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Sembah as part of pendet dance movement

Sembah is an Indonesian greeting and gesture as a way of demonstrating respect and reverence. While performing the sembah, the person clasped their palms together solemnly in a prayer-like fashion called suhun or susuhun in Javanese; or menyusun jari sepuluh ("to arrange the ten fingers") in Indonesian, and placed them in front of the chest, and moving the combined palms up to the chin, or all the way up until the thumbs touching the tip of the nose, while bowing slightly.[1]

Sembah is endemic and prevalent in Indonesian regional cultures that shares dharmic heritage — such as Balinese, Javanese, and Sundanese, as the testament of Indonesian Hindu-Buddhist past. It is cognate to the Cambodian sampeah and Thai wai. All of these greetings are based on the Indian Añjali Mudrā used in namasté.


In Indonesian language, the term sembah means to pay the honour, obeisance, homage or to worship.[1] It also the synonym with the Javanese word suhun. According to Hamka in his book Dari Perbendaharaan Lama the word derived from a Javanese word for position (susunan) of hands in reverential salutation, done with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, and bowing. This arrangement which has some similarities with Indian namaste is called "sembah", which is used to honor and praise. Thus "susuhunan" can refer to someone to give the "susunan" or "sembah" to, or a revered person. Another word for "susuhunan" is "sesembahan".[2] The term sembah however, curiously sounds similar and cognate to Cambodian sampeah, which suggests their common origin or shared connections.

The word sembahyang in Indonesian which is today synonym with Islamic shalat ritual, means prayer or worship.[3] Actually it is originated from two combined words sembah-hyang which means "worship the hyang" (deity or holy spirits).


Sembah gesture depicted in Borobudur bas-relief

Pranāma or Namaste, the part of ancient Indian culture has propagated to southeast Asia, which was part of indosphere of greater India, through the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism from India. The sembah originated from an ancient greeting of reverence that was done to show neither involves prostration, or clasping the hands palms together and bowing to the ground. The gesture first appears c. 4000 years ago on the clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.[4] It is then named as Añjali Mudrā, and endemic to the dharmic culture of Hindu-Buddhist civilization in Indian subcontinent.

By early first century, Hindu-Buddhist civilization began to exercises their influences in Indonesia, and by the 4th century early Hindu polities has established their rule in Java, Sumatra and Borneo; such as the kingdom of Tarumanagara and Kutai. By the 6th to 9th century, Hindu-Buddhist civilization stood firmly in Java, Bali and Sumatra, as the kingdom of Srivijaya and Medang Mataram rose. The images of sembah or añjali mudrā appear in bas-reliefs of Javanese candis, such as the 9th-century Borobudur and Prambanan temples. From then, the sembah gesture is endemic in the region, especially in Java and Bali.

Social and cultural significance[edit]

A late 19th-century photograph of Serimpi dancers performing sembah in keraton Yogyakarta by Kassian Cephas. Sembah is prescribed etiquette in Javanese courts.

The sembah is a prescribed etiquette and much-preferred in keratons or Javanese courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, where it is particularly important to greet a Javanese king (Sultan or Sunan), princes and nobles in this gesture. Sembah is expected among Javanese aristocratic circle of ningrat and priyayi, where the height of raised clasped-hand corresponds to the social stature of the person in question. The higher sembah hands is raised, the lower the body is bowed, the more higher the social stature of the person revered in this gesture.

Sembah is also a common social practice in Bali, where the legacies of Hindu etiquette and customs, are alive and well until today. In Balinese tradition however, the sembah for greeting usually placing joined palms lower than the chin; while the high sembah that rose the clasped palms over the forehead, is usually reserved only for Gods in religious worship purpose, as sembahyang, or known as kramaning sembah.

In Sundanese tradition of West Java, sembah often replacing modern handshake as it done in reciprocated manner; by barely touching each other combined tip of the fingers, then gracefully redraw the clasped hand and raised it to the face until the thumbs touches the tip of one's own nose.

In Javanese and Sundanese version, usually no words is spoken during performing sembah. In Balinese version however, the word often spoken with the sembah when greeting somebody is om swastiastu,[5] which is cognate to sawatdee in Thai, both originated from Sanskrit svasti. In Sanskrit, the word svasti meaning safe, happy and prosperous, and astu means hopefully. Thus Om Swastiastu means: "Oh God, I hope all goodness (safety, happiness and prosperity) comes from all directions."[6] In ancient Indonesia however, it seems that the word "swasti" is said during sembah greeting, as evidence in numbers of stone inscriptions founds in Java and Sumatra that started with the formula svasti in the beginning; such as the 7th-century Kedukan Bukit Inscription that started with: svasti! śrī śakavaŕşātīta 605 ekādaśī śuklapakşa vulan vaiśākha.

Today, the sembah greeting is adopted, especially in hospitality industry in Indonesia. Such as performed by Garuda Indonesia flight attendants to greet passenger prior and after the flight,[7] and also commonly practiced as welcome greetings by staffs in hotels, resorts and spas throughout Indonesia.

In dances[edit]

The sembah gesture is often performed in ritualized Indonesian traditional dances, such as tari persembahan from Lampung, tanggai dance from Palembang, also its Malay dances variants from Jambi and Riau. In Javanese and Balinese dances, the sembah gesture often incorporated into dance movements, such as bedhaya, serimpi, wayang orang, panyembrama and pendet dances.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Sembah" (in Indonesian). Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI). Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  2. ^ HAMKA, Prof. Dr., Dari Perbendaharaan Lama, Page 244, Cet. II, Pustaka Panjimas, Jakarta, 1982
  3. ^ "Sembahyang" (in Indonesian). Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI). Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  4. ^ Chad Greenwood. "Economics of the Indus Valley Civilization". Archived from the original on 2007-12-26.
  5. ^ "How should I greet a Balinese?". Archived from the original on 2015-09-23.
  6. ^ "Om Swastyastu".
  7. ^ "The concept of Indonesian hospitality is applied into several icons to delight the five senses". Garuda Indonesia.

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