Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art

Worship of the Buddha, possibly depicting the Buddha’s First Sermon, Buddhist relief, Indian Andhra Pradesh, Gummadidurru, Amaravati style, Andhra dynasty, 3rd century, limestone, 52.3 x 34.6 x 6 cm, anonymous gift, Cincinnati Art Museum. Handprints and Footprints of the Buddha

The physical marks of the Buddha appear again and again through Buddhist literatures in Asia, because of the profound importance of the Buddha’s body. To behold the body of a Buddha is considered a great blessing. The marks that adorn the body of the Buddha are also signs of his attainment, seen as the literal embodiment of his virtue. Therefore, handprints and footprints of Buddhist art acquired great significance for pilgrims.

According to tradition, the feet of the Buddha are marked with thousand-spoked wheels, relating to the wheel as a symbol of Buddhism and used for the Buddha’s teaching ‘the turning of the wheel of dharma’. These marks represent the dominion of his dharma wherever he walked, only visible as he lay down on his right side before he passed into nirvana – and are found on recumbent statues that are popular in Southeast Asia. Buddha’s footprints can be found all over Asia with connected stories on how the Buddha placed them in various locations. The cult of the Buddha’s footprints is so strong that Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand claim to have footprints that were actually made by the Buddha, with pilgrims still receiving blessings from seeing them today.

Powerful Signs

Handprints and footprints are two of civilisation’s most powerful signs. Simultaneously mysterious and familiar, imprints are engaging symbols that provoke an innate response from the viewer. They signify both absence and presence and convey the immediacy of physical contact, the aspiration to a future goal, hands to be touched and shoes to be filled. They evoke feelings ranging from loss to nostalgia to hope and are often associated with magic and with importance. It is impossible to pin down any one meaning for handprints and footprints, and this multivalence is perhaps part of their appeal to the viewer.

As symbols, handprints and footprints appear in many places around the world and across history, from the Chauvet caves in the Ardèche region of France, where negative handprints were created 30,000 years ago; to the Amazon Basin, where Paleoindians included handprints in paintings that are 11,000 years old to the Ain Dara temple in Syria, where carved footprints on the floor date to the 10th century BC; to western Sweden, where coastal rock in Bohuslan is carved with footprints dated to 1500-400 BC; and to the contemporary world of Hollywood, where the handprints and footprints of movie stars are still the main attraction in the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilisations, too, adopted footprints, and to a lesser extent handprints, as symbols.

Veneration of Footprints and Handprints

Many of the world’s religions venerate handprints and footprints; prints made by the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Vishnu are all worshipped today. Handprints and footprints achieved a noteworthy popularity as symbols in Buddhism, however, and their varied forms and contexts are the topic of this exhibition. For thousands of years and across thousands of miles, handprints and footprints have evoked the presence not only of the Buddha, but of other venerated persons as well, and is some cases, inspires the reverence of worshippers. In addition, respect and devotion to the Buddha and to a Buddhist teacher, and blessings and special capabilities or powers can all be elicited by the presence of a handprint or footprint.

In Buddhism, as in other religions, when a revered person has touched or come into contact with something, that object reverberates with a residue; the object becomes a relic. And as relics, handprints and footprints represent important loci for worship because they establish an earthly presence of their maker, who may have passed away forever into nirvana. Literary evidence indicates that this concept applies to both real (from the perspective of the devout and man-made footprints of Shakyamuni Buddha, both of which are called buddhapada (footprints of the Buddha) in Sanskrit. An inscription composed by a Thai king in 1357 to accompany the copy of a Sri Lankan buddhapada he was installing locally, declares that worshipping the footprint ‘will bring the same advantages as worshipping the Buddha himself’. In Buddhist art and literature, footprints appear much more frequently than handprints, although both are described in inscriptions and texts

The concept of transferring a residue of someone’s blessings through touch appears throughout Buddhist literature and is probably pre-Buddhist in concept. Ancient female nature spirits (yakshi), which were incorporated into the fold of Buddhism by the 1st century BC, were often depicted as voluptuous figures that can transfer their fecundity to a tree, causing it to flower, by touching it or kicking it with their feet. In Buddhism, teachers often bless their disciples or worshippers by placing their hands atop the student’s head. The importance of contact, such as that implied by a handprint or footprint, is illustrated by the many pilgrimage sites in India that are associated with places that the Buddha is said to have visited.

There is a common conception among Buddhists regarding the power of footprints and handprints: because they represent contact with a holy person, they are not viewed as merely passive and unresponsive objects of worship but are actually through to emit blessings or possess other miraculous capabilities.

Cult of Buddha’s Footprints – Buddhapada

Although the Buddha’s traditional life story does not mention travel outside of northeastern India, the cult of Buddha’s footprints is so strong that Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Burma, as well as Thailand, claim to have footprints that were actually made by the Buddha. Many of these buddhapada mark important pilgrimage sites today. That most are enormous does not affect the fact that they are unquestionably accepted by the worshipper as footprints made by Shakyamuni Buddha. One of the most famous footprints, for example, the buddhapada atop Sumanakuta, the Sri Lankan mountain commonly referred to as Adam’s peak, is more than 5.5 ft long and 2.5 ft wide at the ball of the foot.

