Hari Gawai in Bintulu: a glorious display of cultural richness

The recent Hari Gawai celebrations in Bintulu, Sarawak served as a reminder of the state’s vibrant multiculturalism. (Theevya Ragu @ FMT Lifestyle)

BINTULU: To truly experience Malaysia’s uniqueness, Sarawak is the place to be. This is especially true during Hari Gawai, the Dayak community’s biggest and brightest festival of the year.

Observed annually on June 1 with much merrymaking, this auspicious event marks the end of the harvest season. It is a time of thanksgiving and togetherness for indigenous communities across the state.

And in Bintulu, a coastal town in central Sarawak with over 200 Iban longhouses, the proceedings are as grand as ever.

At each longhouse, visitors from near and far are welcomed with open arms. Featuring unique traditions, lively dances, and fun games, it’s a celebration that certainly leaves a lasting impression.

Ngajat dance and rhythmic ‘gendang pampat’ drums welcomed minister of tourism, arts and culture Tiong King Sing. (Theevya Ragu @ FMT Lifestyle)

On Saturday, guests from throughout the country were invited to partake of the festivities upon the invitation of the tourism, arts and culture ministry.

Gracing the event was its minister, Tiong King Sing, who stressed the importance of spotlighting Sarawak’s unique cultures on the world stage.

“Many brothers and sisters from the peninsula are here today to experience Sarawak’s culture. Some of them may not understand how the longhouses or the Iban community celebrate their New Year. This is the day they will witness it,” he said in his speech.

“Our country is multiracial and multireligious. We must be willing to respect one another and work together. Only then can we have harmony in our country,” he added.

Longhouse chief Edward Nullie shared more about the Dayak community’s time-honoured customs. (Theevya Ragu @ FMT Lifestyle)

Speaking with FMT Lifestyle, 67-year-old Edward Nullie – a retired school principal and now chief of a longhouse – offered insights into the major highlights of Hari Gawai, beginning with the toast of their traditional rice wine, tuak or “ai pengayu”.

“At midnight on June 1, the ‘tuai rumah’ will make an announcement with a speaker and hit the gong, as a celebration for everybody to drink the ai pengayu,” he shared. “That is the most important thing we have to do.”

Traditionally, celebrating with tuak was seen as a reward after months of hard work harvesting paddy. Although farming no longer takes place in areas like Bintulu, the practice of brewing tuak at least a month before the festival remains.

In fact, the Dayak community ensures the same joy is shared with all visitors who step into their longhouse. This is done through “nyibur temuai”, which literally means “watering the guests” with tuak!

Bintulu is home to over 200 traditional longhouses, a unique feature of Borneo. (Afizi Ismail @ FMT Lifestyle)

From morning to night, toasts can be heard with proclamations of “Oha!”, and revellers wish one another “gayu guru, gerai nyamai” – “long life, health and prosperity”.

For those experiencing Borneo for the first time, one of the most magnificent sights is the rumah panjang, or longhouse, itself. The core of communal life among the Dayak, each house often contains over 50 individual families living in separate large rooms, all under one roof.

The day before Hari Gawai, the families clean the house together and lay handwoven mats across the “ruai”, the main open area that runs the entire length of the house.

The walls are adorned with “pua kumbu”, their traditional handwoven fabric: a sign that the festive season has arrived.

The ‘miring’ ceremony involves assembling a plate of offerings to seek blessings from spirits, ancestors and deities. (Theevya Ragu @ FMT Lifestyle)

Despite living in a modern world, the Dayak community holds on to their heritage by continuing time-honoured practices like the “miring” ceremony.

The longhouse chief expresses gratitude for the good harvest and seeks blessings from deities, spirits and ancestors by presenting an array of offerings, including a cockerel, which marks the ceremonial conclusion.

As the Dayak community is diverse in terms of race and religion, the ceremony varies slightly from house to house.

Another rich custom displayed at the centre of each longhouse is the “pohon ranyai”, or tree of life. Adorned with various items, it serves as a backdrop to performances like the traditional Ngajat dance.

Participating in the festivities, visitors from all over the country experienced an unforgettable cultural event. (Afizi Ismail @ FMT Lifestyle)

Men wearing the “Ngepan” indigenous costume – which includes a loincloth, jewellery, and headgear made of peacock feathers – dance to the rhythmic beating of “gendang pampat” drums.

This dance is said to mirror the movements of a hornbill, a cultural symbol of the Dayak community.

From longhouse to longhouse, the celebrations never cease. Naturally, food is quintessential: visitors are invited to feast on traditional delicacies such as kuih penganan or kuih jala, pulut lulun (glutinous rice steamed in bamboo), and other dishes unique to Sarawak like “ka chan ma” – motherwort herb chicken soup.

Truly, in Sarawak, where harmony among diverse cultures flourishes, festivals like Hari Gawai remind us that there’s far more to this beautiful land than meets the eye.


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