Celebrating Heritage, Identity and Hope

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KUCHING: The Dayak communities had just “celebrated” Gawai Dayak, but it seemed more like a time of “reflection”, following another nation-wide enforcement of the Movement Control Order on the day itself to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In the years prior to the onset of the pandemic two years ago, the festivities at the longhouses would start on Gawai Eve at the stroke of midnight, first of June, preceded by the nganchau tikai (literally laying out the mats). The sound of betaboh (the playing of traditional musical instruments) by the longhouse youth would resound throughout the longhouses, giving an air of celebration.

All the foodstuff and ai pengayu (long-life rice wine) were brought out to the ruai (common hallway) of each household for prayer rituals to give thanks for good harvests and herald in a new planting year.

After the ai pengayu toasting at midnight, the merriment would begin with ngajat (dances) and singing, most often initiated by the longhouse chief at his ruai.  

The traditional musicians would then move from one end of the longhouse to the other end, stopping at the door of every family’s bilik, who would put forward its manuk sabung (either a male or female representative) to dance the ngajat. So if we had 30 bilik, we had 30 dancers who had accepted the ngajat challenge to represent their families.

Beautiful Kenyah lasses.

When I was young in the 1980s, early morning on the first of June, we would go to the graves of our ancestors to remember and pay respect. But as time went by, the folks decided it was more practical to do that on the morning of 31st May, when most of them was still sober enough.  

First of June would be spent going from door to door for family miring or sampi (prayers) of thanksgiving and blessings for each household, usually for good health, a long meaningful life, success for children in their education, and fortune. Participants who had the discipline and understood the ngirup tuak culture would still be standing and walking by the end of the day. Otherwise, we would see a handful of people left in a drunken stupor at someone’s ruai.

The second day was a day to bring out all the farming and fishing tools, such as sabitparanguyud and raga (backpacks made from bamboo), seedlings, fishing nets, sumpit (blowpipes), lungga (knives), bubu, even senapang patah (licensed shotguns), for sampi berekat or blessings for a bountiful harvest in the new planting year.  

This would inevitably be followed by all sorts of competitions that you could think of, spanning a few days: blowpipe, tuak-drinking, coconut bowling, arm-wrestling, ngajat, tug-of-war, cockfighting, fancy dress, karaoke singing, poco-poco, kuntau (Iban martial arts), and so on.

After almost a week of family reunion, merriment and reminiscence, the urban Dayaks who had gone back to their longhouses or villages in the interiors would be making journeys back to the towns and cities, or wherever they may be working, to face another year with renewed hope and resolution.

The Gawai “celebration” for the past two years, more so this year, had been a completely sober and quiet affair, even poignant, filling hearts with nostalgia.

The only thing that seems to be the same as years past was the hot weather. I remember it was always hot during Gawai celebrations at my maternal family’s longhouse in Poi, Kanowit. I am quite sure the “tuak” and the merriment exacerbated the sweaty affairs.

Everyone is related in a longhouse. Either one is a grandparent, grand uncle, grand auntie, uncle, auntie, a first cousin, a second cousin, niece, nephew or grandchild. If there are “outsiders”, like my father, it is usually because they married into the extended family.  

As a product of a mixed Melanau-Iban parentage, I went through an “identity crisis” when I was young. I did not know where I fitted in, or how to react to what my Iban kinsfolk said or did.   Every school holidays, I would be sent to the longhouse to stay with my grandparents, who showered me with so much love that I remember to this day.  I never knew my Melanau grandparents as they died when my father and four (now late) uncles were still very young children. 

As time went by, I began to learn a lot about my parents’ communities. As I entered secondary school, I started mixing around with the various ethnic communities and learnt to appreciate their peculiarities and sentiments of which I was oblivious to before.  

On hindsight, I feel fortunate because my father and uncles were very broad-minded people. From their examples, I learnt to embrace everyone, warts and all, thus broadening my own world views.  

When I was young, my mother would so often reprimanded me during Gawai for daring to join the night-long merriments which could become quite tipsy and sweaty. But I wanted to understand the Iban ways, and in the process, I gained a handful of life-long friends  As the Malay adage goes, “Tak kenal, maka tak cinta.”

I miss the Gawai celebration because it reminds me of my grandparents who became part of my identity. If I have nowhere else to go, I can always go back to my roots.  

I guess this Gawai, I was “celebrating” those fond memories with the hope that after the pandemic, the harvest of whatever nature will be abundant again.  – TVS

The traditional miring ritual being performed by the elders.
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