Gawai Kelingkang: A Dayak Cultural Festival In Defence of Ancestral Lands

Report by: BRIMAS

MUKAH DISTRICT (21/11/99): - More than 2,000 representatives and participants of Dayak longhouse community from various parts of Sarawak together with the Indigenous Peoples Organisation (IPOs), NGOs and foreign delegates celebrated the inaugural Gawai Kelingkang (Warriors Celebration) at Rumah Lipu longhouse, with the theme for this year celebration - "Advance Community Commitment in the Struggles for Customary Land Rights".

On 20th November, the residents of Rumah Lipu1 were all busy preparing for the arrival of participants. Coincidentally, it was nomination day for Malaysia 10th General Parliamentary Election but the participants and delegates were not perturbed to attend the celebration as they have common cause and determination, that is, struggle for land rights in defence of ancestral land to guarantee their survival. Prior to the Gawai, the Indigenous Peoples Organisations in different regions in Sarawak had held community meetings on various issues affecting them. Some of the foreign delegates were exposed to Dayak communities affected by tourism, logging, oil palm estates and acacia tree plantation of the Borneo Pulp and Paper Plantation Sdn. Bhd.2

From afar, one could hear the echo of the 'tabuh'3 signalled the arrival of the 'temuai'4. As the participants arrived, they were welcomed into the longhouse with Iban traditional reception style where the longhouse folks with ‘tuak’5 greeted the temuai. The continuous sound of the tabuh heightens the Gawai mood in the longhouse and surrounding.

The Gawai Kelingkang celebration is a Dayak cultural symbolic resistance against the massive development activities, which mean destruction to their ancestral land and environment. Over the last decades, the natives had protested and continued resisting the encroachment of extractive industries onto their territories and dispossession of their ancestral lands for logging, plantations, dam constructions and infra-structural development projects.

The Gawai Kelingkang serves as an annual forum for the native communities to discuss various issues affecting them; share their problems and experiences; manifest community challenges and successes; and to strengthen grassroots network to support each other in their struggles. The natives from all parts of Sarawak will have the opportunity to gather and renew commitment for community struggles against any forms of destructive developments that threaten their rights and survival, and cause crisis to the global environment.

During the evening, a welcoming reception was held by the host longhouse, the Headman TR. Lipu Ak Ngaleh gave a welcoming address on behalf of all the communities of Sungai Bawang and Sungai Kemena. This was later followed by getting-to-know session whereby the participants/representatives of IPOs, NGOs, International delegates and Dayak communities from whole parts of Sarawak were introduced. Later during the evening, a slide presentation was presented by Mr. Raymond Abin, Programme Director of BRIMAS that shows the plight and struggles of the indigenous people of Sarawak (Dayaks) against the extractive development activities, which exploits Sarawak's natural resources and threatens the survival and livelihood of the Dayaks.

Peak Day - Gawai Kelingkang

Nyambut 'Antu Pala' ceremony

21st November (Sunday) was the peak day of the Gawai Kelingkang. The heavy rain since dawn that drizzled till morning did not damper the spirits of the participants to proceed with the Kelingkang (warriors) procession6. The longhouse folks and Gawai participants were dressed up in their native attires walked out of the longhouse to the ground to welcoming the return of their brave warriors – Bujang Kelingkang. At 9:00 a.m., about 30 'Bujang Kelingkang'7 with traditional regalia gathered at a nearby Sungai Bawang bridge. From there the Kelingkang procession started. They marched toward the longhouse with the shouts of victory from the Bujang Kelingkang accompanied with the beating of gongs. The triumphant warriors, with their two captured heads or 'Antu Pala'8 (symbolised by two coconuts carried in a rattan woven holder) marched towards the Rumah Lipu longhouse. The warriors also carrying along with them the official Gawai Kelingkang flag together with the host community flag.

As the Kelingkang procession approached the compound of the longhouse, a young warrior performed the 'ngajat'9 followed by two gentlewomen with the 'pua kumbu'10 to receive the enemies' head. The war leader of the Kelingkang then placed the two ‘antu pala’ inside the pua kumbu. Amidst the shouts of victory and the sounds of tabuh, the two women lead the procession to proceed towards the 'tanju'11 in front of the longhouse while swaying the pua kumbu back and forth chanting to ask for protection from the spirits of the captured heads.

