Bare Feet and Sacred Ground: “Viṣṇu Was Here”
1. Sacred Ground
1.1. The Object and Its Emplacement
2. Bare Feet
2.1. Of Feet and Footsteps
2.2. Of Divine Footprints
2.3. Of Relics, Representations and Reminders
2.4. How a Divine Footprint Became Embodied and Embedded
2.4.1. Scene One: The First Footprint, the Place of Sacrifice
2.4.2. Scene Two: The Division of Primeval Space, Viṣṇu’s Three Steps
From the Ṛgveda: ‘I will proclaim the heroic deeds of Viṣṇu, who measured apart the earthly realms, who propped up the upper dwelling place, when the wide-striding one stepped forth three times. […] All creatures dwell in his three wide steps. […] he alone has supported three-fold the earth, the sky, and all creatures.’
From the Śatapathabrāhmaṇa: ‘[…] the demons thought, ‘All this world is ours.’ They said, ‘Let us divide this earth, and when we have divided it let us live upon it.’ Then they set out to divide it […]. The gods heard about this and said, […] Let us go where the demons are dividing it, for who would we be if we did not share in it?’ They placed Viṣṇu […] at their head and went there and said, ‘Let us also share in this earth; let a portion of it be ours.’ The demons, rather jealously, replied, ‘As much as this Viṣṇu lies on, so much we give to you.’
From the Vāyupurāṇa: ‘[…] O king, you should give me the space covered in three strides.’ ‘I grant this,’ answered the king, […] and since he thought him to be just a dwarf he himself was very pleased about it. But the dwarf, the lord [i.e., Viṣṇu in his dwarf incarnation] stepped over the heaven, the sky, and earth, this whole universe, in three strides […]. He revealed that the whole universe was in his body; there is nothing in all the worlds that is not pervaded by the noble one.’
2.4.3. Scene Three: Viṣṇu’s Footprint on Earth: Gayā
2.5. Rituals around the Viṣṇupāda in Gayā22
2.5.1. The Footprint
‘We bow to this, thou Viṣṇu’s circular basement, Chakra.’
2.5.2. The River
2.5.3. The Tree
‘OM Śrī Kara-Akṣayavata-Vṛkṣaya Namaḥ’ or more elaborately ‘O banyan tree, you are immortal, surviving all throughout time. You are Viṣṇu’s abode. O banyan tree, take away my sins. O wish-fulfilling tree, obeisance to you’.
‘Whatever is given to the ancestors at the Vata tree in the pilgrimage town Gayā will be indestructible (akṣaya). By looking at, bowing to, and making obeisance to the Lord of the Banyan (Vateśa), with a calm and composed mind, that pilgrim will guide his ancestors to the indestructible eternal World of Brahmā.’
2.5.4. The Hills
3. Discussion: Embodiedness and Embeddedness
‘The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures. We cannot possibly interpret rituals […] unless we are prepared to see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.’
Conflicts of Interest
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Of this genre, Ariel Glücklich (2008, p. 146) wrote: ‘The earliest promotional works aimed at tourists from that era were called mahatmyas.’
In this article, in which Indo-ethnography (a combination of ethnographic, textual and comparative approaches) moves between the Sanskrit of ancient texts, written Hindi, anglicized spelling inherited from the colonial era, and vernacular pronunciation, I use spelling suited to the particular contexts. This implies that I need to alternate, such as in the case of ‘paduka’, used along with pādakā, or Vishnupad Temple along with viṣṇupāda.
One of the other regional Sants for which this may be performed is Tukaram (Tukārām, 1568/1608–1649/1650), the saint-singer whose deeply devotional songs are still sung during Mahārāṣtrian pilgrimages. A relevant fragment from verse 1165 goes: ‘God [is] a stone; a step [is] a stone/the one [is] worshipped, the other is trodden under a foot’ (Tukaram 2003).
