Travel Features > Festival

Gawai Antu
Feasting With The Dead And The Living

Mike Reed discovers a great Iban tradition that is still alive and well at Nanga Samu.

Anyone who lives in Kuching regularly receives invitations to all manner of festivals and gatherings. With so many different cultures and religions in Sarawak, it's sometimes hard to keep up with everything that's going on, and sometimes a polite expression of regret is the only way to ensure that you have enough time to get any work done. But one thing you never ever turn down is an invitation to Gawai Antu.

Gawai Antu is an Iban phrase, and means "festival for the departed souls." Although not common to all Iban communities, it is practised mainly by the people of the Sri Aman Division, particularly the Kalaka and Saribas rivers and their tributaries. Gawai Antu is not merely the Iban equivalent of annual feasts like the Christian All Souls Day or the Taoist Hungry Ghost Festival. It is a rare and splendid occasion, held at the most once in a generation for any given longhouse, and usually far less frequently than that.

The valley of the Paku River, a small tributary of the Saribas near Betong, about 250 km by road from Kuching, is a particularly attractive area. The river meanders through rolling countryside dotted with smallholdings, pepper gardens and fruit orchards, which give way to secondary and primary rainforest further upriver. Along the banks of the Paku are a dozen splendid longhouses, sturdily constructed with belian (ironwood) and dating back as far as the turn of the century. The last Gawai Antu to be held here took place in the 1940's, and the people of Nanga Samu longhouse decided back in 1990 that it's about time they had another.

Nanga Samu last hosted a Gawai Antu 75 years ago, shortly after the longhouse was built, so why should it take so long to hold another? The answer is easy - a vast amount of planning and community cooperation is required, and the feast itself is extremely expensive. A date has to be chosen that is both auspicious and practical, i.e. it should coincide with the school holidays, and plenty of advance notice must be given so that friends and relatives living overseas can attend. Then there is the matter of preparation; the longhouse is fully renovated, the accommodation and cooking areas are enlarged, rice wine is set aside to mature, and money is carefully saved to finance the feast itself. Hardly surprising that it takes nearly 70 years to persuade everybody in the longhouse to agree and another 7 years to plan and prepare.

©1997 Mike Reed
Having old friends in Nanga Samu, I was fortunate enough to be invited. Then came the difficult decision - which invitation do I accept? I could attend as the guest of one of the families in Nanga Samu itself, or with one of the invited longhouses. There was a complicated issue of protocol here, as each family in Nanga Samu was responsible for hosting guests from one or more of the surrounding longhouses. In the end I settled for the practical solution; my potential host at Nanga Samu, Christopher Samuel, was the organising secretary of the Gawai, so I assumed he would have quite enough to do without having to look after me and my modest entourage prior to the festival. Instead I decided to join my friends from nearby Nanga Penom (with apologies to my friends from Tanjong, Kerangan Pingai, Rimbas, Danau and Nanga Bong).

On the morning of the 13th of December 1997 I drove down from Nanga Penom with Ted and Su Mei, friends who had accompanied me to Gawai Dayak (harvest festival) earlier in the year and were looking forward to some more longhouse partying. The narrow Paku Road was lined with wall-to-wall Protons and four-wheel-drives and we managed to squeeze into a parking space about 10 minutes walk from Nanga Samu. We were joined by our friends from Penom - Balang, Libau and Joseph - all resplendent in elegant warrior's hornbill feather hats, ceremonial swords and hand-woven brocade waistcoats, but minus the beads and loin-cloth. Iban formal wear nowadays means crisply-pressed black slacks, a starched white button-down shirt, sober necktie and shiny black shoes. They still managed to look incredibly cool though.

Cool these guys may have looked, but cool was not what I felt. Trying to look presentable in the midday heat and humidity of tropical Borneo places impossible demands on my Caucasian constitution, and the sweat was turning my blue silk shirt into a patchwork quilt. I was amazed how the young women managed to look so fresh, dressed as they were in heavy red-and-gold brocade skirts, covered with over-skirts made of hundreds of silver coins fused together, bead bodices and silver head-dresses. I'm sure each of these ladies was carrying about 15 kilos of traditional finery, but the visual impact was more than worth the effort.

©1997 Mike Reed
We strolled over the small suspension bridge to a large holding area just outside the longhouse, and it's here that the sheer scale of the event became apparent. There were literally hundreds of people, all dressed in formal costume, queueing up to enter the longhouse. There had to be over a thousand more inside, because Nanga Penom was one of the last longhouses scheduled to arrive and there had been a non-stop queue of people entering Nanga Samu for three hours. Fortunately the good folks of Nanga Samu like to do things in style, so they had erected plenty of covered shelters and laid on a plentiful supply of cold drinks.

