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


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