Following Buddha’s Footprints (Buddhapāda): A Talk by Jacques de Guerny

 | Mon 10 Mar 2014 14:10 ICT

The Informal Northern Thai Group talks are given in principle on the second Tuesday of every month at the Alliance Française, Chiang Mai. You can receive the Announcements and Minutes free of charge by sending your e-mail address to [email protected]

Buddhap?da. Following Buddha’s footprints

Buddhap?da“, in Sanskrit and P?li, means “Buddha’s foot”. Buddha’s footprints are among the most popular symbols of Buddhism in Asia.[1]

The Buddhap?da’s Odyssey has so far spanned more than two millennia covering East Asian routes (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 02) as a new “avatar” of the universal interest in footprints dating back to the hunters/gatherers’ prehistory and proto-history.


I – Indian sub-continent. The “Buddhap?da core”: India / Sri Lanka / Gandhara


For Thai Buddhism, Gautama (name of his clan) Buddha’s life dates back to the 6th century BCE (-543 -463) which is at least one century earlier than modern researchers would agree. What we do know for sure is that Emperor Ashoka (r. 272-237 BCE), the first to unite various kingdoms from Afghanistan to Bengal under the “Mauryan Empire”, is credited by Buddhists to have converted to Buddhism and exported it throughout Asia.

Left: Mauryan Empire under Ashoka. The Maurya Empire was ruled by the Mauryan dynasty from 322 to 185 BCE.


INDIA (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 03-15)[2]

The first known Buddhap?da dates back to the second century BCE and was found in the Barhut’s stupa, in the Ganges valley (Madhya Pradesh), as a part as the famous telling about the Buddha coming down from the T?vati?sa Paradise where he is said to have taught the Abhidhamma to his mother. The piece shown on the right of Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 04 is now in the Kolkata Museum. As in Barhut, early Buddhap?da were small and part of larger scenes (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 05).

The Buddhap?da’s “invention” was replicated a few hundred kilometres from Barhut, in Sanchi (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 06), where the Buddhap?da is usually considered as representing Prince Siddh?rtha, the future Buddha leaving his palace at night (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 07 & 08). Soon, the Buddhap?da became ubiquitous throughout India down to Amaravati where we find it in the Enlightenment context (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 09), the first sermon representation (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 10) and other various situations (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 11 & 12) or Nagarjunakonda (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 13).

The Buddha’s footprints rapidly became autonomous, bigger, and more sophisticated. Originally, 8 basic signs could be engraved on the soles: a parasol (a sign of high rank); a fish (a sign of fertility/salvation); a vase or a bowl (a sign of spiritual/material food); a lotus flower (a sign of purity); a conch (a sign of knowledge); a trident (a sign of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha); a banner (a sign of victory) and a wheel (a sign of Dharma or universal norm). See: (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 12, 13, 14, 15, 16) From 8, the symbols soon increased to twelve, and later even more – representing a check list, if not a scorecard, for devotees. India, no longer Buddhist at the end of the first millenium CE, remained forever the “mother” for Buddhap?da because she had produced “models” for other Asian Buddhist countries. From Northern India, Buddhism would spread and develop first in two directions, Southwards to Sri Lanka, and Westwards to Gandh?ra (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 23).


SRI LANKA / CEYLON (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 16-22)


In Mihintale, near Anuradhapura, where the monk Mahinda (son of Ashoka?) is said to have converted King Tissa to Buddhism around 220 BCE, four Buddhap?da were positioned at the four cardinal points of the Kantaka Dagoba (= Pagoda) (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 17). In Anuradhapura, two Buddhap?da have been found near the Dagoba built in the 1st c. CE within the Abhayagiri monastery (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 17, 18).

The Vavuniya Buddhap?da (Left + Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 19), from a district in Northern Sri Lanka (see map Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 16) and now in Colombo’s National Museum, may be considered as a masterpiece. It bears witness to the degree of quality achieved in Sri Lanka in early Buddhist times there.

In contrast to the rather elaborate Vavuniya Buddhap?da, we also find in Sri Lanka very strict footprints called “blank footprints” by the same museum: besides an approximate shape of the foot, no other detail or symbol appear (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 20).