Wandering around outside was a real treat for the eyes. The Ibans are a good-looking people, and seeing queues of dignified, weather-beaten old men and graceful, silver-bedecked girls trying their best to impress their neighbours was really one of life's magic moments. However, all magic moments are short-lived and this one came to an end when we had to join the procession. You don't enter an Iban longhouse with your shoes on, so I had to cover about 100 very slow meters over hot, sharp gravel with my bare feet. I didn't feel quite so put out when I realised that my city-dwelling Iban friends had feet just as tender as mine. Fortunately the final stretch was covered with a thick red carpet, provided for the Chief Minister of Sarawak and other visiting dignitaries.

©1997 Mike Reed
Once you get inside the longhouse the fun starts. Guests are expected to pass by every door of the longhouse and enjoy a glass of tuak (rice-wine) or something stronger. Nanga Samu has 25 doors (i.e. 25 family apartments or bilek), so downing a full glass at every door can leave inexperienced guests a little red-faced and wobbly. Old hands (myself included - I remember what happened at the only other Gawai Antu I attended) just take a small sip from each glass and gulp gratefully from the occasional soft drinks offered.

Once we had visited every door, we were led to our host family, who were responsible for looking after all the guests from Nanga Penom and another longhouse. We were seated, men on the ruai (covered verandah) and ladies in the bilek. Su Mei looked a little concerned until she discovered that the liquid hospitality was just as generous inside the bilek, and it was a lot cooler too. Given that there were 25 families in Nanga Samu, and each one was playing host to an entire longhouse or two, I reckon there were upwards of 2,000 people inside, each one generating as much heat as a 100 watt light bulb. That makes about 200 kilowatts, but thankfully the Paku River area was wired up to the main electrical supply a couple of years ago, so there were fans everywhere and each kitchen boasted a wardrobe-sized refrigerator bursting with ice-cold beers and soft drinks.

In the centre of the family's ruai was a mysterious mound bedecked with pua kumbu (exquisite hand-woven ceremonial textiles). The mystery within was revealed after a short miring ceremony, where the head of the family made a short speech of welcome and performed a symbolic sacrifice. The pua kumbu were pulled back to reveal a treasure trove of liquid gold - thousands of dollars worth of malt whiskies, fine cognacs and rare liqueurs. These people certainly know how to throw a party.

Lunch was served - dish upon dish of curries, roasted and grilled pork, fried chicken, tasty mountain rice and fresh vegetables - just the thing to soak up the rice wine and line the stomach for further indulgences. After lunch, the atmosphere relaxed a little and became less formal. More speeches were made, thanking our hosts for the invitation and congratulating them on the very fine spread they had prepared for us, and everybody started chatting and getting to know each other. After a few hours Ted, Su Mei and I began to wilt visibly. The heat and the drink were starting to make us feel a little drowsy so we headed back to Nanga Penom for a swim in the river and a short sleep.

©1997 Mike Reed
We arrived back in the early evening to find the ritual part of the Gawai Antu getting under way. It is customary to have a troupe of lemambang (professional bards) chant the Iban sagas, the oral history of the Iban people, whilst parading up and down the longhouse. The lemambang perform remarkable feats of memory, reciting rhythmic verses which document the history of the Iban and their dealings with the gods. For Gawai Antu, each lemambang carries a small wooden bowl of sacred rice-wine (covered with cling-film, a practical concession to modernity) which represents the body-fluids of the recently deceased - the favourite drink of the departed souls. The head lemambang in each group leads the chanting, reciting stanzas that are echoed and completed by the four other members of the troupe as they gyrate in a slow, rhythmic dance. This chanting continues until the early hours of the morning, when the Gawai Antu reaches its climax.

©1997 Mike Reed
Of course, Nanga Samu had not one but three troupes of bards, each group differently clad and each trying to outdo the others with the enthusiasm of their chants and the precision of their movements. The lemambang are not shamen however; they are professional poets and oral historians, so there is no question of them entering into a trance state. Instead they happily chat with friends and acquaintances between verses, take a glass or two of tuak or whisky, puff on hand-rolled cigarettes or explain to a city-bred youngster the meaning of the courtly Iban language they are speaking.

