Buddha footprint

The world of the Buddha footprint
by Dr. Waldemar C. Sailer

The researcher
Research methodology
Selected texts of the researcher
Publications available
Exhibitions held
The Buddha footprint in various coutries
The Buddha footprint in history
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Intensive research during the last twenty-five years has shown that footprints of the Buddha exist in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, the Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Union of Myanmar. Most of the existing examples have been meticulously examined, interpreted, drawn and catalogued during this period. There are considerable variations between, and within, each country that have resulted from the source texts used in their preparation and the prevailing schools of Buddhist thinking at the particular point in history.

Each footprint reflects a particular time and place in a culture. Construction materials vary considerably and range from alabaster to silver and gold. According to present research, stone appears to be the only material used during a thousand-year period. During the 12th century in Bagan, Union of Myanmar, the footprints were often presented as a pair and in mural form on the ceilings at entrances to religious structures. These depictions were probably used as meditation devices. In Bagan, 78 existing murals have been studied. Some are intact, whereas from others only small fragments remain. Just one Buddha footprint made from stone remains in this ancient city. Although this left footprint has been attributed to the Bagan Period (B.E. 1583 to 1830, A.D. 1040 to 1287), this dating remains in doubt.

When the historical period from 250 B.C. until now is reviewed, Bagan features prominently in the study of the Buddha footprints due to their abundance in this historic and ancient city. Although Bagan is situated in a sensitive earthquake area, a rich and incredible resource of Buddhist relics remains until the present day. More than 2,000 individual sites and approximately 17 buildings with five sides exist and it is likely that each building contained a pair of painted Buddha footprints on their ceilings.

Some footprints do not contain embellishments, iconography or auspicious illustrations whilst others are heavily embellished and contain many icons and illustrations. It is most likely that in one particular period, from circa 100 B.C. until circa the 4th to 6th century A.D., in Sri Lanka eight auspicious illustrations were often used as form of embellishment. During a later period, from the 1st century A.D. to the 4th century A.D., it seems that a tradition of only using eight auspicious illustrations also existed in southern India.

Early footprints have often been complex to read. Readings have been facilitated by the work of Peter Skilling, a Tibetan and Sanskrit scholar of the Pali Text Society in London. In the early stages of the Buddha footprint lineage it is unclear as which foundation texts were used. The material presence of many footprints remains, yet their inspirations are not always known.

In Bagan, all footprints contain 108 auspicious illustrations; others are devoid of markings or illustrations. Our current knowledge of the existing texts suggests that only Pali texts were used in Bagan to create the footprints.

The line drawing of the Himavanta-pabbata, an auspicious illustration, has been extracted from the Shwe Min-Wun site, Union of Myanmar.

Source texts in Pali and Sanskrit have been extensively studied to ascertain their relevancy to particular footprints and to identify the symbols included. Texts studied include the Jinalankara-tika (A.D. 1157), Samanta-bhaddika  (5th century A.D.), and the Pathama Sambodhi (circa 14th century A.D.). The texts have been examined in both their palm leaf and copied forms. The first two texts were Sinhala script Pali texts that have subsequently been transcribed into a wide range of other scripts, particularly in South East Asia. The earliest list of 108 auspicious illustrations used for the footprints is dated to the reign of King Dhatusena (B.E.: 998 to 1016; A.D.: 455 to 473).

A line drawing of the left footprint at Pakhan-gyi, Union of Myanmar, the world's largest Buddha footprint
A line drawing of the left Footprint at Pakhan-gyi, Union of Myanmar, the world's largest Buddha Footprint
The first Buddha footprints appeared during the appatima period that started in the earliest period of Buddhism and which remained strong until the 4th century A.D. Recent indications suggest that the date extends further and that the tradition continued for a longer period in Sri Lanka. This country was the base of the tradition and many Buddha footprint artefacts date to more than 2,000 years earlier. Stone was normally used and pairs of footprints made.

The Sinhala script Pali texts of Jinalankara-tika and Samanta-bhaddika were written in Sri Lanka. Samanta-bhaddika  was written when Anuradhapura was in its glory with the second text written during the period when Polonuruva was in its glory. Each text provides lists of 108 auspicious illustrations; however, an artefact with 108 illustrations has not yet been found in Sri Lanka.

During the Bagan Period (B.E.: 1583 to 1830; A.D.: 1040 to 1287), most of the several thousands of pairs of Buddha footprints were prepared, painted and embellished. The majority used the Jinalankara-tika as source text and it is suggested by some that the text was written subsequent to the establishment of the Buddha footprint tradition. Considerable evidence in Bagan relates to Metteyya, the future Buddha, and it seems possible that the footprint tradition existed there already at an early date.

The list of 108 auspicious illustrations is similar, but is not entirely the same. Copies of each of the mentioned texts were recently obtained and it appears that they are transliterations from the Burmese Pali script texts brought by monks from Amarapura, Union of Myanmar, to Sri Lanka after A.D. 1820.

Excellent examples of the Buddha footprint murals remain that carry syncretic information.   Data was taken from the Gotama tradition (Jinalankara-tika) and the Metteyya tradition (Samanta-bhaddika) to create a composite.

For the first twenty years of Dr. Waldemar. C. Sailer's research on Buddha footprints little was known and the subject appeared without clarity or resolution, as there was a dearth of information. During the latter part of the 1970's, Dr. Sailer's good fortune in having a Sinhala teacher, the late Dr. L.T.P. Manjusri, in Colombo, ensured that from that point onwards he maintained accurate documentation. This was the commencement of the building of a considerable library of the footprints drawings and illustrations that contains now in excess of 600 examples.

In Thailand, the oldest known Buddha footprint, dating to 600 A.D., is located at Sar Morakot, Khok Peep District, Prachinburi province. Dr. Sailer considers that the most beautiful are those from the Sukhothai period, which are based on the Sri Lankan and Bagan Buddhist traditions. However, none can surpass the Buddha footprint presented by the Siam Society to Her Majesty The Queen of Thailand on her 60th birthday. This particular footprint, measuring 50 cm by 140 cm, was prepared in 1991 from pure gold and required one highly skilled craftsman and the constant supervision of Dr. Sailer throughout its preparation. It is now housed within a private hall adjacent to the Royal Chapel at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Research, to date, has indicated that the oldest surviving Buddha footprint attributed to Gotama, the present Buddha, is located at Loka-hteik-pan, Bagan, Union of Myanmar. This example, dating to 1157 A.D., contains 108 auspicious symbols.

Although some footprints date to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it is an assumption to attribute them to Gotama as Pali texts to list less than 108 auspicious illustrations have not survived. Texts in Sanskrit and Tibetan do not list the auspicious illustrations.

An older tradition, in bas-relief, that may number between two to three thousand examples, is found in Sri Lanka. A few pieces are to be found in southern India; however, their composition is quite different.

During preliminary work in the 1980's, done together with the late and most excellent U Bo Kay, Director of Archaeology at Bagan, Union of Myanmar, began with deciphering the palm leaf texts. Although many thousands of palm leaf texts still remain, it was often most difficult to locate them and to have access to them.
Buddha Footprint at Loka-hteik-pan, Bagan, Myanmar
Buddha Footprint at Loka-hteik-pan, Bagan, Myanmar
(Dated 1157 A.D.)

The final stages of complete documentation, interpretation, full understanding, accurate dating, complete reading and dissemination of the knowledge gained of the Buddha footprint are expected to continue for many years still.

2001 Dr. Waldemar C. Sailer. All rights reserved.