai rumah (leader of the longhouse) to be used as a ritual shrine. Traditional dances known as ngajat, traditional poems known as pantun is sung and offerings such as fruits are presented at the tree. While a poem is being recited the chief or tuai rumah will break a coconut which symbolises the trophied-human-skull to read the future of land to farm on.

Ngiling bidai – rolling up the mat

Ngiling bidai meaning rolling up your mat, is an indication of the end of the Harvest Festival. It is a ceremony where the mats (bidai) in front of each doors are rolled back up and kept. These mats were initially used for the miring ceremony, and left for the comfort of guests when sitting on the floor during ngabang (visitation).

What to expect?

Every Bornean gets excited when the month of June draws nearer. Other than the 1st of June being a public holiday (that lasts up to 2 weeks) for the residents of Sabah and Sarawak, they get to partake in an exciting celebration that brings new experience every year. If you are not familiar with the culture of the celebration, here are some useful insights on what to expect during the month of June when you’re visiting Sarawak for the Gawai dayak.

Lots of rice!

First of all, expect lots of rice, dont’ forget, it is called the Harvest Festival. And as we all know rice play a big role in Asian culture not excluding the native people of Borneo Island. Prepare your belly for a rice overload as you’ll be offered rice cakes, cakes and deserts made from rice, rice cooked in bamboo, smashed rice wrapped in leaves, meat fermented with rice and the long awaited rice wine!

Ngabang – house visitations

Usually done on the 1st of June, one of the best part of the Gawai Dayak festival is that you get to visit open houses. Not only will you be offered an abundant amount of food, you’ll also be asked to try homemade wine typically rice wine, but nowadays people get more creative with their wines. Some would even label their wine as the best wine you’ll ever taste.

Tuak and other alcoholic beverages

During Gawai Dayak you will be offered copious amount of tuak. A tradition known as nyibur temuai meaning feeding the guests with drinks (typically rice wine), you’ll get about five or more rounds of rice wine being offered to you. You will also be drinking from the same cup that is being offered around by a tukang sadung (drink pourer). Traditionally, it is considered offensive to refuse the offer to drink during Gawai. But worry not, the host are usually understanding especially if you aren’t a native (they can be more persuasive if you’re a native), I recommend you let the host know if you do not drink alcohol or if you’ve had one too many.

Animal killing and Sacrifices

During the eve of Gawai Dayak, it is very common for the people of the longhouse to kill a wild boar or pig. If you are staying in a longhouse, be prepared to hear the shrieking of the wild boar when it gets slaughtered, and if you’re lucky the village people will let you do the honor of killing the wild boar. There will also be sacrifices done during the miring ritual on the night of the Gawai Dayak. So just a heads up, be prepared.

Rituals and Traditions

Depending on where you decide to be at during the peak of the harvest festival, you’ll get to experience how the old rituals are done and also see and hear traditional dances and music being performed. Other than that, if you’re not too shy, you’ll get try their musical instruments and dance with the locals.

Gawai Bazaars / Night Market

A month before the 1st of June, which is the whole month of May, the local community will run an open night market to sell traditional food, beverage and local handicrafts. They will be selling every night, these bazaars are held in an open space and can be found easily in each city as there will be smokes and little tents set up with bright lights. Occasionally, there will be competitions and lucky draws, or famous local artist will perform during these bazaars. Be sure to check them out when you’re around town. 

Wishing everyone a ‘Happy Harvest Festival!’

If you ever find yourself visiting the island of Borneo during the month of the harvest festival in June or if you’re planning on visiting one day to experience the celebration first-hand, here’s a list of the local dialects you can use to wish the locals ‘Happy Harvest Festival’. I hope you’ll find this list handy as I did myself. The locals of the island are always very appreciative when anyone other from their tribe speaks their language, they are notorious to shower their guests with gifts too.. lemme know if this happens to you when you give these a try (hahaha!).

Bahasa Melayu – Selamat Hari Gawai
Iban – Selamat Ngintu Ari Gawai / Selamat Ari Gawai
Bidayuh – Selamat Andu Gawai
Bisaya – Selamat Nyambut Adau Gawai
Kayan – Selamat Dau Gawai
Kenyah – Selamat Tau Gawai
Kelabit – Doo Adto Irau Dayak
Berawan – Selamat Enchiew Gawai
Saban – Selamat Siew Gawai
Lun Bawang – Do Aco Irau Dayak
Melanau – Selamat Lau Gawai
Penan – ‘Jian Dau Gawai

Have any questions or if you’d like to share your own Gawai Dayak experience? Feel free to leave a comment, or you can contact me through social media. I hope you’ve had a good read and if you’d like, come visit Borneo someday!

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