Sungkem: Tracing the Tradition of Reverence Through Time in Javanese Culture

Sungkem, or sungkeman, the act of bowing and kissing the feet or knees of a respected person, is a familiar tradition in Javanese and Sundanese societies. This ritual is commonly performed during wedding ceremonies and Idulfitri celebrations. Sungkeman is a gesture of respect and is often carried out by children to their parents or by individuals to elders in the family, seeking forgiveness or asking for blessings. This tradition holds historical significance, and its meaning has remained uniform throughout the years.

One notable example of sungkem is found in the Islamic Mataram Sultanates, where it is referred to as ngabekten. According to Agus Iswanto in “Tradisi Ngabekten: Artikulasi Harmoni Ajaran Islam dan Budaya Jawa di Keraton Yogyakarta” (2019), ngabekten is linguistically derived from the base word bekti, meaning “devotion” in Indonesian. This tradition likely originated from pre-existing behavioral norms mentioned in various ancient Javanese sources.

The reverence for a ruler’s feet dates back to the early development of Hindu-Buddhist culture on the island of Java. The oldest recorded instance is found in the Ciaruteun Inscription in Bogor, estimated to be from the 5th century AD. Hariani Santiko, in “The Religion of King Purnavarman of Tarumanagara” (2001), notes that the inscription associates the king’s feet with the divine feet of Lord Vishnu. Similar inscriptions, such as the Tanjung Pasir Inscription in the Riau Islands, suggest that the veneration of feet extended to early followers of Buddhism in the Nusantara region.

The practice of honoring a ruler’s feet underwent changes over time. Initially, it symbolized the king as the embodiment of Vishnu, who, according to tradition, had conquered three worlds in three steps. However, this concept shifted as Javanese kingdoms moved from Central Java to East Java.

An explicit example is found in the Kakawin Arjunawiwaha, composed by Pu Kanwa during the reign of King Airlangga (1019–1042 AD). In this text, Arjuna demonstrates foot worship by kissing the dust beneath the feet of Lord Indra, symbolizing devotion and seeking forgiveness. Similar terms appear in political decrees in East Java, as seen in the inscriptions of Horá¹›n (possibly from the 11th century) and Mula Malurung (1255 AD) during the Singhasari Kingdom.

The practice of foot worship is also depicted in the reliefs of the Panataran Temple in Blitar, East Java. Lydia Kieven, in “Menelusuri Figur Bertopi Dalam Relief Candi Zaman Majapahit” (2014), describes scenes featuring Candra Kirana kneeling before Raden Inu Kertapati. This pair, separated due to conflicting kingdoms, illustrates foot veneration during the heyday of East Javanese kingdoms, involving humans worshiping gods, subjects venerating their kings, and wives paying homage to their husbands.

Timothy Behrend, in “Kraton and Cosmos in Traditional Java” (1989), views the Islamic Mataram rulers as incarnations of the god Indra. This perspective suggests that the transition from the Hindu-Buddhist era to the Islamic era occurred through the ideological framework of Dewaraja. The ngabekten ritual persisted seamlessly during the establishment of the Yogyakarta Sultanate, as its meaning remained largely unchanged.

The sungkem tradition, deeply rooted in Javanese culture, has evolved over centuries, reflecting shifts in religious and political landscapes. From its origins in Hindu-Buddhist practices to its continuation in Islamic realms, sungkem remains a poignant symbol of reverence, devotion, and the enduring ties between rulers and their subjects in the rich tapestry of Javanese history.