Before the Kelingkang procession got into the ritual platform, a pig was speared for the offering to the spirits of their ancestors. Then the two women continued swaying the captured heads around the 'tersang'12 followed by the warriors. After seven revolutions, the captured heads were placed in the tersang while the weapons and charms of all the warriors were hung around it. Then all the warriors sat down around the tersang as 4 Dayak elders perform the 'miring'13 ceremony. The 4 elders called their ancestors for strength and guidance as offering were placed in bamboo woven containers. They gave thanks and asked for protection from the spirits and also to cleanse their own spirits. They also made special offerings to legendary 'Keling'14, the Iban's bravest warrior spirit. Another miring was made for the participants and guests where they were given a part to taste.

After the miring ceremony, the warriors performed 'ngajat berayah'15 around the tersang (to the beats of drums and clashing sounds of metal). The throwing of yellow rice and laying curses to all their enemies followed the ngajat berayah. A chicken was then slaughtered, burned over a fire set at the ‘tanju’ and to be eaten on spot. When the chicken was cooked, it was cut into pieces and distributed amongst the crowd to strengthen their bravery.

Once all the rituals were completed, the Gawai Kelingkang flag was raised above the tanju with acclamation from the warriors, guests and the longhouse folks. The ceremony then proceeded with the warriors and all the guests were invited into the longhouse. Before ascending into the longhouse, a pig was jointly slaughtered by the representatives of NGOs led by Mr. Harrison Ngau, Director of Legal & Human Rights Programme of BRIMAS, at the foot of the stairs leading up to the longhouse. An elder chanted to the spirits for good omen to the longhouse folks and also to their guests.

Once they step into the longhouse, they are now called the pengabang gawai (gawai guests) and were greeted by maidens with tuak. This followed by a 'ngalu ka pengabang'16 procession along the 'ruai'17 of the longhouse. This procession took from one end of the longhouse to the next and all this time traditional music was played and the guests were greeted by the warm hospitality of the longhouse folks and served with tuak. The children in their traditional dress joined in and led the procession by performing the ngajat. The procession ended with everyone gathered at the ruai of the longhouse Chief for a ‘Miring Pengabang’ ceremony. All the representatives of IPOs, NGOs and international delegates were asked by longhouse elders to participate by putting varieties of items into different 'piring'18 with guidance and supervision of Dayak elders. Then, the Miring was performed by the Chief, who informed their ancestors that the longhouse hosted the Gawai Kelingkang and prayed for good omen to the longhouse during the Gawai Kelingkang and also in the future.

Penan representatives from Apoh-Tutoh, Upper Baram

In the afternoon, the celebration continued with cultural presentations, speeches and the sharing of struggle experiences by the Dayak leaders. In his keynote address, Mr Harrison Ngau praised the Dayaks as ‘berani’; resilient communities in their struggles for land rights despite the government are going all out to issue grants/leases over customary land to private companies for exploitation of resources and development of large-scale plantations. He stressed to the people that community strength is unity, the people must unite in order to gain victory in their persistent struggle in defence of ancestral land. There were solidarity speeches from the representatives of the Malaysian IPOs and NGOs. The representatives of the Norwegian Rainforest Foundation delivered a solidarity speech represented the foreign delegates. In between of speeches and cultural presentations was the reading of solidarity messages from International Survival (UK), SCC (Japan), EarthDay 2000 (USA), IICPH (Canada), TRANSCEND (Norway), Hasting Trust (UK), among others.

Elam Ak Busang

Mrs Elam Ak Busang, the representative of Rumah Busang and Rumah Bali in Ulu Niah, gave a powerful testimony regarding their resistant to oil palm plantation that had led into a clash resulting in 4 workers of the plantation company killed. As a result of the protest and incident, the police arrested 22 men from their community and 19 of them were charged for murder, where they are still detained in Lambir Prison, Miri. All the participants were sympathetic to their struggles and a generous donation of RM740 was collected to ease the suffering of those families from the two longhouses.

