Nyebang Baruk Kampung Gumbang


In conjunction with the launching of their new baruk, the Bidayuh of Kampung Gumbang held a ceremony together with their kin from Indonesia in a simple ceremony. Kampung Gumbang is located close to the border with Indonesia, and is populated by a unique sub-ethnic of the Bidayuh that has a distinct dialect.

The new baruk is their cultural centre, made with mostly modern materials and located a few minutes from the main village. In the village itself is the old baruk, where skulls still hang from the rafters and are propitiated annually. A unique feature of Kampung Gumbang is their custom of celebrating Gawai Nyobeng with different Desa across the border every year, a twinning celebration if you will. If distances are close they’ll even hike a few hours to reach the chosen village.




Niti Daun 2018

2018 saw the first time a Gawai cultural parade was held in the heart of Kuching ever since the 90s. Niti Daun is commonly performed in Iban longhouses or villages before Gawai.

It was an amazing display of indigenous cultural identity, despite the heat. The day began with clear blue skies and despite a temporary shower, the streets were warm and humid. The parade was scheduled to begin at 3PM but got pushed to 4.30PM when the Chief Minister had to turn back and retrieve his costume. It began with a miring ceremony by Iban elders before the participants departed.

The main procession walked about 1 KM from Tun Jugah Mall to the main stage opposite the Old Courthouse. About 90 contingents walked the length, made up of a diverse range of cultural, ethnic and civil societies and associations, proudly displaying their costumes and dances.

The tourists and onlookers were excited as well, standing by to catching a glimpse of all the different styles of traditional costumes. It provided a glimpse at the full range and variety of most of Sarawak’s indigenous culture and traditional attire side by side in full color and splendor. I hope they continue this tradition again next year, and perhaps, start on time.


Tawai: A Voice from the Forest


If you are curious about the Penan, a 2017 documentary by Bruce Parry is a simple show illustrating their way of life and belief system. The Penans, being semi-nomadic, has always been victims of discrimination by the government and the people who live around them. While this documentary doesn’t delve much into their history or origins, it’s an introduction for those who want an insight into their language, the people and their way of life. Documentarian Bruce weaves his narrative with the Piraha people of the Amazon and the yogis of India to answer the question, what do we need to do to be in balance with the world?

It gets a bit New Age-y at some points, and spouts some questionable romantic ideal of the wandering tribe. It’s less about the Penan and more about the general ideals we hold today and whether humanity is going down the right path. But overall I’d say watch it for the visuals and the way the Penans carry themselves today.

Of Gawai and Gawea

It’s that time of the year again when the harvest festival is back! Celebrated by the Dayak community in Sarawak on June 1st of every year, the Gawai festival is a holiday much anticipated by not only native Borneans but also our non-native brethren.


Gawai itself means festival in the Iban language. Before the 60s, the harvest festival was celebrated by each village or community depending on a mutually agreed upon date, sometimes by a village shaman. It marks the end of the harvest season, which, depending on the location of said village, can be in mid-March all the way to June.


After the formation of Malaysia, there was an increased cry for a Sarawak Day to symbolize the unity of the natives in Sarawak. In 1963, Gawai Dayak was first celebrated and the following year, Gawai Dayak was officially gazetted as a Sarawak public holiday.

Gawai Dayak is celebrated only by the Iban and Bidayuh communities. The Iban, formerly known as Sea Dayaks, and the Bidayuh, formerly known as the Land Dayaks, are the only communities designated Dayak. In contrast, the term Dayak in Kalimantan denotes all indigenous, non-Malay Muslim ethnicities.

Other communities have their own harvest festivals, like:

  • Irau Aco (Lunbawang)
  • Lunau (Kayan)
  • Babulang (Bisaya’)
  • Kaul (Melanau)
  • Cho’en (Chebup)

which happens at different dates of the year. Even so, other communities also celebrate the spirit of Gawai with the Ibans and Bidayuh, as the day itself is a public holiday and school holiday.

In the olden days, the animist ancestors would offer prayers and sacrifices of fowl and pig to the gods or spirit. But with Christianization at the turn of the century, this practice is slowly dying. Many of the elders who still know how to perform the rituals have passed on, while the younger generation are generally forbidden to syncretize Christianity with animism. Today only a handful of places still conduct these rituals, and perhaps in another 10 years, it will be but a memory.