A study of Indian footwear (Jain-Neubauer 2000) may easily detract us from our main topic. Yet it is worth noting here that the ‘paduka’ is mostly associated with mendicants and an ascetic lifestyle. This may have its roots in the non-violent origin of the material (it is usually made of wood, not leather), and its special construction. Although these platform shoes may be very impractical for walking—let alone dancing, as Kṛṣṇa does—they are designed in such a way that they prevent accidental trampling on insects and vegetation. As both ambiguity and polyvalence are key concepts in our analysis of feet and footprints it is worth pointing out that a pair of ‘paduka’ used to be part of a bride’s trousseau, hinting at the eroticism of the foot and the length high-heeled shoes add to the lady’s legs.
For a more systematic discussion of this, especially in the light of the iconicity and non-iconicity debate, see further on, Section 2.3 (Of relics, representations, and reminders).
The term ‘defiant religiosity’ (Larios and Voix 2018) may be too strong here, but obviously two of the affective qualities of pavement shrines, tree shrines and foot-pedestals right at the entrance of temples are their accessibility and informality.
Anyone who happens to have been caught in pre-wedding frenzy in India may be aware of the ‘haldi’ (Bengali: holud) ceremony traditionally held for the bride. Turmeric paste is applied to her face and body in sensuous patterns akin to raṅgolī and especially her feet are objects of artistic attention: intricate decorations made of henna (mehendi, mendi) covering the entire foot and ankle (cf. Huyler 2008).
A photograph of a Tibetan monk preparing a colorful copy of the sacred footprints of the Buddha impressed on stone in front of the Mahābodhi temple in Bodhgayā is shown on p. 131 of (Leoshko 1988).
There is considerable confusion and contestation about the viṣṇupāda qualifying as (1) either a natural footprint; as (2) a manmade sunken foot-sole; (3) an ‘engraving of his right foot in the basalt’ (Vidyarthi 1978, p. 4); (4) a reproduction (Asher 1988, p. 74); (5) a ‘replica in stone’ (idem); (6) a ‘sculptured impression’(idem); (7) a man-made raised foot or foot-sole; (8) or a carved pair of feet, in plural. Yet it seems safe, based on its present appearance, to copy the term Ariel Glücklich (2008, p. 3) used, ‘a footprint-like indentation’. See further footnotes 10, 19, and 20. This confusion may be partly due to (possibly) later replacements, partly to the situation that most of the time the silver-coated basin is filled with offerings all over, obscuring any view one might need ‘to see for oneself.’
Although it might seem more relevant here to refer to the many forms in which Buddha’s feet occur in neighboring Bodhgayā (about intricate relations between the footprint in Gayā and the sculptured pairs of feet in Bodhgayā, see Paul 1985; Asher 1988; Kinnard 2000), the allusion to his footprint on natural rock at the summit of Mount Sumanala (Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka) is deliberate. Based on morphological considerations these two single depressions in natural rocks are much more on a par; on the same footing, as it were.
I borrow this term from James Preston (1992, p. 33), but find that his scholarly caveat (‘It is not an intrinsic “holy” quality of mysterious origins that radiates objectively from a place of pilgrimage; rather, spiritual magnetism derives from human concepts and values, via historical, geographical, social, and other forces that coalesce in a sacred center.’) should not obscure the literal meaning of śakti-power-energy attributed to devotional objects in India. Or, as Preston adds: ‘Folk explanations of the spiritual magnetism attributed to a sacred center are valid from the participant’s point of view.’
In this regard the antiquity of Viṣṇu’s central footprint at Gayā was argued by Paul (1985, p. 140) as follows: ‘[…] indicated by a simple outline the sacred object is neither encumbered with conventional auspicious marks nor entangled by inscriptional paraphernalia.’ Since the objective of Paul’s discussion was the comparison with Buddha’s neatly carved-out slightly hollow pair of feet on a lotus pedestal by the side of the Mahābodhi Temple in Bodhgayā, her argument is only partially relevant here. But there is no denying that, once bared of its decorations and the plastic overlay (bearing Viṣṇu’s emblems for the evening worship), the silver-enshrined imprint in the nucleus of the Vishnupad Temple looks archaic, even if only as a result of the frequent anointings and rubbings. See also what O’Malley wrote more than a century ago, in 1906 (O’Malley 2007, p. 63): ‘The outline of these footprints [sic] are still to be seen […] on a large granite stone with an uneven top, which is much worn with the frequent washings it daily undergoes.’
