If you want to experience a destination’s cultural essence, visit it during its festival season. At festivals, the vitality and traditions of a country, as well as the happiness quotient of its citizens, are on full display and the enthusiasm is amazing to witness. In Asian destinations, customs and heritage blend into food, attire, and ambience during the festive time. For example, Malaysia values the Sarawak Gawai Festival as a grandiose celebration that honours the Dayak community. Travellers most commonly visit Peninsular Malaysia, but the Sabah and Sarawak regions of Malaysia stand out for their untouched rawness and extraordinariness. In many ways, Sarawak differs from modern Malaysia thanks to its rich cultural and natural diversity. Sarawak has a mix of races and ethnic groups, but the Dayak ethnic group dominates the region — an indigenous combination of Iban and Bidayuh. The Gawai Festival is an important event for this community. In June, after the rice harvesting season ended, it is celebrated grandly as a harvesting festival.
Significance of Sarawak Gawai Festival
Celebrated annually on the 1st of June, Sarawak Gawai Festival is mainly held by the Dayak community in Malaysia. This festival is celebrated throughout the Dayak community of Malaysia as a harvest festival, showing gratitude for successful rice harvesting. It portrays a celebration of hope and unity. It is also called Sarawak Day and is a national holiday in the region. This day places a lot of emphasis on relationships and spirituality. People in the community use this day as an opportunity to reconcile past differences and old relationships, and come together to be thankful. They pay tribute to the departed, pray for a good future, and enjoy the harvest celebrations. In the modern era, it is also a time for family members earning a livelihood in faraway lands to come back home and meet their families and enjoy the celebrations together.
An insight into Sarawak Gawai Festival celebrations.
The Sarawak Gawai festival rituals
Around a week before the festivities begin, the region will be buzzing with activity. It is common for locals to spend their free time erecting a tree of life in the middle of the longhouse gallery, cleaning the homes, and decorating them with traditionally woven cloth and other handicrafts. Sarawak Gawai is a festival filled with rituals and customs aimed at bringing prosperity and positivity. The celebration begins the evening before with a ritual known as Muai Antu Rua that purifies the community of negativity.
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Usually, two men carry a basket from house to house collecting unwanted items and throwing them away to ward off negativity. Then, a procession is performed to invite good spirits and wish everyone in the local dialect – ‘Gayu Guru, Gerai Nyamai, Senang Lantang Nguan Menua’ which means wishing long life, health, and prosperity.
Sarawak Gawai Festival dressing
The local dress code during the festival is called ‘Ngepan’. Traditionally, men wear animal skins, loincloths, feather headgears and crowns, and accessorize with beaded necklaces and tattoos that represent their ethnicity and experiences. The women wear drapes made of handmade cloth around their waists, a colorful corset, and tribal jewellery.
Sarawak Gawai Festival dance
The festivities of 31 May include gendang rayah, a ritual music performance followed by a miring – an elaborate ceremony where the chief expresses gratitude on behalf of the community to the Gods for the productive harvest and solicits their blessings for the future. The feast and entertainment for the evening begin here. To bring in the Gawai festival, a gong is rung at midnight and everyone raises a toast with tuak for long and prosperous life. From then on, the celebration only gets grander. The Ngajat dance form is a premier traditional dance performed by men and women together. In addition to dances, sword dances, martial art performances and exhibits of various stunts and warrior manoeuvres are also performed during the performance. There are various other games and sports that the community engages in, such as arm wrestling and log pulling.
Sarawak Gawai Festival food
The preparations begin with the traditional brewing of tuak, or rice wine, which is made from glutinous rice combined with homemade yeast. A rich feast of traditional dishes cooked on traditional earthenware adorns the palette on the festival day. It consists of homemade penganas, rice flour, and coconut milk cake, ‘Pansoh-meat cooked in bamboo logs, rice cooked in bamboo logs, and freshly plucked vegetables and local meat served over traditionally brewed tuak. Gawai Festival’s main dish features rice as one of its primary ingredients.
During Sarawak Gawai Festival, one can experience the true essence of Malaysia, which is unlike the modern Malaysia we all know. The festival here is deeply ingrained in each household and you can experience the genuine enthusiasm, humility, and gracious hospitality of the lesser-known communities in Malaysia. The customs and traditions passed down through generations are celebrated in the villages with vigour and merriment loaded with lots of food, singing, dancing, and drinking to usher in the new farming season. This significant Malaysian festival is held at Skrant River, Batang Ai, and Lemanak River and those who would like to witness authentic Malaysia should definitely include Sarawak in their Malaysia trip itinerary. This is a great way to experience Malaysia without its modern influences.