While the lemambang were chanting and swaying their way up and down the longhouse, the party was in full swing. Gone was the traditional formality of the welcoming ceremony. Instead, everyone was happily mingling, going from bilek to bilek and ruai to ruai in response to hearty invitations from the various hosts. At this point I lost sight of Su Mei and Ted, who were in excellent hospitable hands, and went visiting myself. However, there are just so many people you can visit, and just so many conversations you can take part in, especially when people are pouring drinks from one-gallon flagons of Remy Martin VSOP. When I arrived back in Kuching, I bumped into a number of friends who said "I didn't see you at the Gawai Antu." I didn't see them, either, which gives you some idea of the sheer scale of a festival like this.

Around midnight, another important part of the ritual took place. All the young women reappeared in their traditional finery (discarded for casual wear during the evening's partying) and everybody who could still stand joined in a long procession, led by the lemambang, to "beat-the-bounds" of the longhouse, driving away any evil that might still lurk in the shadows. The fact that the ladies managed to look so splendid twice in one day was due in no small part to an army of mums and aunties carefully and knowledgeably arranging costumes, jewellery and head-dresses. Their skill in make-up and costume would have earned the undying admiration of any film production crew.

©1997 Mike Reed
The party continued uninterrupted, and I had a chance to chat with Christopher Samuel, the organising secretary. He was a very happy and relieved man, delighted that everything had gone so well and grateful that he wouldn't have to organise another Gawai Antu in his lifetime. He made it very clear that a host of people had been involved in the organisation, including Puan Sri Empiang Jabu, wife of the Deputy Chief Minister and Nanga Samu born and bred, whose formidable organisational skills had ensured the success of the event.

The festivities continued, and the lemambang chanted their chants, until about 3 a.m., when the whole longhouse took on an expectant air and everybody poured out of the bileks into the ruai. The chanting reached a fever pitch, then all was quiet. Each group of bards formed a circle around their leader, and each leader was joined by a male longhouse resident, wild-eyed and in a semi-trance. This was the climax of the Gawai Antu. The holy wine had become the blood of the ancestors, and the only man who could drink it was a proven warrior, a man who had taken a life or had been present when a life was taken. The wine was served by a woman from a ritual basket she had woven a week earlier, to represent the bones and sinews of the dead

In the old days there was no shortage of young bucks who had been in a war party or head-hunting expedition, but nowadays proven warriors are in short supply. Fortunately for the purposes of the Gawai Antu, many Iban join the armed forces, and there were three men present who had been in combat situations while on UN duty in Somalia or fighting Communist insurgents in the 1970's. Each of these seasoned veterans waited tensely while the lemambang recited a final prayer, then seized the holy wine and gulped it down to the chants of the assembled people. When the wine was drained, the men were led away and there was a stunned silence. After a few minutes the bards broke ranks and sat down to a well-earned meal. Gradually conversations started again, and the party resumed as if nothing had happened.

The final ritual of the night was the ngirup bubuh - the drinking from bamboo. Every family had prepared a bamboo flask of rice wine for each deceased ancestor they were honouring. A final procession was held with much chanting and beating of gongs, and the contents of the bamboo flasks were drunk by the head of each household.

I slept late, around 6 a.m., after listening to the remarkable Mr Henry Gerijih - now in his late 70's and one of the first Iban to put their oral history in writing - tell me tales of the legendary hero Apai Saloi. I dreamt of Apai Saloi, and of a Gawai Antu in a 19th century longhouse, where the people had heard nothing of Christianity and accepted everything chanted by the lemambang as the absolute and unquestionable truth. When I awoke, people were leaving; some to return to neighbouring longhouses, some on the long drive back to Kuching or Miri, some to catch flights to places so far away that their ancestors would have measured the distance as "how many months by boat."

The festivities continued, albeit on a much lower key, throughout Sunday. Many people took time out to go to church, and I asked one or two about the apparent contradiction. A very wise old man explained to me. "We are proud to be Christian, but we are also proud to be Iban, and Gawai Antu is the greatest of Iban rituals. Preserving and respecting our traditions does not undermine our Christian belief. And anyway, many of the ancestors did not have the good fortune to be converted and we are doing this for them." This was made much clearer for me the next morning, when we walked to the nearby cemetery, where beautifully carved and decorated sungkup - small huts - were placed over the graves to protect the dead from the cold and rain. The visit to the cemetery, low-key as it seemed, was in fact the ultimate objective of the celebration, which explains the traditional name of the feast - Gawai Sungkup.

That was the end of Gawai Antu, a festival that had been 75 years in the making, 7 years in the preparation, and the end product of months and months of preliminary rituals. It's only after you attend a Gawai Antu that you begin to get an inkling of what it means to be Iban, and what it means to be the friend of some of the most generous, hospitable and civilised people on Earth.

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