Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Kissing of the Hands- A Gift from the Ancient Spice Route

The World beyond the Two Worlds

The Philippines is a country endowed with rich history. Its custom and traditions reflect ancient established practices that transform the Filipino society into what is now a vibrant world-renowned community. Much akin to their Asian neighbours Filipinos possess an extraordinary reverence for their elders which is an envy of the west. This powerful cohesive social force remains constantly impacted by historic sociological factors. The responsibility to preserve these inherited gifts rests upon its people who must pass their culture to future generations. One shining trait Filipinos are known for though is the “kissing of the hand” (pag-halik ng kamay). How it became an accepted social norm is still everybody’s guess. Is it something indigenous to them, or is it a concoction of centuries of acculturation?

Long before the advent of the arrival of our European colonialists, the Philippine shores was already bustling of commerce with our Malayan neighbours (including the Japanese, Chinese, and the Arabs). It is interesting to note that in 1521, Magellan’s Malay guide Enrique (first truly to have circumnavigated the world) whom he met in Moluccas prior to his voyage, was described as someone who spoke fluently the dialect of the Cebuanos. The only question is, did the locals used the Indonesian language as their lingua franca, or was Enrique really a seasoned trader from Cebu who frequented the Mollucas?

Spicing Up the Whole World

The Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas) is an Indonesian archipelago in the maritime islands of the Southeast Asian region. The Chinese and the Europeans refer to it as the Spice Islands- five islands of volcanic origin (Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan). They are found off of the west coast of the island of Halmahera, in the Indonesian archipelago. These islands have been the hub of traders from as early as 300 BCE or even earlier. Medieval travellers including Marco Polo mentioned nothing about the Moluccas, but one of the earliest and most reliable reference to the Spice Islands came from the Arab geographer Ibn Khurdadhbeh (ca.850). Until the mid 19th century, Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) has been endemic to the Banda Islands of the Moluccas. Clove (Syzygium aromaticum) is native to Indonesia and India. Both were highly valued food preservatives.

In the 7th century CE, the Srivijayan empire influenced much of the Malay world. Dominating the Malacca and Sunda straits, the Srivijayan Empire managed both the spice route traffic and local trade, charging a toll on passing ships. Serving as an entrepôt for Chinese, Malay, and Indian markets, the port of Palembang was accessible from the coast by way of a river accumulating great wealth. Envoys travelled to and from China frequently. Around 1293 CE, the last of the major empires of the Malay Archipelago defeated the Srivijayan empire reigning over the rest of the maritime Southeast Asia . Geographical and economic constraints suggest that the empire outside its seat of power from Java where connected mainly bu trade.

Buddhism and Hinduism managed its way to Indonesia when trading activity began in the early of first century on the Silk Road. The Silk Road is an extensive interconnected network of trade routes that started 3,000 years ago linking China across the Asian continent connecting East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as North and Northeast Africa and Europe. It bonded powerful civilizations such as Rome and China. It brings to mind pictures of lush desert oases and far-flung crossroad settlements crowded with merchants, spiritual pilgrims, and adventurous travelers from many regions, the Silk Road has become in our time a metaphor for cultural exchange among people of diverse societies, distant places, and different religions.

The continuous trade contacts between the Moluccas and the Muslim merchants from Arabia and elsewhere in Asia brought along a new major religion to Southeast Asia. By way of Sumatra around 651 CE, Uthman ibn Affan, (C. 579-656) sent a group of Islamic Missionaries to China converting some Indonesians on their way. Around 1380, Karim ul' Makhdum, reached the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao converting the animist population into Islam. Muslim influences rapidly ascended northward up the archipelago, reaching as far as the current capital of Manila on the island of Luzon. They did not only bring their religion with them but also saw to it that political systems were established. The first official Sultan of Sulu was an Arab from Sumatra named Abu Bakr, crowning himself around 1450. Like many other Arab rulers, he established his dynasty's legitimacy by claiming to be a direct descendent of Muhammad. Hence, the arrival of Islam to the orient contributed to the rapid decline of the Hindu and Buddhist influences in the region.When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines two hundred years later they were dismayed to see Islamic influence being already prevalent around the country.

Cultural Amalagamation

The Silk Road to China and the spices of Asia did not only bring with them trade but also cultural and reliqious values. Layers of cultural incorporation antecede the arrival of Islam in Indonesia. Hindu-Buddhist traditons is still evident today when a Javanese military officer requires their prisoner to touch his forehead to his warden’s knee. The Indonesian acknowledgement of a superior or a guru is demonstrated by kissing his hand and pressing it to one’s heart or forehead is also a Hindu-Buddhist underlay of Islam. Arab salutation also requires a person of an inferior status to take one’s hand and kiss touchjng it on their forehead. A related practice is also alive in the Turkish culture that they lay claim to own the custom of Hand-kissing. In Europe, it was started by the Spanish Royal Court in the 17th and 18th century, and later on adapted by the rest of the continent in the 18th century becoming a common European upper-class tradition. In Western Christianity, the kissing of the hands began when Roman Catholics, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Catholic bishops since 430 CE started wearing rings regarded as emblematic of the mystical betrothal of the bishop to his church. Custom indicate that layman or clerics with inferior grade when presented before a bishop is expected to kiss his episcopal ring (baciamano in Italian). There is common misconception that performing the act of kissing the hand brings with it full or partial release from sin(indulgence). The pagans practice idol worshipping by kissing its hand when the idol was conveniently low enough. If not, the devotees kissed their own hands and waved them to the image. (Judges 2:18).

