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All You Need To Know About Kaamatan And Gawai – Malaysia’s Harvest Festivals

To most West Malaysians, “Kaamatan” and “Gawai” barely register in their vocabulary. But to East Malaysians, the two festivals are as important as Ramadan and Chinese New Year.

The Harvest Festival falls squarely in the middle of the year and is one of the biggest celebrations in East Malaysia full of good fun, cheer, and rice wine[1].

However, not many people outside of East Malaysia are familiar with the holiday and Kaamatan and Gawai are mistakenly thought to be interchangeable.

This article will show you that this is not the case. We will highlight the history of the Harvest Festival and how it has changed in our modern era.

Kaamatan in Sabah

Fun fact: Bobohizan high priestesses were traditionally a role for women only!
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CEphoto, Uwe Aranas) (Source: The Rakyat Post)

Although both are harvest festivals celebrating the rice harvest in the middle of the year, Kaamatan and Gawai are not the exact same thing.

Kaamatan is celebrated by the Kadazan-Dusun people of Sabah and stems from native belief of Momolianism, in which the earth is a gift from the creator and so after each harvest, the creator must be given thanks[2].

In Kadazan-Dusun culture, Kaamatan is held in honour of Huminodun’s sacrifice. According to legend, Huminodun was the daughter of the god Kinoringan who punished the humans who had forgotten him with a devastating famine. As the human starved, Huminodun sacrificed herself and her body transformed into lush food and crops that saved humankind[2].

Although Kaamatan lasts for the whole month of May, the date it ends is a public holiday chosen by the Bobohizan[2].

The state government has always supported cultural and religious celebrations and programmes. We believe that cultural events can strengthen the unity of the multiracial community and help us to recognise, understand and appreciate the customs and culture of each tribe.

The diversity of culture and heritage with the harmony of 35 ethnicities and 217 sub-ethnicities in Sabah has made the “Land Below The Wind” a unique place for everyone. – Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor[3]

Hari Gawai in Sarawak

Traditional Dayak clothing include accessories from hunts: feathers, fur, and pelt.
(Photo credit: Abdul Malik Mohd Eusoff/Flickr) (Source: The Rakyat Post)

Hari Gawai or Gawai Dayak, meanwhile, is celebrated in Sarawak on June 1st by the Dayak people. Gawai is more of a Thanksgiving festival to express gratitude towards the bountiful yields and celebrate unity as well as the planning of future prospects[4].

Hari Gawai was officially recognised and first celebrated formally on June 1, 1965. Before that, the Dayak people would typically begin the festivities after the harvest season in April or May[4].

Instead of the observation of a sacrifice, Gawai Dayak focuses more on providing offerings and ritualistic actions to give thanks during the harvest festival, as well as to refresh blessings, protection, and general luck of the people. All gods, good spirits, and even ghosts are invited to the Gawai feast made of traditional foods[2].

Far greater emphasis is placed on the physical representations of nature, such as conducting hunting trips in preparations for Gawai Dayak, repairing longhouses, and decorating with nature-based murals of tree and wild animal motifs[2].

On Gawai eve, the Iban community conducts blessings and thanksgiving ceremonies called miring, with offerings to the departed ancestors, deities and spirits. – Agustus Sapen, director of the Borneo Hornbill Festival and tuak brewer[4]

Following the more serious venerations and ceremonies on Gawai eve, the celebrations become much merrier. On the second day, longhouses are opened up to guests in a practice called ngabang. Ngabang can continue until the end of June, seeing a steady procession of friends and visitors for a full month.

During that time, a potluck of traditional food and drinks are offered and gifted to guests including the well-known rice wine, tuak[2] while pigs and chickens are slaughtered, and their meat cooked in bamboo logs to make the traditional dish lulun[4]. This potluck system would ensure that food is always ready for the hungry and ensures everyone can still take part in the celebrations.

Various fun activities are also conducted.

The Dayaks erect a tree of life called ranyai as a backdrop to performances of the ngajat dance, sword dance (bepencha) or self-defence martial art (bekuntau). – Agustus Sapen, director of the Borneo Hornbill Festival and tuak brewer[4]

The Ngajat dance, in particular, was considered an important means of showing gratitude to the gods and the spirits of nature such as to the trees around the longhouse for staying strong and protecting the residents against mudslides and is accompanied by performances of traditional musical instruments, such as gongs and drums in various sizes, without any singing[1].

