’Art & Soul

Handshakes in changed times

The gesture substituted all the bowing, scraping, curtseying and hat tipping. Will our fears change this once again?

Handshakes in changed times

BN Goswamy

Nice To Meet You, But How To Greet You? NoHandshake? — Title of an article by Yuki Noguchi

"This is a no-kiss, no-hug zone" — Notice put up by a host at a Party

Ditch the hand pump: it is common sense. Isn't it the most polite thing to do these days to not shake hands but rather, smile at each other, stand apart, and communicate with our hearts rather than our hands?" — Laura Lee Klump, etiquette consultant

Thraseas and his wife Euandria, holding hands. Greece. 4th century BCE

A few months, perhaps a few weeks, ago, the little quotes that appear as epigraphs above would have been seen as utterly inappropriate, perhaps even irrelevant. But things have changed. They have changed because of the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping over the entire world like one of those pestilences sent by the angry heavens above which one reads about in the Old Testament. Everything is changing, right in front of our eyes: economies, politics, laws, international relations, societies. Speaking of the last mentioned, what is changing remarkably fast also, is social behaviour.

It is certainly of interest to take just one gesture of greeting and see how it has been changing across the centuries, but is now under threat: the handshake. What exactly the history of this gesture is no one can say with certainty. There is a lot of material around but it is scattered. One thing emerges from all that reading with clarity, however, that 'its origins are somewhat murky'. It is widely believed that a long, long time back, the gesture was essentially a means of conveying trust: peaceful intentions.

When the right hand of a man held in grasp the right hand of another person, what was being communicated was that the hand was empty: it carried no weapon. And when the hands thus grasped were moved up and down, however lightly, the added intent was to show that nothing was concealed in the sleeve either. The whole gesture, taken together, became a symbol of good faith. In all this there was a moral imperative: the bond was sacred, something never to be broken. There is not much written about it that one can access in the distant past, but occasionally some visual evidence swings into view. Possibly the oldest image that has come to light is a stone relief from the ninth century BCE - that is nearly three thousand years ago - which was unearthed in Nimrud. It shows two tall, imposing men standing: one of them has been identified as the Assyrian king, Shalmanesar III, and the other, facing him, whose hand he is holding, is a Babylonian ruler.

The Dalai Lama’s greeting

The right hands of the two monarchs are seen grasping each other. Behind each stands a soldier, or guard, fully armed like his master. But in the left hands of the kings is a tall staff, its tip resting on the ground: something meant to be seen only as a symbol of royal authority perhaps. What the occasion for this shaking or grasping of hands is - forming an alliance? ending a conflict? negotiation of a marriage between the two royal families? - will remain a matter for speculation, as will be the meaning of the engraved circular sign on the back of the palm of king Shalmanesar.


There are sporadic bits of evidence which keep pointing to the fact that in the ancient world, the handshake was no ordinary, everyday matter. Dexiosis - there is a reference to the right hand here - is the word used in the context of the gesture. When Homer writes, in his two great epics - the Iliad and the Odyssey - of this gesture, as he often does, it is always in the context of pledges and displays of trust. In the Iliad, as an example, one reads, 'Diomedes and Glaucus shook hands' when they realised they were "guest-friends," and Diomedes proclaimed: "Let's not try to kill each other." On funerary stele from the Greek world, of which there are many, there are some graphic, and moving, renderings of couples holding their hands bespeaking of the bond between them that will last in eternity. The 4th century 

stele showing Thraseas and his wife Euandria, as they look tenderly at each other while holding their hands in a tight embrace, is an outstanding example. On headstones raised over the graves of the dead, one finds images of two hands - one clearly male and the other female - held in close grasp: fidelity, love, the promise of eternal togetherness are clearly the theme here. Centuries later, when Shakespeare was writing, he spoke of two characters who 'shook hands and swore brothers'.

Headstone with clasped heads above a Roman grave

Over time, however, this air of gravity, of seriousness and solemnity, that was like a halo around a handshake in the ancient and medieval times, seems to have given way. It has often been held that the transformation of a handshake into an everyday gesture of greeting was largely due to the Quakers who settled in America, and believed firmly in the code of equality between people. "It was they', as a historian states, "who substituted the simple handshake for all the bowing, scraping, curtseying, and hat tipping that was expected in social deference at the time. They refused to call anyone 'master', 'mister', 'sir', or 'ma'am', let alone 'Lord' or 'Your Grace'. Instead they greeted everyone, Quaker or not, as 'Friend'".

Whatever the case, it is clear that things have moved on. In the wake of the virus which is all around us, some people believe that the handshake is going to be phased out as a gesture of greeting. To be replaced by what, however, one wonders? By the unsightly 'elbow-bump' or the 'foot-shake'? By the less than flamboyant Indian gesture of the Anjali mudra - hands folded and humbly joined - that goes generally under the name of Namaste? Or by some other 'touchless greeting'?

My guess? Once the virus goes away - whenever and if it does - things will be back to usual.

Postscript or aside, should anyone be interested.

The Assyrian king, Shalmanesar III, and the Babylonian ruler, their hands clasped. From Nimrud. 9th century BCE

There are three ways in which the Anjali mudra is held: above the head to offer salutations to the gods; in front of the face to offer respects to the Teachers and Elders; and in front of the chest to greet equals or juniors.

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