In some sources we read that Gautama Buddha left three footprints: two in what is now Afghanistan (or Pakistan?), and one on the Samantakūṭa of Samanala Mountain. In Sri Lanka it is speculated that he left his left footprint on the Samanala summit (also known as Adam’s Peak) and his right footprint in Anurādhapura, a feat that may well be an intended parallel to Viṣṇu’s wide strides (cf. Paul 1985, p. 140). Both Myanmar and Thailand claim to have real footprints in natural rock too (cf. Waldemar C. Sailer 1993; Sailer’s website on www. dralbani.com/buddhafootprint; Jacques de Guerney 2014; and various entries on ‘Buddha’s footprints’ or ‘buddhapāda’ in Encyclopedias, such as in Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2013, p. 113) and Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (2014, p. 154)). For a categorization, see my unpublished paper presentation ‘Of feet, footsteps, foot-marks, foot-soles and footprints of the Buddha’, EASR annual conference, Bern, 17–21 June 2018 (www.easr2018.org/program/session S37 ‘Plurality and Materiality’).
Kinnard seems to speak deliberately of footprints without distinguishing between feet, foot-soles, footsteps and footprints.
See, for instance, verse 33 in the popular Viṣṇucālīsā, the forty couplets written in praise of Viṣṇu by Sundardās: ‘agaṇit rūp anup apārā/nirguṇ saguṇ svarūp tumhārā //’ (‘your forms are countless, incomparable and infinite; you are both personal and impersonal’, or translated in a more philosophical vein: ‘with and without qualities/attributes’).
The sacrificial altar (vedi) traditionally is not a raised altar as such, but a sacrificial pit—a shallow depression in the ground—around which the gods were invited to sit down. In Gayā most of the places where mourners are to offer piṇḍas to their ancestors are referred to as vedis. Both footprints and vedis share the same symbolic order as the navel, a parallel we find in Ṛgveda 3.29.4 (the footprint as the ‘navel of the Earth’). In Gayā one of the parallel stories told of the giant Gayāsur, and sometimes portrayed in popular colorprints sold to pilgrims, is that the fire sacrifice referred to in scene three (Section 2.4.3) had taken place in the asura’s navel (nabhi).
This summary is based on various cryptic passages in the Ṛgveda, mainly ṚV 3.23-29. See also Śatapathabrāhmaṇa 1.8.1.
These translations are taken from chapter five (on Viṣṇu) in Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Hindu Myths. A sourcebook translated from the Sanskrit (Doniger 1978, pp. 176–9). The locus classicus for ‘the three strides of Viṣṇu’ (trīṇi padāni viṣṇoḥ) is Ŗgveda 1.22.17–21; additionally 1.154.1–5. Although these three text passages are wide apart in time and context they are selected on the basis of their narrative strands, together forming a fabric that is locally told and retold, as well as used to authenticate the ritual practices. From a text-historical perspective the key question would be: when were such myths revolving around Viṣṇu woven into the fabric of Gayā as a place of pilgrimage famous for its śrāddha rites? Text passages such as Viṣṇusūtra 85.40 and Viṣṇupurāṇa 3.45, where the viṣṇupāda is casually mentioned, may provide links between narrative motifs and the specific location, but a full study in which the third key textual element, Gayā testified as a famous śrāddhatīrtha, would nicely fit in, is far beyond the scope of this article.