The Ngajat dance showcases Iban’s beautiful traditional wear and colourful drums used.
(Credit: John Ragai/Flickr) (Source: The Rakyat Post)

On the eve of Gawai, everyone will take part in the traditional Ngajat dance. It is a dance created to give thanks to the gods who took care of the crops, from their growth until the harvesting season. Ngajat has a lot of intent. – Agas, a 43-year-old Iban who is currently living in Petaling Jaya[1]

While most Sarawakians will fly back to their hometown at the end of May, the few who stay in KL during Gawai will organise small gatherings among themselves, visit open houses or celebrate in pubs and clubs organising pre-Gawai celebrations[4].

In The Modern Era

Whether it is Kaamatan or Gawai, both festivals remain important in East Malaysian culture, as they give thanks for the bountiful harvests and bring family and friends closer together in a celebration of unity.

As the world started to become smaller, both festivals had to adapt.

Source: The Star

Although nearly 75% of Kadazan-Dusuns are Christians, they still keep the tradition alive for the sake of tradition, history, and reunion[2]. Of course, they still have to modernise it and today, Kaamatan includes an annual beauty pageant called Unduk Ngadau, one of the most uniquely recognizable cultural events in Sabah[2].

This year, Sabah plans to globalise the Kaamatan festival through digitalisation and links with the United Nations[5].

The state plans to use Sabah TV broadcasts and social media platforms, including TikTok and YouTube, to internationalise the festival. – Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan[5]

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan hopes to organise international celebrations in Australia, New Zealand and beyond and invites those in foreign countries to celebrate the Kaamatan festival together[6].

To help with those international efforts, the government will collaborate with the United Nations Biodiversity Centre to conserve endangered plants, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for food security, and with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to register some aspects of Kaamatan at the international level[5].

We hope to be able to make Kaamatan festival a culture and tradition that is shared throughout the world. – Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan[6]

Traditions meet modern technology (Source: The Rakyat Post)

Likewise, Gawai has also become more modernised. Agas, a 43-year-old Iban who is currently living in Petaling Jaya, has lived through several decades of Gawai celebrations and thus was able to notice that technology had its way into the festival[1].

The night is still filled with music and dance, but the traditional Ngajat music has made way for karaoke machines that everyone can take part in and sing until daybreak. He also notes that not many families brew their own tuak or cook big potluck meals anymore, instead choosing to buy them from outside to save on effort[1].

At the same time, however, technology has also enabled friends and family to grow closer as the geographical distance is covered by connectivity. In recent decades, the push for technology and internet connectivity allowed these cultural practices, festive celebrations, and local stories to be more widely shared[1].

A traditional rice wine drink in a modern plastic cup and straw.
(Credit: John Ragai/Flickr) (Source: The Rakyat Post)

Many, like Agas, have not returned to their hometown for such celebrations for years. Yet they never missed the chance to jump on a video call with their family and loved ones, watching videos and live streams of the village celebrations, hosted by those who stayed[1].

Where Can We Celebrate The Harvest Festival?

If you’re a West Malaysian and are interested in experiencing this important part of Malaysian culture, you can celebrate Kaamatan without having to fly all the way to Sabah.

Following the launching ceremony on May 1st, Kaamatan celebrations will be held throughout Peninsular Malaysia, such as in Johor on May 5th, Melaka (May 6th) and Klang Valley (May 13th)[6].

Photo: Agustus Sapen (Source: Time Out)

As mentioned above, you can also celebrate Gawai in KL at various bars and pubs celebrating the harvest festival such as Bottle & Boar and more[4].

Explore our sources

  1. A. Dorall. (2021). Gawai: The East Malaysian Harvest Festival, Then And Now. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  2. A. Dorall. (2020). No, Kaamatan And Gawai Are Not Interchangeable. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  3. M. Vanar. (2023). Sabah’s month-long Kaamatan festival kicks off May 1. The Star. Link.
  4. Time Out. (2018). What you need to know about: Hari Gawai. Link.
  5. E. Anjumin. (2023). Sabah to make Kaamatan a global event. New Straits Times. Link.
  6. Bernama. (2023). Jeffrey: Kaamatan a festival for all. The Sun Daily. Link.

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