Friday, August 14, 2009

Gawai Antu (Ghost Festival)

Lemambang ready for ritual

Gawai Antu (Ghost Festival) is the Iban festival for departed souls, is practised mainly by the people of the Kalaka and Saribas river systems. It is a rare and splendid occasion, held at most once in a generation in any longhouse, and usually less frequently.

The Paku River valley is dotted with pepper gardens and fruit orchards, giving way to rainforest further upriver. A dozen splendid longhouses line its banks, many almost a century old. Nanga Samu longhouse last hosted a Gawai Antu 75 years ago, and in 1990 the residents decided to hold another. A vast amount of preparation was required; an auspicious date must be chosen, advance notice given to friends and relatives, the longhouse renovated, accommodation and cooking areas enlarged, rice wine set aside to mature, and money carefully saved to finance the feast. Hardly surprising that the Gawai only took place seven years later.

The men were resplendent in hornbill feather hats, ceremonial swords and brocade waistcoats, the ladies elegant in skirts of silver coins, bead bodices and silver head-dresses. Seeing queues of dignified, weather-beaten old men and graceful, silver-bedecked girls waiting to enter the longhouse was one of life's magic moments. Guests are expected to pass every door of the longhouse and enjoy a glass of tuak (rice-wine). Nanga Samu has 25 doors (family apartments or bilek), so downing a glass at every door can leave guests a little wobbly - old hands just take a sip from each glass.

After visiting every door, guests were seated with the host family, men on the ruai (covered verandah) and ladies in the bilek. Each family is responsible for guests from a number of longhouses, except for Muslim guests. In true Malaysian spirit, all Muslim guests are assigned to a family with a strictly halal kitchen. In the centre of each family's ruai was a mound bedecked with pua kumbu (exquisite hand-woven textiles). After a short speech of welcome, the pua kumbu were pulled back to reveal malt whiskies, fine cognacs and rare liqueurs, essential ingredients for such an important feast.

In the ritual getting under way. It is customary to have a troupe of lemambang (professional bards) chant the Iban sagas, whilst parading up and down the longhouse. They perform remarkable feats of memory, reciting rhythmic verses which document the history of the Iban and their dealings with the gods. Each lemambang carries a bowl of sacred rice-wine, representing the body-fluids of the recently deceased -- the favourite drink of departed souls. The head lemambang leads the chanting, reciting stanzas that are echoed by the four other members of the troupe as they gyrate in a slow, rhythmic dance. This chanting continues until the early morning, when the Gawai Antu reaches its climax.

Prosperous Nanga Samu had not one but three troupes of bards, each trying to outdo the others with the enthusiasm and precision of their movements. The lemambang are professional poets and historians, not shamen, so rather than hold themselves aloof from the guests they happily chat with friends between verses, take a glass or two of tuak, and explain to city-bred youngsters the meaning of the courtly Iban language they are speaking.

While the lemambang were chanting their way up and down, the party was in full swing. Gone was the formality of the welcoming ceremony -- everyone was happily mingling, going from room to room in response to invitations from their hosts. I went visiting myself, but there are just so many people you can visit when your hosts are pouring drinks from one-gallon flagons of VSOP.

Around midnight, another important part of the ritual took place. The young women reappeared in their traditional finery and the lemambang led everybody in a long procession to "beat-the-bounds" of the longhouse, driving away any evil still lurking in the shadows. The festivities continued until about 3 a.m., when the whole longhouse took on an expectant air and everybody gathered in the ruai. The chanting reached fever pitch, then all was quiet. Each group of bards formed a circle around their leader, and each was joined by a male longhouse resident, in a wild-eyed semi-trance. This was the climax of Gawai Antu.

The holy wine had become the blood of the ancestors, and the only man who could drink it must be a proven warrior, who had taken a life or been present when a life was taken. The wine was served from a ritual basket representing the bones and sinews of the dead. In olden days there were plenty of young head-hunters, but nowadays warriors are in short supply. Fortunately three military menpresent had been in combat, on UN duty in Somalia or fighting Communist insurgents in the 1970's.

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 to a stunned silence. After a few minutes the bards 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 ngirup bubuh -- drinking from bamboo. Every family had prepared a bamboo flask of tuak for each deceased ancestor. 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. The festivities continued in a lower key throughout Sunday. People took time out to go to church, and I asked about the apparent contradiction. A wise old man explained to me: "Preserving and respecting our traditions does not undermine our Christian belief. Many of the ancestors did not have the good fortune to be converted and we are doing this for them."

This was made clearer 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 cemetery visit, 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 and seven years in preparation. It's only after attending Gawai Antu that you get an inkling of what it means to be Iban, and what a privilege it is to be the friend of some of the most generous and hospitable people on Earth.