Differing cultural and religious contexts shaped the form and meaning of the prints from country to country and from time period to time period, and their appearance ranges from an actual unmodified imprint to one that is superhuman in size and covered with symbols. To aid in their analysis, the objects assembled have been organised into five categories beginning with a section that introduces the more general roles played by hand and feet in Buddhist art. The rest of the pieces are grouped according to their place or origin: India, Tibet, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. In Tibet, handprints and footprints took on added meanings, which in some cases are highly esoteric.

Gathered together at Katonah Art Museum for the first time were more than two-dozen examples of handprints and footprints on Tibetan paintings (thangkas), almost half of the known corpus. These thangkas have been divided into subcategories that correspond in composition, date, iconography, size and medium.

The custom of using handprints or fingerprints as signatures or seals was prevalent in Tibet. The earliest documents bearing fingerprints date to the 9th century. Handprints, in particular, were used to mark significant documents such as treaties and decrees. Perhaps the most famous handprints in Tibet, those of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Losang Gyatso (1617-1682), appear at the bottom of a proclamation he issues in 1679 entrusting the administration of his political affairs to his young regent Sangye Gyatso (1652-1703). On the proclamation, the Dalai Lama’s handprints signify his continued presence and authority behind what may have been an unpopular edit. On a less exalted level, cotton cloths bearing the handprints of a lama are used for a variety of folk purposes.

For centuries, families across Tibet have owned and revered such cloths. Like prints found in the landscape, these cloths are used to subjugate the forces of natures – to ward off hail storms or other bad weather. They are also thought to carry healing powers. As potent objects, these cloths are treasured items and are usually kept in a box or hung near the family’s altar.

Handprints and Footprints in Thangkas

Handprint and footprint thangkas may also represent blessings from the a teacher. In Buddhism, raised hands can also suggest protection, as expressed by abhayamudra (the gesture of ‘fear not’). Tibetan handprint and footprint thangkas can be roughly organised into five categories with the paintings in each category corresponding generally in composition, date, iconography, technique, support material, and ritual function. There are paintings with footprints flanking a deity and/or a lama, with handprints and footprints flanking a lama or king with handprints (no footprints), and with handprints and footprints in the landscape. The fifth category contains handprints and footprints that were used in consecrations. However, it is important to emphasise that these categories are overlapping and fluid.

In China, thangkas were often bought as souvenirs by pilgrims who visited Wutaishan (Five Terrace Mountain) in northern China, believed to be the abode of the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri. An example of this type of Chinese thangka was on display in the exhibition, showing Tibetan-style painting surrounding the pair of buddhapada enforcing the links with Tibet. This thangka also depicts deities usually associated with the Geluk tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Solitary objects, rather than paintings, of footprints of the Buddha are found in both northern and southern regions of India, with buddhapada from the Gandharan regions in the north tending to be simpler, displaying only a few of the auspicious symbols. In the exhibition, the Gandharan pair of buddhapada show the typical motifs and are carved into the stone as if to show that the Buddha had trodden there. Other stone sculptures, such as reliefs, also show buddhapada.

Architectural Fragments

An example of an architectural fragment from the Cincinnati Art Museum shows buddhapada, an empty throne, and the fiery pillar. The footprints appear on the footrest in front of the throne with the toes facing the viewer, as if the Buddha was actually seated there. That these footprints are an integral part of the scene is indicated by the kneeling devotee to the right, whose gaze is directed towards them rather than to where the Buddha’s body would be. Although the exact subject of this scene is not clear, the presence of the two deer at the bottom is suggestive of the Buddha’s First Sermon, in a deer park outside Sarnath in eastern India.

The use of handprints and footprints in art spans virtually all Buddhist realms and epochs over the past 2,000 years. The objects that were gathered for this exhibition reflected this range and depth of meaning in Buddhist cultures. Works in the exhibition came from India, Pakistan, Tibet, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, China and Japan and dated from the 2nd century BC to the 20th century.

The exhibition at Katonah was not all-encompassing as, of course, handprints and footprints also appear in the art of Buddhist countries that were not included in the show, such as pieces from Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia, however, this exhibition could not be encyclopaedic. Instead, Eternal Presence offered an overview of the varied manifestations of handprints and footprints, concentrating on Tibet, where they are frequent elements of this style of art found throughout the centuries in the region.

From our From the Archives series, Eternal Presence: Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art, from 17 October to 9 January, 2005, first shown at the Katonah Museum of Art, New York, katonahmuseum.org

A large part of the article is an extract by the curator Kathryn H Selig Brown, taken from the catalogue Eternal Presence: Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art