Malaysia FESTIVAL MUST-SEE: GAWAI DAYAK EXPERIENCE GAWA I DAYAK
Kuching holds a celebration on May 31 at the Civic Centre which includes dinner, dancing, and even a beauty pageant. Arrive before May 31, however, as Kuching is teeming with people the week before
Gawai Dayak in Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo is dedicated to honouring the traditions of the indigenous Dayak people: the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut tribes – who historically became notorious as headhunters. Thankfully today, no human heads depart their necks; the same can’t be said for the ceremonious chicken that is sacrificed at sundown in a bid for a prosperous rice harvest.
Not everyone wears traditional outfits anymore, and many people have abandoned longhouse living in favour of more contemporary residences. For many Dayak communities living in the cities, Gawai Dayak is merely a public holiday; but for others – particularly in rural communities – the holiday is celebrated through a cultural festival.
The first Gawai Dayak festival was held in 1965 – but the traditional celebrations themselves are steeped in ancient custom. The festival begins on the evening of May 31 with traditional music and a ritual called Muai Antu Rua, where two men drag a basket along the longhouse, and families (up to 30 per longhouse!) throw clothing and household items into it. The basket is then discarded as a “sacrifice” to keep evil spirits at bay.
Before midnight, the Ngalu Petara procession ushers in the friendly spirits. At midnight, the chief holds a toast for a long life with a locallybrewed rice wine called tuak, which kicks off a night-long festival of drinking, dancing and singing.
Tourists are not allowed to attend this ceremony, but are invited to join in activities the next day. People open their homes, and travellers are allowed a chance to learn more about their daily lives. All visitors are welcomed with a shot of strong rice wine.