Travel Features > Festival

Gawai Padi
A Street Party For The Rice Goddess

Mike Reed attends Gawai Padi at Kampung Serasot,
and learns that the rice goddess is not to be trifled with.

Malaysia being the multi-cultural place that it is, everybody gets their fair share of public holidays. The indigenous people of Sarawak are no exception; they celebrate Gawai Dayak on the first and second of June every year. Gawai Dayak is an up-to-date version of Gawai Padi, the rice harvest festival traditionally celebrated by both the Iban and Bidayuh peoples, to give thanks for a successful harvest.

Gawai Dayak in Kuching is great fun; those Iban and Bidayuh families who choose to remain in town hold open house, with gallons of rice wine and real longhouse-style home cooking. However, for the past few years I've joined the exodus out of town to celebrate Gawai Dayak up-country, in the villages and longhouses that most city-dwelling Dayaks return to. I've spent the holiday in Iban Longhouses and Bidayuh villages, and I've had a great time in both, but frankly I've always felt the Ibans had the edge.

Gawai Dayak in an Iban longhouse is a non-stop binge, laden with ritual and tradition, during which guests and celebrants lurch noisily from one apartment to another consuming vast quantities of tuak (rice wine), beer, whisky and even fine cognacs, along with an endless supply of home-cooked food. The Bidayuh variant, by comparison, always seems a little genteel, with families visiting one another in the village and indulging in polite small talk and very moderate alcohol consumption. At least that's what I thought until I discovered how the Bidayuh really celebrate Gawai.

For the Bidayuh villagers of the Bau and Singai districts near Kuching, Gawai Dayak is no more than what it appears to be - a pleasant two day public holiday, apparently free of tradition, ritual and history, with the opportunity to visit friends and relatives. I asked some of my Bidayuh friends why this should be, when the Ibans still seemed so in touch with their old traditions. The answer was simple - "We don't need to be in touch with the old traditions during Gawai Dayak. We still celebrate the real thing - Gawai Padi."

A priestess goes into trance as she is
posessed by the spirit of the rice goddes.

1998 Mike Reed
After some further questioning, things became a little clearer. According to my informants, many Bidayuh Villages still celebrate Gawai Padi, but they don't do it all at the same time. In fact, very few of them celebrate it during the public holiday. Instead, every weekend throughout June, each village holds its own celebrations. Intrigued, I fixed myself up with an invitation.

My arrival in Kampung Serasot on a Saturday evening in June was not exactly encouraging. The village seemed very small and very quiet, and there was certainly no party mood in evidence. I managed to find my way to my host's house, and realised I had not come to the wrong place after all. The living room was crowded with people, chatting away and helping themselves to heaps of food set out on the tables.

The whole spread was typically Bidayuh, and I have to admit they have the most interesting cuisine of all the native peoples of Sarawak. Apart from the usual chicken curry, there were such exotic delicacies as tempoyak (fried fermented durian fruit), ikan kasam (fermented preserved fish with black beans) and a splendid pork and red bean stew, with whole cloves of garlic floating in the thick gravy.

Fortunately Kampung Serasot is the proud owner of a large municipal generator, so the abundant cans of Stella Artois were freezing cold - even after years in this part of the world, I still can't get used to putting ice in beer. The best was yet to come, though. After we had eaten, a large bottle of tuak tebu was produced. Tuak tebu is a wonderful, dark, caramel flavoured brew, made by fermenting sugar cane juice with tree bark. It's not particularly potent, but it has a lovely rich, complex flavour and a strong chocolatey finish, and if the rest of the world gets to find out about it, Sarawak will have a brand new export industry overnight.

We settled down to shoot the breeze, as more bottles of tuak tebu appeared and gradually disappeared. Bidayuh people are generally great storytellers, a legacy of thousands of years of oral history, so nobody ever forgets the punchline of a joke. The evening became a delightful after-dinner chat session, with lively animated conversations going on all around me. I couldn't help noticing that there was nothing traditional about the gathering, though. Apart from the sugar-cane wine we could have been anywhere, a bunch of people dressed in the kind of smartly casual clothes Microsoft employees wear on Fridays. I made a discreet enquiry about what the more conservative members of the community might be doing that same evening. "Oh, you mean the ritual. They're still sitting and chanting. The fun doesn't even start until 4.30 am."

