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Gawai Dayak is celebrated on June 1 and 2 every year. It is a special annual festival of the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia, and West Kalimantan, Indonesia. If you’re wondering what the name ‘Gawai Dayak’ means, don’t grind your brain too hard! ‘Gawai’ means ‘festival’ and ‘Dayak’ is a collective name for the indigenous people of Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan, and the interior of Borneo. It is one of the most exciting and keenly-awaited festivals in these regions. So, how do they celebrate Gawai Dayak, and what is the cultural and religious importance of the festival? Here’s everything you need to know about Gawai Dayak.

History of Gawai Dayak

Gawai Dayak marks the end of the harvest. The festival aims to honor and respect the hard work behind the harvest. It takes about four to five months to grow a grain of rice, for example, and we don’t often think about the importance of rice. The festival also represents the unity, aspiration, and hope of the people of many ethnic groups such as the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kelabit, and Murut.

The Dawak people prepare for the festival in a grand manner. On the days leading up to it, everyone will be busy tidying up, grave visiting, paddy drying, milling and collecting, and preparing food. Men and women may wear ‘nigepan,’ the traditional costume. The party doesn’t start until someone beats the gong, when midnight strikes on June 1, to call the celebrants to attention. The festival chief will lead everyone to drink the Tuak — a locally-brewed rice wine — for long life.

Everyone will wish each other “gayu-guru, gerai-nyami,” which translates to “long life, health, and prosperity,” and the celebration becomes less formal with people dancing to traditional music while others sing ‘pantuns,’ or poems. The celebrations vary from place to place. In the towns and villages, they hold pre-Gawai Dayak in May ahead of the arrival of people living in the city.

Gawai Dayak timeline

The Locals Recognize the Festival

The locals recognize Gawai Dayak as a religious and social occasion.

The British Empire’s Recognition

The British colonial government recognizes Dayak Day.

The First Gawai Dayak

A Betong native hosts the first Gawai Dayak celebrations at his home in Siol Kandis.

The Holiday is Officially Recognized

Gawai Dayak becomes a public holiday after the formation of the Federation of Malaysia.

Gawai Dayak FAQs

How is ‘tuak’ made?

Tuak is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, yeast, and sugar. It is popular in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo, and Malaysia.

What do they wear in Ngajat dances?

The male dancers wear large feathers as part of their headgear, holding a long, ornate shield with chains, beads, and a loincloth called the ‘cawat.’

What are the dishes famous during Gawai Dayak?

Some traditional treats prepared for the festival are the ‘sarang semut,’ ‘cuwan,’ ‘kui sepit,’ ‘penganan iri,’ the ‘ngelulun pulut,’ ‘pansoh manok,’ and the delicious chicken and lemongrass.

Gawai Dayak Activities

  1. Join the celebration

    The best thing you can do to celebrate Gawai Dayak is to join the celebrations. This is your chance to plan a trip to Malaysia with friends and family to experience the festival.

  2. Learn Ngajat

    One of the amazing ways you can celebrate Gawai Dayak is by learning Ngajat, the unique traditional dance of the locals. Learn some of the moves and rock them in celebration of this special day.

  3. Enjoy the treats

    Gawai Dayak is a harvest festival in which wine, sweets, and other treats are abundant. Make some room in your belly to indulge in these treats.

5 Cool Facts About Gawai Dayak That You Probably Don’t Know

  1. Rice wine flows at the festival

    The local rice wine, Tuak, is an important tradition during the festival.

  2. There are special sweets too

    Special sweets like ‘sarang semut,’ ‘cuwan,’ ‘kui sepit,’ and ‘penganan iri’ are famous during the festival.

  3. The unique Ngajat

    Male dancers wearing large feathers will perform a unique dance called ‘Ngajat.’

  4. A beauty pageant

    During the festival, a beauty pageant is held to choose the festival’s king and queen.

  5. Cock fighting

    The celebration also includes cock-fighting and blowpipe matches.

Why We Love Gawai Dayak

  1. It celebrates the people

    Gawai Dayak is not just a harvest celebration festival. It is a festival that celebrates the sweat, time, and effort of the farmers who work hard to provide food for the whole nation.

  2. It spreads positivity

    Gawai Dayak is a positive holiday that not only aims to spread positivity. It also helps raise awareness about the effort behind bringing food to our table and their sacrifice.

  3. It celebrates new beginnings

    Gawai Dayak gives us the perfect opportunity to welcome a new beginning. We welcome the new harvest season and bid a grand farewell to the old harvest season.

Gawai Dayak dates

2024June 1Saturday
2025June 1Sunday
2026June 1Monday
2027June 1Tuesday
2028June 1Thursday
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