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Remembering an old Iban ceremony called ‘Gawai padi datai’

The Iban community is known for having different kinds of gawai celebrations.

Even though we associate the word ‘gawai’ with partying today, the feasting and festivities are actually secondary to the main event of the gawai celebration which is the religious ritual.

Some of the examples of gawai rituals include Gawai Antu (rituals to invite dead souls to their final separation from the living), Gawai Ngar (to celebrate patrons of weaving) and Gawai Melah Pinang (for the deity of creation).

One of the rare gawai rituals that are perhaps no longer celebrated is Gawai Padi Datai.

Betong’s then acting district officer A.M. Phillips witnessed the ritual, writing about it in The Sarawak Gazette on Sept 30, 1955.

According to Phillips, Gawai Padi Datai is held when the harvest is low, and is a celebration for paddy which they believed fell from the sky.

He stated that most longhouses in the Layar, Padeh, Spak, Rimbas and Paku areas had either performed the Gawai Padi Datai themselves or had at least attended one or two of the ritual.

Gawai Padi Datai is celebrated when the harvest is low.

Here is Phillips’ account of Gawai Padi Datai:

A feature of this gawai is that paddy which alleged to have fallen from the sky is brought from other houses to the house which is about to celebrate.

On arrival at the foot of the ladder a babi bland and manok labang (white pig and spotted white chicken) are killed and an offering made at the bottom of the ladder.

From the landing stage (pendai) to the foot of the ladder, thence up the ladder on to the ruai, and from the tanju to the bilik and into a tajau lama run strings, either of decorated rattan or of red cotton threaded with hundreds of puffed rice grains (letup).

The whole house is spread out with mats covering all the ruai and the whole of the bilik.

The visitors with the padi datai sit on the ruai together with 11 or possibly 13 women dressed in white, as men, with feathered hats and parangs, who make the offerings etc.

What happened after the offerings?

After this, during the night, grains of paddy are found from time to time either on the mats or on the ground outside the house.

Stones and animals’ teeth are also found, sometimes on the mats, sometimes in the offerings, sometimes falling from the roof.

All these grains of paddy and pebbles are supposed to bring good luck.

Most of the paddy probably falls out of the paddy bins in the roof whence it is disturbed by the usual rats, cats, or shaking of the house caused by the crowd of visitors.

The stones and animals teeth could also be placed in situ by subterfuge. If it is a hoax it is a big one and is yet undiscovered by the locals. The house carrying out this gawai and who place not a little faith in its efficacy include houses with many Christians. This phenomenon impresses or seems to impress, much more quickly and effectively than such mundane benefits as local authorities, or indeed V.H.F. telephones.

So what do you think? How did the paddy grains, stones and animals’ teeth are found after the Gawai Padi Datai? Let us know what you think in the comment box.

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Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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