The Birth Of Gawai Dayak

The Dayak of Sarawak have celebrated Gawai for decades. In the olden days, every village would determine their own Gawai day based on the dreams of their priests or shamans. This would be at the end of their harvest season around the month of June and it is said that it would always be a sunny day. Villagers would give thanks for their blessings and harvest. Men, women and children would come together to give offerings to the spirits so that they would have another abundant and prosperous year ahead. The celebration and feasting would continue for weeks! Each village would visit their neighbouring villages with food and drinks. It was also a time for the young to find their mate.

It wasn’t until 1957 that the Gawai Dayak concept was brought forth during a radio forum held by English broadcaster Tan Kingsley and programme organiser Owen Liang. The word ‘Gawai’ means ‘ritual’ or ‘festival’ whereas Dayak is a collective name for the native races in Sarawak; the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Murut and a few more. Thus Gawai Dayak literally means the Dayak Festival.

Seven years later, the state government gazetted June 1 as an annual public holiday to observe Gawai Dayak. It is also a day when everyone is welcome to the longhouses. Activities differ from longhouse to longhouse but one thing remains: visitors are always greeted with a shot of tuak – locally brewed rice wine symbolising long life. It is a strong brew but it would be impolite to refuse, so drink up!

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