There are many of the many perks of living in a multiracial, multireligious country like Malaysia, but let’s face it, the one thing that we mostly care about is the various holidays we celebrate in a year. In fact, Malaysia is the country with the most number of public holidays in the whole Southeast Asia! If that’s not something to be proud about, then we don’t know what is.
There’s Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid al-Fitr) for the Muslims, Christmas for the Christians, Deepavali for the Hindus, Lunar New Year for the Chinese communities, and then there’s Gawai and Kaamatan for the indigenous communities of East Malaysia. But how much do we really know about the last two?
Cultural celebrations are always a good chance for us to know each other and to reciprocate the hospitality shown to us during their festivals, so in the spirit of unity, let’s find out more about Gawai, Kaamatan, and other harvest festivals in Borneo.
1. There Are Countless Harvest Festivals in Borneo
Different groups call it with different names, but the harvest festival is one of the things that link all the native ethnic groups around Borneo. Kinda like the bubble tea that unites the young crowd of every race, creed, and color at SS15.
In Sarawak, the Ibans has a harvest festival called Ari Gawai, while the Bidayuhs call it Andu Gawai/Onu Gawea. Over in Sabah, there’s Tadau Kaamatan, but there are other harvest festivals as well, like the Do Ledoh celebrated by the Kayans. The Melanaus, on the other hand, celebrate their own festival called Kaul, which is part-harvest festival, part-village cleansing.
2. Gawai and Tadau Kaamatan Are NOT Observed by All Native Communities in Borneo
You might mean well, but you shouldn’t just go and wish everyone from East Malaysia a ‘Happy Gawai and Kaamatan!’ because they might not celebrate the festivals in the first place.
If your friends are Ibans and Bidayuhs, there’s a good chance that they do celebrate Gawai. The same thing goes to your Kadazan and Dusun friends who celebrate Tadau Kaamatan. But for many other ethnic groups, their religion comes before traditions, and the most important day of the year for them would instead be Christmas.
As mentioned in no.1, there are other harvest festivals in Borneo. So please bear in mind that Gawai and Kaamatan are not universally celebrated throughout East Malaysia and Borneo.
3. Gawai and Tadau Kaamatan Were Gazetted as Public Holidays in 1960s
The natives of East Malaysia are happy to see the Malays celebrate Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr), the Chinese celebrate Lunar New Year, and the Indians celebrate Deepavali, but they too, longed for their own holiday. They have always wanted a day to celebrate their unique identity even since the British colonial times. Tadau Kaamatan got a head start as it was recognized as a public holiday on 9 May 1960 by the British Borneo Colonial Government.
After Malaysia’s independence, Gawai was formally gazetted on 25 September 1964 as a public holiday. Since then, a huge Gawai celebration is held every 1 June, followed by a month-long merrymaking, while Kaamatan in Sabah is celebrated on 30 and 31 May annually.
4. Not Just a Festival, It’s Culture Preservation
In the past, harvest festivals were celebrated as a thanksgiving for a good yield in an agricultural year, but nowadays it has an even more important role: as a way to preserve the identity of the native ethnic groups of Borneo. As young people move to work and live outside of their communities, they might forget about their own heritage.
But during harvest festivals, those working away in other Malaysian states and even abroad return to their hometowns for family gatherings and strengthen the community bonds. It is a chance for the older generation to pass on their knowledge and celebrate their culture and heritage.
5. It’s Spiritual yet Jovial
Different communities have different ways of welcoming the harvest festival, but they are usually pretty heavy on the spiritual side. It usually begins with a ritual to cast away bad spirits in the eve of the festival. Ritual dinner follows afterward, where everyone chill to have a chit-chat until it’s time for the ritual tuak (rice wine) drinking at the stroke of midnight.
Everyone then joins in for a procession through the longhouse to welcome the good spirits, followed by eating, dancing, singing, music, and plenty of rice wine for everyone!
6. It’s Chock-Full of Fun Activities
If you have your ‘Open Houses’ in West Malaysia, people in East Malaysia are also happy to welcome you and other guests at home. For them, it’s a chance to showcase their heritage and you’re welcome to participate in all the activities.
You’ll have fun playing traditional games like top-spinning and pipe-blowing and participating in communal dances.
And of course there’s the ethnic beauty contests! More than just a show of pageantry, it’s also a way to preserve the traditional attire of each ethnic group.
7. Gawai Is Celebrated in Neighboring Countries as Well
Borneo is an island shared among three independent countries: Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. The Ibans (and their sub-ethnic groups) live in all three, so naturally Gawai is also celebrated across the borders.
Even though it has yet to be recognized as a public holiday, the Ibans in Brunei officially welcome Gawai every 1 June, just like in Malaysia. Gawai in Indonesia, on the other hand, doesn’t have any official date and can be observed anytime from April to June. Not a national holiday, Gawai in Indonesia is only observed by the Ibans, Kanayatns, and related Dayak ethnic groups who live in the province of West Kalimantan.
The Importance of Harvest Festival
The most important outtake here is that the harvest festival is more than just an off-day for the natives of Borneo, it’s a way of protecting their culture in the time and age where indigenous ways of life are disappearing around the world.
It’s time to savour traditional dishes that otherwise hard to find. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to Malay, Chinese, and Indian restaurants, but when was the last time you had native Bornean dish? If you’re lucky, you will also be treated with ceremonial chanting that is simply mesmerizing. Only the older generation knows how to sing these poems, so we have to savor the experience before it’s gone forever.
From all of us at t360.com: Happy Harvest Festival!
Selamat Ari Gawai, Gayu Guru Gerai Nyamai!
Kotobian Tadau Tagazo Do Kaamatan!
GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to various destinations in Borneo. Book your seats now at airasia.com