That's why I was somewhat surprised to be shooed outside into the warm rain sometime around 11 pm. What on earth were we going to do for the next 5 hours? Make some kind of ritual penance to the rain gods by getting soaked to the skin? Diweng Bekir, my host for the evening, answered with a knowing smile, "That's simple. We're going on a pub crawl." A pub crawl, in a remote (and apparently deserted) Bidayuh village at the end of a gravel road somewhere near the Indonesian border? I began to think Diweng needed a reality check after all that tuak tebu. I decided to humour him - lunatics have to be handled with care.

Going along the main street on foot, I noticed that although the village seemed very small and quiet, it had a very large Catholic church and a sizeable schoolhouse, both far to big for such a tiny little place. After a few hundred metres, we began to see a few people on the street, and a lot of cars were parked at the side of the road. We turned down a side alley and suddenly the whole place was alive with people. The lane was jammed solid with cars, vans, motorcycles and pedestrians weaving around one another, and everywhere there was the sound of Top-40 hits and Indonesian dangdut music. I could have kicked myself. I knew perfectly well that in the past the Bidayuh concealed their longhouses well away from the sight of enemies. It was only natural that this tradition should be carried over into a modern village, with the Bidayuh houses clustered along small side lanes, while the Chinese residents of the village exposed their homes to the gaze of passers-by.

Diweng was not joking about the pub crawl. It seemed that every fifth or sixth house in the village had been turned into a temporary pub or cafe, with long trestle tables and wooden benches laid out underneath a canvas awning. People flooded the street, strolling from place to place and trying their hand at the many different games of chance on offer. It would have resembled a mediaeval village fair, except that nobody was selling anything except food and drink.

After about fifteen minutes of wandering through this surreal landscape, we arrived at a large wooden building set back from the road, with a large bamboo platform outside surrounded by rows of bench seats. This was the rumah gawai, the gawai house, built by the villagers to hold all their traditional rituals, and this was where the action would later take place.

I'd better explain at this point that Gawai Padi is not one single ritual. It is a series of seven rituals, the first taking place before the rice is even planted, and continuing throughout the growing season. The preliminary rituals are purely spiritual in nature however, and are designed to seek the blessing of the rice goddess for an abundant harvest. It is only this final ritual that turns into a celebration involving the whole community, and only when the harvest has been good (which it usually is). If the harvest is poor, a far more sombre ritual of atonement takes place.

The majority of Bidayuh people in the Bau area are Roman Catholic, and only a small number actually practise the old religion, with its animist and Hindu-Buddhist influences. However, Sarawak's legendary spirit of religious tolerance ensures that the festival is celebrated by almost everybody in the community. For the traditional believers it is the culmination of a whole year of carefully propriating the deities to ensure good fortune and an abundant harvest. For the Christian majority, it is a powerful affirmation of their Bidayuh identity.

Inside the rumah gawai, two groups were sitting in circles, quietly chanting. One group comprised the tua gawai (the male spirit medium and leader of the ritual) and the male elders of the village, clad in white robes with colourful turbans on their heads. The other group was the priestesses, wearing colourful skullcaps, embroidered black tunics and skirts of rich brocade fabrics with traditional motifs. The chanting was to summon the rice goddess to feast upon the offerings that had been prepared for her, and to accept the thanks of the people for a good harvest.

Outside on the bamboo platform stood a sturdy altar holding the offerings for the goddess and her fellow deities. Like most Borneo peoples, the Bidayuh believe that the gods have similar tastes to humans, so the altar was laden with traditional goodies such as betel nut, rice wine, tobacco, glutinous rice and freshly cooked wild boar. On the verandah of the rumah gawai, a fair selection of drums and gongs had been set up, and were being played with great enthusiasm by people of all ages.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the drumming; in comparison to the simple beat of the Iban gongs, the musicians wove a complex texture of rhythms that were almost Latin or Caribbean in flavour, albeit with a much more restrained, languid tempo. The nearest I've ever heard to it in Western music is the drumming on an old Rolling Stones number, "I Just Want To See His Face." Obviously the musicians weren't a specially selected elite - anybody who wanted to could just take a turn at one of the gongs or drums. Dewing immediately joined in, and after some gentle persuasion I seated myself behind a massive bronze gong and started beating out the bass line. My fellow players were driven to new heights of energy by the presence of a stranger in the rhythm section, and increased the tempo and volume dramatically. Ten minutes of this was all I could take, and I retired to warm applause, dripping with sweat.

