Text & Photos by Sophie Ibbotson & Max Lovell-Hoare
The Buddha must have done an awful lot of walking: his footsteps trail from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, Thailand and onwards to Japan. Legend has it that rocks on which the enlightened Buddha stood became imprinted forever with his footprint, and centuries of his followers have subsequently carved, cast and painted their own replica footprints in personal acts of devotion. These holy footprints are known as the buddhapada.
Before there were statues of the Buddha, his followers worshipped his footprints. The humble feet symbolised the grounding of the transcendent and reminded people the Buddha was not a god but a mortal, a real man in whose footsteps – literal and metaphorical – they could follow.
The practice of creating uddesika (representational relics) in the form of footprints began in India, the Buddha’s birthplace. The touching of someone’s feet to show respect was already commonplace both for gurus and deities, and it is likely that disciples would touch the Buddha’s feet (and after he reached Mahaparinirvana and died, his footprints) to show their subordinate position in the spiritual hierarchy.
Some of the earliest footprint carvings were made in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, a little over a century after the Buddha’s death. Asoka Maurya, a Buddhist emperor of much of the Indian subcontinent, commissioned the Great Stupa in the 3rd century BC and with its carvings, he established the central symbols of Buddhist aniconism we recognise today: footprints, chakras (prayer wheels), swastikas and lotus flowers. Each symbol was linked to the life of the Buddha and his miracles, and they were intended not only to be decorative but also to provide a focal point for meditation.
Brahmanical, and later Buddhist, texts outline the 32 characteristics of a great man (mahā purisa lakkhaṇa), many of which relate to the individual’s feet. A great man has feet with a level sole so that he might touch the ground evenly; he has the mark of a thousand-spoke chakra on that sole; his fingers and toes are long; and both his palms and soles are soft-skinned and covered with net-like lines. These ideals were replicated in the footprint carvings so that the Buddha would be associated with greatness in the eyes of the beholder, even though stories from the Buddhist canon suggest that in life, he was physically indistinct from other men.
Buddhist monks and missionaries, as well as traders well versed in Buddhist philosophy, travelled the length and breadth of the Silk Road, actively spreading Buddhism first from India to China and Sri Lanka and then on to Afghanistan, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Indonesia. The symbol of the footprint was distinctive and easy to replicate in rock and temple carvings, in illustrated manuscripts and painted upon walls. It was used almost like graffiti to show where someone had been, to show others the way, and to remind those who saw it of the Buddha’s message in an era when few people would have been able to read.