Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints
By 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.
Edward Tyomkin—The Hindu Pantheon: An Introduction Illustrated With 19th Century Indian Miniatures
Feet & Footwear in Indian Culture
More Indian Miniatures