If the kissing of the hands is frowned upon in Islam since it is a form of Sajdah (prayer position) reserved only for the One and true God -where did it truly start? Does it mean the practice pre-dates Islam and Christian religion and denotes primordial pagan way? Conversely, is the Filipino way of kissing the hand an off-shoot of the old Turkish tradition when the Arabs engaged in the Silk Road trade via the Srivijayan Empire, or did our forefathers accede and emulated the church’s way of reverence for authority?

Mesopotamia is known to be the cradle of civilization. It is a land corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran. The form and content of Babylonian worship are entirely borrowed from the Sumerians. This is particularly true of the principles of formal worship or the gestures employed in religious devotion. As to the contents of the words spoken during their public liturgies of the Babylonians is no doubt Sumerian. Prayers of private devotion and all the intricate rituals of the magic cults are Semitic Babylonian in origin. The Assyrian religions traces their way of worship to their gods as Babylonian but tends to preserve more the Semitic way of private devotions. Also, the Assyrian liturgical offices were borrowed entirely from the old canonical Sumerian breviaries.

It is my opinion that the practicing of the kissing of the hands traces its roots from the oldest civilization known to mankind and may have metamorphosed to its present form . Very early Sumerian seals belonging to the pre-historic period (3,000 BC) reveal three traditional poses assumed by a Sumerian layman in private devotion, or when he stands before a seated deity to say his prayers.

1. The seal depicts a processional scene, where his protecting god (or the High Priest) leads the layman by the hand to a seated deity. During the pre-Sargonic period, the posture of the adorant’s hand was not yet fixed. There are times when the worshipper’s hands are free and would carry a lamb or a kid to offer. On one seal, the arm is folded across the waist. Quite amazingly, these traits are characteristic of both Sumerian and Egyptian religions suggesting a much more pre-historic contact between the two lands.
2. The worshipper stands with one hand raised parallel to the breast, palm inwards and fingers touching the lips; the other arm is folded across the waist. This is the very ancient salutation by throwing a kiss and is the most common gesture of early Sumerians and Babylonians, and down to the Neo-Babylonian period.
3. The third seal depicts a worshipper standing with both hands folded at the waist. The right hand is clasped by the left hand in extraordinary manner so that the right hand thumb rests on the body while the rest of the fingers lie horizontal to the body.

Before and during the Sargonic period the Semites lived in closed contact with the Sumerians and adopted the Sumerian principles of gestures. A seal dedicated to Naram-Sin (5th king of Sargonic period) represented a worshipper “lifting a hand” to employ a kiss hand “to pray” at the deity. In the period of Gudea and Ur Dynasty (2650-2358 BC), the processional rite was still being practiced, but the disengaged arm is always held in the attitude of praising the deities. During the period of Isin, Larsa, and the Babylonian 1st Dynasty (2356-1926 BC) archaeological evidences suggests that the processional rites with the raised arm gesture was discontinued for the independent attitude. The suppliant now stand with the right hand raised and touching the lips while the left arms remains folded on the waist.

Another best find from archaeology is the stele of the ancient Law Code of Hamurrabi.The Kissing of the Hand was also part of development taken out from the ancient Law Code of Hamurabbi (1760 BCE). Stelae were displayed in temples around during the Babylonian Empire. Of these only one example survives, inscribed on a seven foot, four inch tall basalt stone slab or stele, preserved in the Louvre.

The stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 by the Egyptologist Gustav Jéquier, a member of the expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan. The stele was discovered in what is now Khūzestān, Iran (ancient Susa, Elam).

At the top of the stele is a bas-relief image of a Babylonian god (either Marduk or Shamash), with the king of Babylon presenting himself to the god, with his right hand raised to his mouth as a mark of respect.

End of the Silk Road

There is a Turkish saying, “Alnında yazılıysa olur.” - If it is written on your forehead, it will happen. (on your forehead) (if written) (happen). Whereas, the forehead symbolizes one’s destiny, the head represents the self as a whole.
The practice of the kissing of the hands is a patriarchal tradition. Societies who have accepted this as a model allows a fatherly figure to have influence over the younger family members. By allowing a person of authority to touch our foreheads is a sign that we submit our own virtues and entrust ourselves to the guidance and blessings of who were there before us.

From Istanbul to Xian, from San Luca, Spain to Cebu, the journey of the kissing of the hands has gone thousands of miles and ends up in the Philippines. The quest for the trade routes to the orient yielded not only silk and spices, but golden traditions that unite families, and gave rise to empires and civilizations.

Sources: Indonesian Destinies by: Theodore Friend, Instant Indonesia: Religion of Indonesia, Between East and West by: R. Donkin, Syria and the Holy Land, Their Scenery and People, by: Walter Keating Kelly, International Perspectives on Family Violence and Abuse: A Cognitive Ecological Approach: by Kathleen Malley-Morrison, Marius the Epicurean, by: Walter Pater: Chap. V. Published 1885), L. Paine - Ships of Discovery P. 146, Caeremoniale episcoporum (Book II, viii, nn. 10-11)