Celebrating Borneo’s Festivals of Harvest

Celebrating Borneo’s Festivals of Harvest
June 2, 2021

Gawai Dayak (Gawai) and Tadau Kaamatan (Kaamatan) are celebrated between May and June in East Malaysia. Both are beautiful examples among the rich diversity of sacred rituals associated with rice planting in Southeast Asia, stretching back to ancient times.

The two harvest festivals give thanks for a bountiful crop yield, and seed the hopes for an equally prosperous new season, but they each have their own unique folklore and traditions.


Life-giving mythologies

Gawai is celebrated by the Dayak, a collective name for over 200 subgroups of indigenous people in Borneo, including Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Iban, the largest ethnic community in Sarawak.

An unbeatable model of merriment, Gawai traces its origins to a mythical past when warriors, touched by a dream, travelled to the spiritual realm. There they were invited to the Feast of the Gods and Spirits. Upon their return, the warriors were inspired to annually recreate a similar banquet in the real world.

Sabah’s Kaamatan, on the other hand, comes from the Kadazan-Dusun-Murut’s ancestral practice of Momolianism. This eco-conscious spiritual system is centred on the lifecycle of the paddy plant and its spirit, known as Bambarayon.

According to local creation myths, the creator god Kinoingan punished humans who had forgotten him with a devastating famine. As the people starved, Kinoingan’s daughter, Huminodun, sacrificed herself by transforming her body into lush crops that saved humankind. Kaamatan marks this sacrifice and celebrates the reawakening of a period of plenty.


Traditions continue

Gawai usually begins on the evening of May 31 with traditional music and the Muai Antu Rua to ward off greed and bad luck. A basket is dragged along the longhouse while families from each room throw old clothing and unwanted household items into it. The basket is then dumped on the ground as a “sacrifice” to lure evil spirits and prevent interference in the Gawai celebrations.

In the evening, the miring ceremony commences; amidst music and drumming, little plates of food are offered to the Dayak deities. At sundown, the Tuai Gawai, or festival chief, resplendent in a hornbill-feathered headdress and tree-bark vest, sacrifices a cockerel as a sign of gratitude for a good harvest and to ask for the same next year. Dinner is served right.

Just before midnight, the Ngalu Petara procession passes by seven times to welcome friendly spirits. On the stroke of 12, a gong rings out and the Tuai Gawai leads everyone in a toast, wishing each other long life, health and prosperity in that well-known Gawai phrase – “gayu guru, gerai nyamai”. At this point, festivities take on a more informal tone, with dancing, singing and general merry-making all night long.

Lawrence Abus, a lecturer from Sarawak, explains that every ritual during Gawai has a meaning: “One of the most symbolic rites during Gawai is the ngancau tikai, or the spreading of the mat, which is where the food will be served.

“This marks the opening of the Gawai ceremony and symbolises the welcoming of guests.

The Iban believe that their ancestors will visit them during Gawai, so the mat is spread for them too. We also pour out some tuak onto the ground for our ancestors to invite them to join us in celebrating.”

Kaamatan, on the other hand, is celebrated throughout the whole month of May. Kaamatan begins with a procession, led by the Bobohizan, through the paddy fields under a full moon. This is followed by seven key rituals: inviting the rice spirit home, search and rescue, appeasement, purification, restoration, feeding and the feast of reunion and thanksgiving.

As part of these rituals, the Bobohizan will tie seven stalks of rice together and place them in a tadang basket before moving them into a rice hut. Another key event during the month-long celebration is the famous Unduk Ngadau beauty pageant, a televised and highly anticipated affair.

“The Unduk Ngadau honours Huminodun’s sacrifice, and the words refer to ‘the girl crowned by sunlight’,” explains Joanna Datuk Kitinggan, Sabah Museum Director and Joint-Chairperson for the Unduk Ngadau Organising Committee.


Everyone is welcome

While both festivals have retained much of their traditional ways, they have also evolved to reflect contemporary realities. During Gawai, members of the public are welcomed to the longhouses on the second day onwards where they are treated to tuak and other local delicacies. Visitors can enjoy the Ngajat dance, performed by members of the longhouse, and have a go at Magunatip, a game and dance hybrid using bamboos poles.

“While most of us live in the city now, we still visit our relatives in longhouses during Gawai,” says Jason Sim, a mechanical engineer based in Kuching.

“The best part for me is preparing the tuak ahead of the festivities,” he adds, explaining that the process is an intricate, month-long effort.

For Lawrence, who is based in KL, Gawai can be celebrated anywhere.

“My late Aki (grandfather) said that wherever you Gawai, you must observe the spreading of the mat ritual as a sign that the festivities have commenced,” he says.  

“Gawai has been adapted by Sarawakians of all religions, even in the same longhouse. Some replace their tuak with non-alcoholic drinks, and during the miring ritual, Christians and Muslims offer prayers or doa in their own way,” he explains.

Kadazan-Dusun-Muruts, many of whom are Christians nowadays, also continue to celebrate Kaamatan, for the sake for tradition, history and reunions, that are also open to the public. Those interested can observe or participate in fun activities like Mipulos (knuckle wrestling), Migayat Lukug (tug-of-war) and Sugandoi (a singing competition).

KL-based CSR Manager, Berlina Doyou has replicated some of the delicious foods and graceful cultural events with her family: “When we cannot head home to Sabah during Kaamatan, we get together with our Sabahan friends and family in KL instead.

We make it an all-out celebration of foods, fun and family. We even perform the Sumazau dance!”