Some authors refer to Viṣṇu ‘planting his foot at the Vishnupada on the Gaya peak’ (emphasis added, AN) (Jaiswal 1964); Bhattacharyya (1964, p. 91) writes: ‘Some natural crevices in the rocks which were originally fetishistic objects of worship were later recognized as the footmarks [sic] of Vishnu.’ [emphasis added, AN]. Anil Kumar maintains that the practice of ‘footprint worship’ started with the worship of the footprint of Viṣṇu at the Vishnupad Temple since the fourth century (emphasis added, AN) (Kumar 1987). None of these authors are able to establish full chronological evidence for the rise of viṣṇupāda-pūjā or viṣṇucaraṇa-pūjā in Gayā. This matter of footprint-worship is further complicated by the historically sensitive and area-specific issue which was first: reverence to Viṣṇu’s footprint in Gayā or to Buddha’s feet in Bodhgayā.
In association with the remarks made in notes 18 and 19 the Gayāsura legends form yet another narrative strand. According to O’Malley (2007) the legend of Gayāsura was invented around the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. See also the sixteenth-century text on pilgrimage Tristhalīsetu (Salomon 1985); and Gayāmāhātmya (Jacques 1962), a pilgrimage guide to Gayā replacing some older chapters of the Vāyupurāṇa.
This alternative version is based on locally available pilgrim’s documentation, such as found in illustrated bazaar booklets. In informal conversations and on Internet one finds further variations. For an impression of public relations found in digital media, such as of online services (‘Online Services for After Death Rituals of Pinddaan’), a list of paṇḍas, photos, or services to be reserved online, see www.pinddaangaya.in. For local and regional maps, see Singh 2009 (as well as some other of his publications on Gayā).
This part is based on various field visits since 1979, the most recent being in 2016 (see Figure 1 and Figure 2). Because of the crowds of worshippers, the solemn nature of the sapiṇḍikaraṇa, but particularly because officially ‘non-Hindus are not allowed‘, I had to avoid making myself conspicuous and refrained from photographing people. More recently, Deborah de Koning, MA, managed to make a picture of ritual activities going on around the viṣṇupāda (Figure 3). I gratefully acknowledge her permission to use it here.
The town’s connection with the sun (in relation to the four hills) would deserve a research of its own. Here it should suffice to refer to authors such as Debjani Paul (1985) and Rana Singh (2009). It has been stated that Viṣṇu’s three strides not only spanned the universe, they also symbolize the three positions of the sun throughout the day: dawn, noon and dusk. Paul (1985, p. 84) added: ‘The single footprint of Vishnupad, as opposed to an immobile pair of prints, suggests that Vishnu was indeed moving [emphasis added, AN] sun-like across the cosmos and placed his (right) foot momentarily on the head of the demon Gaya.’
The late-Pāla period saw a great popularity of the Viṣṇu cult in Bihar, and the Trivikrama-Viṣṇu became one of the 24 icons (caturviṁśatimūrti). Even as the ‘wide-strider’ the god is mostly depicted standing firmly on two legs, and holding four attributes in his hands. There is a variation, however: when he is depicted stretching his left leg to an almost straight line with his right leg, in 180◦. Such an image is often part of a daśāvatāra temple representing his ten incarnations. Among those I saw being the center of lively worship was one in the ancient part of Bhaktapur, Nepal. Typically, while stepping wide, he has his right foot firmly planted on a pedestal surrounded by adorants.
Viṣṇu’s footprint has an astonishing number of parallels in other local shrines. I counted at least 18 deities whose shrines are listed as ‘Rudra pad’, ‘Brahma pad’, Surya pad’, ‘Indra pad’ etcetera. As I have made no further study of those, I leave them out of my article here; also because I assume they are not footprints but artifacts. Traditionally, these ‘pad’ shrines should all be visited for piṇḍapradāna. Together with other sacred places these constitute a full pilgrimage circuit numbering 45, 48, 51 or 54 ‘vedis’, including a pipal tree (and sometimes Buddha’s foot-soles as well) in the Mahābodhi Temple compound in Bodhgayā (cf. Barua 1975).
Although in some special cases the entire traditional sequence may still be followed, most śrāddha performances today are shortened to last merely a single day. Through e-ethnography (see, for instance, comments on TripAdvisor) we learn that some families now travel to Gayā in their own vehicle, have the rituals done with in less than two hours, and return in time to post online comments from home. As could be expected, these middle-class visitors tend to complain about the fees demanded by the priests and the squalor of the place.
