Bangkok, 6 July 2015
A couple of river-bus stops downriver from where my wife and I live in Bangkok stands the temple Wat Pho, whose main claim to fame is a large reclining Buddha.
It is, I read, 46 metres long and 15 metres high, and walking along it certainly is impressive. But I much prefer the soles of the statue’s feet.
These soles have been divided into 108 panels each of which contains, in the form of mother-of-pearl inlays, the 108 auspicious symbols by which the Buddha can be identified, like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories.
Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha was the first time I saw this interesting art form. But actually it is quite common for reclining Buddhas to have the soles of their feet so decorated. For instance, I find this particular reclining Buddha in Yangon in Myanmar more naturalistic – certainly the pose of the feet is more pleasing to the eye than those stiff blocks in Wat Pho.
I later learned that the decorations of the feet of Buddha statues are actually a reflection – almost literally – of a much older iconography for depicting the Buddha, that of his footprint. Before anyone made statues of the Buddha, they made his footprints. They were a powerful way to remind the faithful that the Buddha had been present on earth: “the Buddha passed this way”. Quite quickly, the footprints were decorated with some of the symbols used to identify the Buddha. For instance, this footprint of the Buddha made in the 1st Century AD in the kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now the Swat valley in Pakistan, carries the Darmachakra, the “wheel of law”, and the triratna, the “triple gem” of Buddhism: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Teaching), and Sangha (the Community).
As time went on, more and more symbols were squeezed onto the footprints. And then some bright spark came up with the “positive print”, as it were, where the soles of reclining Buddhas carry the symbols of the Buddha.
Buddhism is not the only religion that has used footprints of its religious leaders as iconography, although it surely has used them more than any other (there is an estimate of 3,000 Buddha footprints throughout the Buddhist lands). My wife and I came across a footprint of the Prophet Muhammad in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul
and there is a pair of footprints of Jesus in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) on the outskirts of Rome.
It is true to say that footprints are an incredibly powerful symbol of someone passing, of having been close by. One of the best remembered stories in Robinson Crusoe is of his finding a footprint on the beach.
“It happened, one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised, with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listened, I looked round me, I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one, I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot; how it came thither I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.”
That footprint struck fear in Robinson Crusoe, fear of the unknown, fear of attack, fear of savagery. But I get a thrill when I see the footprints that some 15 people left 2,000 years ago in the ash and mud on the shore of Lake Managua in Nicaragua.
I get goose bumps on seeing the footprints left 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus near the village of Ileret in Northern Kenya on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.
The hairs on my neck rise at the sight of footprints left 3.7 million years ago by three members of the species Australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli in Tanzania, which show that already then bipedalism, such a distinctive feature of our species, was in place.
I find these footprints a much more powerful reminder of the Family of Man than a piece of jawbone or a tooth. I can imagine my distant, distant ancestors going about their business, as I will go about mine today.
And within the much narrower circuit of my family, my wife and I have two relics, which currently slumber with all our stuff in a warehouse in Vienna but which we will keep preciously until the end of our lives. These are the footprints which the hospital gave us of our children’s feet, made just after they were born; they look like this
They will forever remind us of the great joy which we experienced when our two children entered our lives and for a few decades walked with us before taking their own path in life.
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8d/Bangkok_Wat_Pho_reclining_Buddha.jpg/280px-Bangkok_Wat_Pho_reclining_Buddha.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Pho)
Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon: http://www.heybrian.com/lib/images/travels/myanmar/yangon_reclining_buddha_feet.jpg (in http://www.heybrian.com/travels/myanmar/)
Buddha footprint, 1st century, Gandhāra: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Buddha-Footprint.jpeg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha_footprint)
Muhammad footprint, Istanbul: http://www.usna.edu/Users/humss/bwheeler/images/footistanbul.jpg (in http://www.usna.edu/Users/humss/bwheeler/footprints_pm.html)
Jesus footprints, church of Domine Quo Vadis: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/I_piedi_del_quo_vadis.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Domine_Quo_Vadis)
Crusoe and the footprint: http://www.bookdrum.com/images/books/92999_m.jpg (in http://www.bookdrum.com/books/the-graveyard-book/16401/bookmark/92998.html)
Hominid footprints, Laetoli: http://auth.mhhe.com/socscience/anthropology/image-bank/kottak/chap07/kot37055_0705ta.jpg (in http://auth.mhhe.com/socscience/anthropology/image-bank/kottak/chap07/image7.htm)
Newborn footprints: http://semma.com/Joey/images/Joey/Joey%27s%20Footprints.jpg (in http://semma.com/Joey/photo2.html)