Gawai Dayak as a celebration is a relatively modern invention and continues to evolve. A typical activity held before and during Gawai is the Pekit Kumang and Keling, a beauty pageant that celebrates the beauty, bravery and culture of the Iban. Contestants wear traditional Iban regalia and parade on stage, as well as showcasing talents. This event has been extended to other communities like the Bidayuh (Dayung Sangon) and the Kenyah (Bungan Lisu).



A bamboo cannon, or meriam buluh. In Bidayuh it’s called a llila. Kerosene is heated in the chamber until it produces a huge boom.

Some villages will hold Gawai parades that will see everyone dressed in traditional costumes, walking through the village, offering each house a shot of tuak (rice wine) or langkau (distilled liquor). There will be beating of drums and gongs, singing of songs and general mirth. The tradition of joget, or dancing together to the beat of contemporary Dayak music is common throughout the various village level celebrations.


Lapung, or kuih jala is made with palm sugar and deep fried.

Friends and relatives visit each other at open houses, also called ngabang. Many return home for the holidays. Liquor and food flow aplenty throughout the season. It isn’t uncommon for many to fall victim to a serious hangover the next morning from an all-night drink fest. For those who can’t partake in alcohol, it is acceptable to inform your hosts earlier, or merely tap the offered glass with your fingertips as a sign of respect.


Gawai Dayak lasts for about a month. It ends with a celebration or ceremony called the Ngiling Bidai for the Iban, or the Tutu Gawai for the Bidayuh. It symbolizes the rolling up of the mat where the Gawai opening rituals were conducted.


It will be interesting to see how Gawai Dayak evolve as the years proceed. Today, it symbolizes the bonds of community and family, thanksgiving for a bountiful paddy harvest, a better harvest in the year to come and a prosperous time ahead for everyone. For now, let us all eat, drink and be merry!

Every generation has their own definition of Gawai.

– Dr. Welyne Jehom

A New Malaysia

It’s been awhile (again) since I last wrote. Work has been hectic and I haven’t had the time to do much reading and research. Except for the occasional tidbits here there.

Anyway, the recent Malaysian general elections #GE14 has just wrapped up and boy, were we all in for a surprise! For the first time since the inception of Malaysia, a new government has won the elections, helmed by our former Prime Minister Mahathir himself. It was a ride we all didn’t know which way it was headed, and a lot of tension when the results were announced. I didn’t expect to see a transition of power from the former Barisan Nasional government to the opposition (now government) Pakatan Harapan in my lifetime.

What does this mean for East Malaysia, the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak?

After much drama and 2 Chief Ministers sworn consecutively in Sabah, the Sabah state government is now led by the new Warisan government, an ally of PH (the state elections and the parliamentary elections are held together). Sarawak already had it’s state election in 2016 and is not due till 2021. But parliamentary seats in Sarawak climbed to 12 out of 31 this general election, an increase of 6 seats from the last general election, to the shock of the then government who has always called Sarawak a BN “fixed-deposit”.

There were rumors after the federal government fell to PH that BN Sarawak might apply to join the PH coalition, to the consternation of many Sarawakians. There are and has been many infractions under the current state government including issues like mega dams, native land encroachment, and corruption which made BN Sarawak join the PH coalition as something unacceptable by many locals, myself included.


I hope that the BN Sarawak leadership can use this opportunity to maintain itself as a credible opposition to provide check and balance against the federal government. UMNO is facing a leadership crisis after their loss and is slowly crumbling from within. This is the chance for BN Sarawak to take the mantle of BN leadership nationally. BN Sarawak still has the support of many locally, and maybe by banding together with other disgruntled Sabah based local parties, they may even be a formidable side.

I am right now still reveling in the many reforms taking place at the federal level, as well as exposes and the resignation of top leadership that, for so long has been the hallmark of the BN administration’s 60 years in power. Mahathir is a great statesman (with an iron fist), obviously an autocrat, but he wants to right his wrongs, and from where many of us are standing, it does feel like Malaysia now has a new hope for a better future.

The question is, will BN Sarawak ride the wave or will they crumble?

Iban folktales: How the Iban learnt to plant rice Part 1

A long time ago, in the deep jungles of Borneo, lived a fierce tribe called the Ibans. They were hunter gatherers, living off the bountiful fruits of the jungle. Wild tapioca and yam, fruits as well as wild animals were part of their daily meals.