Such exertion in the cause of inter-cultural understanding has its rewards. I was promptly marched over to one of the temporary pubs, and bottle after bottle of freezing cold Carlsberg appeared in front of me. My attempts to pay were laughingly rejected. After a few beers it was time for more exertion. "Come on, we're going dancing" said Diweng. A bizzarre fantasy of a temporary open-air disco flashed before my eyes, and I mentioned this to my host. It was no fantasy; further up the road, hardcore, rap and house music were blaring out to a sweaty crowd of teenage dancers in what seemed to be a hurriedly modified community hall. This looked like fun, but it was not to be. "Kids' stuff," said Diweng. "I want to see if you can joget.."

The joget, fortunately, is a very simple, rhythmic, strutting shuffle danced with the arms held up, and requiring little coordination or fitness on the part of the dancer. That's why it was being performed by a jolly bunch of mildly intoxicated senior citizens, including the village headman. We danced in the rain, and between songs they helped themselves to my cigarettes while I helped myself to their beer. After a about an hour I sat down for a while, and a strange thought struck me. "I'm dancing in the pouring rain with a bunch of elderly farmers, halfway up a mountain in Borneo. I really don't know why, but I'm having the time of my life." Gene Kelly, I know how you felt.

By now it was about 4.30 am, time to get the camera out and watch the ritual. We all trooped down to the rumah gawai and formed a large circle five or six deep around the altar. Half the village seemed to be there, and I feared the bamboo platform would collapse, but these folks know how to build with bamboo and it took the strain effortlessly. After a few minutes the tua gawai led the celebrants out and formed a circle around the altar.

Trying to be polite and not block anybody's view, I was taking a few pictures from the back, when suddenly I felt a violent shove from behind. One of the old ladies had decided that as I had an apparently expensive camera, I should make good use of it, and she pushed me to the front. The white-robed men and the brightly clad women began to circle the altar, summoning the spirit of the rice goddess. The circle of spectators tightened and my self-appointed photographer's assistant pushed me further forward. The tua gawai and his followers didn't seem to mind my hefty presence in their midst and happily chanted around me.

I hate to intrude on rituals when taking photos, but the one of the elders actually ordered me to stay as close as possible and get some good close-ups, rapidly jotting down his address and telling me where to send the prints. There was only one drawback to this perfect photo opportunity. I had come equipped for a spot of unobtrusive shooting, and the telephoto lens at this close range gave me a superb view of the tua gawai's left nostril. I challenge any photographer to change lenses on a bouncing bamboo platform in the pouring rain while rice goddesses are being summoned all around. Nevertheless, this impossible task was completed somehow.

Normally, when you're taking pictures you miss a lot of what is going on around you, but I was so close to the action that I couldn't help being involved. I suppose I could sit down with one of the village elders or an itinerant anthropologist, and write a step-by-step description full of ethnographic detail, but here's what really happened as seen through my uninformed eyes.

After circling the altar a few times, the priestesses sat down in a circle and began preparing the offerings for the goddess. Rice, betel nut and tobacco were wrapped together in small bundles, and the women rose and circled again, holding the bundles as if they were offering them to the goddess. Suddenly a remarkable thing happened; one by one all of the women went into a trance, as they were possessed by the spirit of the rice goddess. They reeled drunkenly a few times, then fainted. As they were falling they were gently caught by members of the audience, and placed in a seated position at the center of the circle. All the while the men continued circling and chanting, and the drumming reached a crescendo. After a few minutes the women began to revive, and were led off by the men into the rumah gawai..

The priestesses recovering from their trance.
1998 Mike Reed
It appeared to be all over, but there was more to come. The rice goddess had successfully possessed the bodies of the priestesses, and thereby blessed the ceremony and accepted the offerings of the villagers. It was only polite to thank her, so the priestesses were led out again to perform a rice-harvesting dance, this time fully conscious. Then it was finally over, the culmination of more than six months of mediating with the spirits to ensure the well being of the community. For people who had carried such a heavy burden, they all seemed in a remarkably lighthearted mood when I spoke to them a short while later.

It was 6.30 am, and time to return to Kuching. Diweng suggested I should stay a little longer. "The old people believe that everybody who is at the gawai comes under the benign influence of the rice goddess. If you leave the village before sunrise you offend her, and bad luck is sure to follow. Of course I don't believe that nonsense myself, but it's best to be safe."

I was exhausted after a long and very enjoyable night. If I didn't leave then I wouldn't get back to Kuching until Monday morning. On the way back, as soon as I passed the boundary sign for Bau district, I had a puncture. I had checked the spare the night before, but when I opened the boot it was flat. My humble apologies, goddess.

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