In these present days, the Gawai Kelingkang is a grand ceremony in traditional style where the Dayak elders revitalised and transmitted histories, oral traditions and spiritual knowledge to the younger generations. As to salute and honour the persistent struggles of the Dayak communities over the past years, the ‘Bujang Kelingkang Award’ was presented to TR. Bangga Ak Andop of Iban community and TK Ajang Kiew of Penan community.

For the in depth discussions, simultaneous workshops on issues and strategies on topics such as human rights, alternative development and native customary land were conducted with the participants breaking into three groups of their own choice. For each group, there were staffs from the IPOs on-hand to facilitate with the discussions.

It was solidarity night in the evening. The participants were entertained by various cultural performances from different communities. Even the foreign participants were not left out in the performance. Apart from cultural performances, there were also more speeches from the Dayak leaders of different communities. The reports of the 3 workshops were presented. For their part, the Sebatu-Suai delegation together with BRIMAS staff did a mime on the malpractice and corruption involved in logging industry. They exposed oppression, repression, exploitation, environmental destruction and the unprofessional conduct of government officials by taking bribes from logging company leading to the arbitrary arrests and detention of Dayak peoples. The highlight of the evening came when Mr. Raymond Abin read out the resolution of the Gawai Kelingkang.

Finally, Mr. Mark Bujang, secretariat for the Gawai Kelingkang, gave out momentos and appreciation certificates to the host community for their hard work and co-operation in making this year's celebration a great success. The Gawai Kelingkang 1999 was then officially declared closed at 12.00 mid-night by Mr Raymond Abin.

The solidarity night continued with more cultural presentations and merry-making till the early hours of the following day.


1Rumah Lipu, one of the 23 remote Iban longhouses in upper Sungai Bawang & Kemena of Balingian River area affected by acacia tree plantation of Borneo Pulp & Paper Plantation.

2 Borneo Pulp and Paper Plantation Sdn. Bhd. (BPP) - a pulp and paper company as a result of a joint venture between Asia Pulp and Paper Co. Ltd. (APP) and Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC) has planned to open up more than 600,000 ha of land (more than 200,000 ha are native customary land) in Sarawak for acacia tree plantation and setting up of their pulp and paper mill

3 Tabuh - an Iban word referring to the beating of drums and gongs

4 Temuai - an Iban word referring to guests of the longhouse

5 Tuak – a fermented traditional rice wine of the Dayak community

6 Kelingkang Procession is mainly to symbolise the return of Dayak warriors in the olden days. (For this Gawai, do not be mistaken, they have not gone for a headhunting expedition, although Sarawak was once known as the Land of Head-hunters).

7 Bujang Kelingkang - warriors of the Dayak community. During the olden days, these warriors would return triumphant from their headhunting expedition and are honoured with the title Bujang Kelingkang

8 Antu Pala - captured heads of the enemy. The captured heads were a prized possession and were treated with respect so as to bring good omen to those who kept it

9 Ngajat - traditional warrior dance of the Dayak community

10 Pua kumbu - traditional hand woven cloth with traditional motives of the Iban community

11 Tanju - an open ritual platform specially constructed for the miring or ritual offering ceremony takes place

12 Tersang - a bamboo pole erected with the top end opened up to be used as a platform to hang the offerings

13 Miring- an Iban ritual offering ceremony where chicken is usually used, swayed and sacrificed. There are many types of miring that commonly done for cleansing one's spirit; to give thanks; ask for protection from their ancestors and/or to appease evil spirits.

14 Keling - he is the bravest of all the Ibans spiritual warriors. According to the Iban believe, Keling resides with the other spirits in another world call Panggau Libau.

15 Ngajat berayah - a dance performed whereby the Ibans danced around the tersang to the sound of a drum and clashing of metal

16 Ngalu ka pengabang - a welcoming ceremony for guests at a longhouse during a Gawai festival

17 Ruai - the communal alley or veranda of the longhouse

18 Piring are plates/containers specially used in for Miring