In a longhouse with three hundred families, there was a handsome young man named Siu, son of the tuai rumah. He had a coat of brightly-coloured patterns, hand woven by his mother. on a rattan headband that he wore on his head, were magnificent plumes of hornbill feathers. Around his waist was a sharp sword and magic charms that he believes will protect him from danger. His constant companion is a long spear in his right hand and a sturdy yet light shield on his left. His father died when he was still a child, yet the light of his father’s ferocity and nobility shone in his eyes.

Siu was an athletic and active young man. One day he gathered all the young men of his longhouse and said, “Let us hunt for birds today.”

They all went off into the jungle, carrying their deadly blowpipes, each going their separate ways. Silently and stealthily they prowled the forest searching for prey. Siu went towards a mountain not far from his longhouse. His hunting was not fruitful, as morning became evening and he has yet to catch sight of an animal to kill.

“How strange! The jungle is so quiet and peaceful today,” he thought.

Out of the blue, he heard the sounds of chirping birds not far away. Inching closer, he saw hundreds of birds gathering around a tall tree. He was surprised to see birds with many colors and shapes he has never seen before. He raised his blowpipe and shot a poisoned dart at one of the birds. Oddly, more than one bird fell to the ground. Soon he killed more than he could carry. He decided to craft a bamboo basket to carry the dead birds home. Tying the bamboo basket to his back, he headed home.

He tried to retrace his steps back the way he came. But he could not find the way.

“I must hurry or I’ll have to spend the night in the jungle,” he thought.

Soon he came upon a winding path hat led him to another longhouse. “I didn’t know there was a longhouse here,” he said to himself.

He could hear the people of the longhouse inside. So he hid his basket of birds and his blowpipe and tried to call out to them. “Hello! Is anyone there?” he said. But no one answered. He called out again and was greeted with a reply. “Yes. Come on up!”

The ruai of the longhouse was empty. So he sat there waiting for the host to come out.

“Make yourself at home, Siu. I’m cooking some food for you,” said a woman’s voice from inside one of the rooms.

“How does she know my name? Who is she?” Siu wondered to himself.

After awhile, a pretty young maiden emerged from the room and brought with her freshly cooked food. “Please, eat first,” she said. “We will talk later. You must be tired from hunting all day.”

After he had finished eating, she came and sat down beside him.

“Why are you living here all alone? Where is everyone?” Siu asked the young maiden.

“I will tell you later,” the girl replied. “First, tell me, how did you find this longhouse?”

“I was hunting birds and lost my way. I followed a small path and it led me here. I must return home tomorrow or my mother will be worried about me,” he answered. He continued his story about himself and his life.

“Why do you want to leave so quickly? Stay here for a few days at least,” she said. Her sweet demeanor and persistence led Siu to agree. That night, Siu slept soundly since he was so tired from the hunting trip.

The next morning he woke to the sounds of children playing. Yet, he still did not see any adults in the longhouse besides the lovely young lady.

After a week in the longhouse, he gradually grew enchanted with the young maiden. He decided to return home.

“I must return home now,” Siu said to the young lady. “But I have something to ask you. I hope you will not be offended.”

“What is it?” asked the young lady.

“Will you be my wife and come home with me?” he said.

The lady did not say anything for awhile. Then she replied, “I shall be happy to marry you. But you must promise never to tell your people about this house or anything you have seen. And you must promise never to kill a bird again or even catch one. If you should break this promise, I shall leave you.”

“All right,” said Siu. He was excited that she agreed.

“First you must know something. I am Bunso Burung, youngest daughter of Sengalang Burong. I am sure you have heard of him. My people are fighting a war with another tribe. Many have died and now all the men have left and are still at war. I hope they will win this time. My people can change shape into birds. That is why I want you to make that promise.”

Siu was amazed. He was especially glad he did not bring in the basket of birds he hunted. He promised her.

When Bunsu Burong left the longhouse with Siu,  he saw that she seemed to know the way. After walking for several days, they reached a stream not far from where Siu lived. They stopped to take a bath. Some children from Siu’s longhouse saw them. They ran home shouting, “Siu has returned! He has brought a beautiful girl with him as his wife.”

All of Siu’s people came out to welcome him and Bunsu Burong. His mother kissed both of them. “My son,” she cried, “I thought you were dead and I would never see you again. Now you have returned home with your lovely wife, we must have a big feast.”

So they had a big feast and drank a lot of wine and everyone was laughing and happy. Siu’s mother prepared a special room for her son and his wife. They were greatly liked and respected by all the families living in the longhouse.