See Piyush Tripathi’s article in the Times of India (Patna edition), 6 November 2016 (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/patna/Chhath-the-most-eco-friendly-festival-Environmentalists/articleshow/55266563.cms) (last accessed 22 May 2018).
See Bhagavatapurāṇa 12.9. Although the banyan in general is often associated with Śiva, the akṣayavata is mythologically linked with Viṣṇu in various ways as well. It is the tree in which Viṣṇu sleeps during the cosmic dissolution, safely tucked away in one of its strong leaves (Naradapurāṇa 47.6–8; Matsyapurāṇa 167.31–67). The detail that Viṣṇu, in the form of a sleeping child, was perched on a branch of this tree, rolled into one of its leaves while sucking his toe—a charming detail in an article on feet—is found in Brahmapurāṇa 49.53 and 54.14–18.
A verse in the Matsyapurāṇa (106.11) promises that anyone who dies beneath an akṣayavaṭa (literally: at the root of this tree, vaṭamūle) goes to Lord Śiva’s abode. Compare this to Brahmapurāṇa 54.17–18 where merely worshipping the tree will lead the devotee to Lord Viṣṇu’s abode.
Matsyapurāṇa 208.14. Although in this passage the type of tree is not identified, in a much-quoted work on the banyan, Vata-Savitrī-vratakaṭhā, a Sanskrit guideline to vows undertaken in relation to the banyan, particularly by wives for the long life of their husbands, is specific about the type of tree.
The first impression of the Akshayavat is often determined by its many almost horizontal branches from which colorful strips of cloth are suspended, often in shades of red, pink and yellow.
Although ‘kalpavṛkṣa’ (Naradapurāṇa 52.66–67) is commonly translated as ‘wishing tree’, it gets a deeper meaning here, since kalpa also means ‘eon’ or vast stretch of time; after a period of dissolution a new kalpa will set in. Since an akṣayavata is said to survive the period of dissolution, the ‘wish’ expressed in front of such a tree may be considered to either go beyond the present kalpa or may be an explicit prayer for immortality.
In various Purāṇas there are slight variations of this passage, cf. Vāyupurāṇa 49. 93 and 96–97 and Naradapurāṇa 47, 3–4. This latter passage promises the abode of Brahmā for the ancestors. Although there may be a pre-eminence of Viṣṇu in Gayā, and the local narratives around Gaya (the asura) may even be perceived as establishing the position of Viṣṇu over the other two gods involved in the deception, Brahmā and Śiva, the tree is impartial and promises a variety of heavenly abodes.
There are even three ancient and partly interrelated associative clusters here: the hands and feet (of Ṛgvedic Iļā or Viṣṇu) dripping with ghee; the ancient place Gayā where in the course of the cosmogonic fight between deities and demons a drop of ambrosia fell down; and Gayā as the spot where Gaya the demon-cum-ascetic was given the promise, by Viṣṇu himself, that food offerings—dripping or solid—would be continuous. Whether this implies, in the perception of both priests and mourners, an equation (ghee equals amŗta equals tarpaṇa water offerings) deserves further study.
In our search for proper categorization of ‘divine footprints’, distinguishing them from the proliferation of feet, foot-soles, footsteps and footmarks, two parallel terms from European art history are worth considering: (1) the divine footprint on natural rock could, in a way, be called ‘not made by human hands’ and thus be classed among the ‘acheironpoièta’; (2) as a parallel to the phenomenon of (wrongly) perceiving forms in natural phenomena divine footprints could likewise be classed among the ‘paradeilia’.
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Nugteren, A. Bare Feet and Sacred Ground: “Viṣṇu Was Here”. Religions 2018, 9, 224. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9070224
Nugteren A. Bare Feet and Sacred Ground: “Viṣṇu Was Here”. Religions. 2018; 9(7):224. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9070224Chicago/Turabian Style
Nugteren, Albertina. 2018. "Bare Feet and Sacred Ground: “Viṣṇu Was Here”" Religions 9, no. 7: 224. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9070224