A carved representation of the imprints of one or both feet of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddhapada serves as either a symbolic reminder of his mortal presence on Earth, or as a ceremonial device for veneration. Meaning “foot of the Buddha” in Sanskrit, the symbol dates back to at least the second century BCE, when it was first recorded among the Bharhut stupa relief sculptures. The motif was reproduced in the stupas at Sanchi and Amaravati soon after its appearance in Bharhut, as well as in the Buddhist art of Gandhara in the early centuries CE. Even after the emergence of anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha in the early centuries CE, Buddhapadas continued to appear in narrative scenes; they went on to become one of the most widespread and recognisable symbols of the Buddha.
Buddhapadas are broadly of two types. The first, generally deemed contact relics or paribhogika, are impressed footprints denoting the Buddha’s actual physical presence and subsequent spiritual passage; early examples of paribhogika tended to be naturalistic depictions. The second type are raised images representing the soles of the Buddha’s feet, commemorating him as a spiritual exemplar; these are considered indicative relics or udissaka. These raised forms, as well as later examples of impressed footprints, are typically depicted in a highly schematic manner.
Although traditionally sculpted or carved in stone, Buddhapadas have also been depicted on or using metal and other materials. They appear often in narrative reliefs depicting scenes of worship or episodes from the life of the Buddha. They also occur as autonomous representations, usually on stone slabs, accompanied by secondary figures such as yakshas and yakshis, minor gods and princely worshippers. The figures are usually shown facing the footprint with hands joined in supplication.
A unique feature of the Buddhapada is that all the toes are of nearly equal length — an allusion to the physical and spiritual perfection of the Buddha. Another characteristic, especially of later Buddhapadas, is the presence of various distinguishing marks and symbols that signify divinity. The most commonly-depicted among them include the dharmachakra, a symbol of rebirth usually placed at the centre or at the heel; the lotus flower; the swastika, a symbol of wellbeing; and the triratna, or three jewels of Buddhism. Some representations of the Buddhapada are very large and detailed, displaying a wide array of symbols — numbering 32, 108 or 132 — in a grid-like pattern.
The Buddhapada form was produced across a wide geographical extent in South Asia, from the Gangetic plains in the north through the Deccan plateau and Sri Lanka in the south, and from Sanchi in central India to Amaravati on the east coast. They continue to be produced in the wider Buddhist world, especially in Myanmar and Tibet, as votive objects.
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