The Thai greeting referred to as the wai (Thai: ไหว้, pronounced [wâi]) consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. It has its origin in the Indian Añjali Mudrā, like the Indian namaste and the Cambodian sampeah. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing. The wai is traditionally observed upon formally entering a house. After the visit is over, the visitor asks for permission to leave and repeats the salutation made upon entering. The wai is also common as a way to express gratitude or to apologise.
The word often spoken with the wai as a greeting or farewell is sawatdi (RTGS for สวัสดี, pronounced [sàwàtdiː], sometimes romanized as sawasdee). This verbal greeting is usually followed by kha when spoken by a female and by khrap when spoken by a male person (see note on Thai polite particles). The word sawatdi was coined in the mid-1930s by Phraya Upakit Silapasan of Chulalongkorn University. Derived from the Sanskrit svasti (meaning "well-being"), it had previously been used in Thai only as a formulaic opening to inscriptions. The strongly nationalist government of Plaek Pibulsonggram in the early 1940s promoted its use amongst the government bureaucracy as well as the wider populace as part of a wider set of cultural edicts to modernise Thailand.
Waiing remains to this day an extremely important part of social behavior among Thais, who are very sensitive to their self-perceived standing in society. Foreign tourists and other visitors unaccustomed to the intricacies of Thai language and culture should not wai someone younger than them except in return for their wai. However, one should always return a wai that is offered as a sign of respect. Corporate wais, such as those performed by convenience store cashiers, generally are reciprocated with a smile or a nod.
If one receives a wai while carrying goods, or for any reason that makes returning it difficult, one should still show their respect by making a physical effort to return it as best as possible under the circumstances.
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The wai may have developed from an ancient greeting, which is said to have shown neither individual had any weapons. There exist several versions of the greeting based on social class, gender, and age. The gesture may come from Buddhism, which sometimes involves prostration, or clasping the hands palms together and bowing to the ground. The gesture first appears c. 4,000 years ago on the clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.
Similar gestures in other countries
In Indonesia, wai-like gestures are in use in various parts of the country, in the royal courts of Java it is called sembah, and also common in Lombok and Bali, where Hinduism and Buddhism is or has been widely practiced. In Bali the greeting word spoken during the sembah is om swastiastu, which is equivalent to sawatdee in Thai. Both originated from the Sanskrit svasti. In Sanskrit svasti means "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."
In Laos and Cambodia, similar greetings—called nop (ນົບ) and sampeah (សំពះ), respectively—are also in use.
In Malaysia and Brunei, it was historically used to convey thanks or salutations to a patron or higher personage, with the hands raised to a level in accordance with the rank or caste of the individual to whom it was directed. It is still used in the presence of Malaysian or Bruneian royalty.
In Sri Lanka a similar gesture is used with the word in Sinhalese language "Ayubowan", meaning, "may you live longer".
It is commonly used to greet people in India.
Although not used as a greeting gesture, similar gestures (the clasping of hands at the stomach, chest or chin) are known in the Philippines to convey heartfelt gratitude to a helper or benefactor, especially if that benefactor's social status is above that of the one who is assisted. This has its origins in the pre-Hispanic and pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist beliefs and customs of the area. It is still used as a salutation before and after the pangalay dance of the Tausug and Bajau peoples of the Sulu Archipelago.
- Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Thai traditional salutation, Thai culture Series no. 14, The Fine Arts Department, Bangkok, Thailand, 1963
- Barmé, Scot (1993). Luang Wichit Wathakan and the creation of a Thai identity. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 176. ISBN 978-981-3016-58-3.
- Chad Greenwood Economics of the Indus Valley Civilization
- "How should I greet a Balinese?".
- "Om Swastyastu".
- Diller, Anthony (1991). National Identity and Its Defenders. Chapter 4: "What Makes Thai Central Language". ISBN 974-7047-20-9.
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