Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints

By LIZ HAGER

Vishnu’s Footprints, 19th century,
watercolor and gold, Lahore, Pakistan, 33.5×29 cm
(photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

In Indian culture, the foot is considered to be the vehicle of humble and base activities. Veneration of the foot of a respected person is the ultimate gesture of humility or devotion. In India reverence is expressed by touching the feet or taking dust from a teacher’s feet upon one’s head.

Among the Hindus, the tradition of vishnupada (the footprint of Vishnu) is an ancient belief supported by several myths. One, Vayu Purana, tells how Vishnu as a dwarf tricked the demon king Bali (Mahabali) into granting him three steps. He stepped over the whole universe, on the last crushed the demon. The Hindus most probably appropriated the custom from the Buddhists, as the footprints of Buddha have been a source of worship since antiquity.  There are other myths of vishnupada—they vary in character and setting—but the Vayu Purana seems to me the most heroic.

Coincidentally, the Islamic faithful believe that whenever Muhammad trod on a rock his foot left an imprint, although this was not sanctioned by the orthodoxy. The Islamic veneration of feet has antecedents in both Judaism and Christianity. When Islam arrived in India under the Mughal rulers (beginning in the 16th century), the worship of footprints was already well established. Thus, it was an easy matter for Muslims to continue their practice, and shrines for the Prophet’s footprint were built across the northern provinces of Indian and in parts of contemporary Pakistan.

Began by the Persians, miniature painting reached full flower in India under the Mughal emperors between the 16th to 18th centuries. Some as small as a few inches in dimension, they accompanied manuscripts. Like the one above, miniatures typically display meticulous and detailed workmanship, warm and vibrant scheme of colors (the colors of India herself) and a charming stylization that often eschewed perspective and natural accuracy. Miniatures embrace all manner of themes, religious and not, but generally depict a particular human activity or crucial mythic moment.

The print above is part of a 19th-century collection of miniatures (in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum) about the everyday activities of the Hindu faithful—worship, leisure, playing Parcheesi. It seems to me the arabesque floral design around the edges and the gold owe something to Islamic traditions appropriated during Mughal times.  It would be fitting if the symbols on the footprints referenced reflexology, but I don’t know that for sure.

The city Gaya in eastern India is most associated with the vishnupada myth and the Vishnupada Temple there is said to mark the actual spot where the deity left his footprints on a rock when he defeated the demon. The footprints are set in a silver basin and are the chief object of worship in the Temple. This miniature would seem to reference the Gaya spot, if not actually, then metaphorically.

Wider Connections
Edward Tyomkin—The Hindu Pantheon: An Introduction Illustrated With 19th Century Indian Miniatures
Feet & Footwear in Indian Culture
More Indian Miniatures

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3 Responses to “Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints”

  1. I am very impressed with the article by Liz Hager, in fact, I will put it on MicroSoft for my study and if she is interested, she can have my study. Please see: The World of Buddha Footprints.

  2. Hager 01 Vishnu FP

    Archive for Muhammad
    Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints
    Vishnu’s Footprints, 19th century,
    Watercolor and gold, Lahore, Pakistan, 33.5 x 29 cm
    (photo ‘C’2008 Liz Hager)
    ……………………………………………………………
    Some additional notes:
    1. It is possible that the pair of Footprints is seated on a throne, which is a Buddhist tradition. The throne or asana had eight sides – eight directions.
    2. It is possible that a chatta – umbrella – above the pada, thus another Buddhist tradition was borrowed/adopted.
    3. Is sprinkling of water going on? If so another Buddhist tradition.
    4. In the case of the throne, it was adopted by Theravada Buddhists in Burma/Myanmar, to be used by the higher ranking monks.
    5. The ‘objects’ beneath the throne remains me of death scenes of the Buddha in Old Bagan murals. Those scenes were not of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
    6. I wish to continue this study but due to poor eyesight and old age, I need a high quality digital to make a large print to study.
    …………………………………………………………………….
    In Indian culture, the foot is considered to be the vehicle of humble and base activities. Veneration of the foot of a respected person is the ultimate gesture of humility or devotion. In India reverence is expressed by touching the feet or taking dust from a teacher’s feet upon one’s head.
    Among the Hindus, the tradition of vishnupada (the footprint of Vishnu) is an ancient belief supported by several myths. One, Vaya Purana, tells how Vishnu as a dwarf tricked the demon king Bali (Mahabali) into granting him three steps . He stepped over the whole universe, on the last crushed the demon. The Hindus most probably appropriated the custom from the Buddhists, as the footprints of Buddha have been a source of worship since antiquity . There are other myths of vishnupada – they vary in character and setting – but the Vaya Purana seems to me the most heroic.
    Coincidentally, the Islamic faithful believe that whenever Muhammad trod on a rock his foot left an imprint , although this was not sanctioned by the orthodoxy . The Islamic veneration of feet has antecedents in both Judaism and Christianity . When Islam arrived in India under the Mughal rulers (beginning in the 16th century), the worship of footprints was already well established. Thus it was an easy matter for Muslims to continue their practice, and shrines for the Prophet’s footprint were built across the Northern provinces of Indian and in parts of contemporary Pakistan .
    Began by the Persians, miniature painting reached full flower in India under the Mughal emperors between the 16th to 18th centuries. Some as small as a few inches in dimension, they accompanied manuscripts. Like the one above, miniatures typically display meticulous and detailed workmanship, warm and vibrant scheme of colours (the color of India herself) and a charming stylization that often eschewed perspective and natural accuracy. Miniatures embrace all manner of themes, religion and not, but generally depict a particular human activity or crucial mythic moment.
    The print above is part of a 19th century collection of miniatures (in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum) about the everyday activities of the Hindu faithful – worship, leisure, playing Parcheesi . It seems to me the arabesque floral design around the edges and the gold owes something to Islamic tradition appropriated during Mughal times. It would be fitting if the symbols on the footprints reference reflexology, but I don’t know that for sure.
    The city Gaya in eastern India is most associated with the vishnupada myth and the Vishnupada Temple there is said to mark the actual spot where the deity left his footprints on a rock when he defeated the demon. The footprints are set in a silver basis and are the chief object of worship in the Temple . This miniature would seem to reference the Gaya sport, if not actually, then metaphorically.

  3. it is buddhist is off shoot of hindu religion

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