In real and contemporary life, Adam’s Peak, topped by a rustic Buddhap?da called “Sri Pada”, is the most famous Ceylonese pilgrimage site at 2,243 m above sea level (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 21).[3] The site was first claimed by local cults and then by all established religions, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam and Christian.[4]

Another probably very ancient Buddhap?da engraved in a granite block can be found in the Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple of Matale, in central Sri Lanka. The local tradition says that in the 1st Century B.C., Buddhist monks had to endure a famine for 12 years amidst wars and internal divisions. In order to preserve the Buddha’s teachings, they finally decided that they should write down the Buddhist Canon or ‘Tripitaka’ on palm leaves in pali. This was allegedly done in thi Aluvihara Temple (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 22).[5]


GANDH?RA was an kingdom covering modern-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. It lasted from the Vedic period (c. 1500-500 BC) to the 11th century AD. As a center of Buddhist culture, it reached its height between the 1st and the 5th century CE (See map at Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 24).

Influenced by western artistic canons received via Alexander the Great (from 327 BCE), Gandhara, as a bridge between East and West, gave birth to a revolutionary style of sculpture in which Buddha was finally represented as human.

This new statuary, easier to understand and adapt to local beliefs, became the worst “challenger” of the footprints in all Oriental Asia, with more realistic and flamboyant statues competing with abstract aniconic Buddhap?da.

Initially, footprints of the Buddha in Gandhara were imitations of Indian productions (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 25, 26, 27) but soon attested how rich and imaginative the local artists were in the first five centuries of our era (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 28, 29), until the Hephthalites (or Ephthalites), also known as the “White Huns”, took Gandhara around 450 CE, causing Buddhism to gradually wane there.[6]


II – Northern routes: India to China, Korea, and Japan (mainly Mah?y?na or “Great vehicle” Buddhism)


CHINA (See map at: Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 30)

No one knows precisely when Buddhism reached China, probably during the 1st century CE.

The rare remaining footprints, mainly in Xi’an (now the capital of Shaanxi province) and in the Wutaï mountains (W?tái Sh?n, literally “Five Plateau Mountain” in the northeastern province of Shanxi) are based on a unique model of Indian origin, with few devotees.

In Xi’an, within the Da Ci’en (Wild Goose) Temple, a footprint engraved on stone shows various Buddhist symbols similar to those found in India (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 31). Precise dating is impossible.

Within the Wolong Temple (Baishulin St., Beilin District, Xi’an) and Da Xing Shan Temple (West Xingshan Si St., Xiaozhai) two footprints betray the same probable Indian influence (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 32). The Wolong Temple was built during Lingdi’s reign (CE 168-189) of the Han Dynasty.

Further North, in the Wutai mountains, within the Tayuan Temple, the Great White Pagoda (Da baita) hosts two Buddhap?da engraved on stone and including the basic Buddhist symbols found in India, Gandhara and Xi’an. (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 33)

A funny case of very modern capitalistic Buddhism in a communist country appears in Luoyang, Henan Province. In the “White Horse Temple”, a charismatic monks has built a monumental Sanchi style stupa to draw pilgrims from all over China. On a pillar can be found two Buddha footprints (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 34).[7]

Historically, the scarcity of Buddha’s footprints in China was perhaps due to the rapid victory of the new Gandhara’s statuary, better adapted to Mah?y?na Buddhism, but also to other Chinese beliefs and feelings.

However, China played actually a “positive” role in giving Buddhism and Buddhap?da to Korea and Japan.



Buddhism was originally introduced to Korea from China in 372 CE.

Rare “Foot-printings” (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 36) survived as pieces of wood used for reproducing Buddhap?da by “block printing” technique.[8]


JAPAN – Buddhism came from Korea during the 7th century CE.

The first “Buddha footprint on stone” (Bussokuseki), dated 753 CE, can be found in Nara, within the Yakushi Temple (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 37). It is a copy of a Xi’an model and remained the archetype in Japan until World War II. In Tokyo, within the Zozo Temple, a set of two footprints are adorned with an image of Kannon (= Kuan Yin), of a spirit repelling guardian and of verses from Mahayana sutras (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 38). In the Dentzu Temple, a small Buddhap?da is supposed “to bless with serenity and peace” and “is able to make all the modern world troubles disappear” (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 38). In Kyoto, within the Kiyomizudera Temple, two footprints date back to the 19th c. and are inspired by the Buddhap?da from the Yakushi Temple in Nara (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 39). Like in China and India, Japanese Buddha footprints reproduce basic Buddhist symbols (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 40).

About 300 Bussokuseki can be found nowadays but half of them were made during the last 60 years, drawing their inspiration directly from Indian models (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 41) or South-East Asian models. Why? Bad post-war relations between Japan and China can possibly explain how some Japanese Buddhist sects – most are not fond of Buddhap?da – tried to diversify their sources, to avoid the Chinese paths, to “purify”, as they say, their references… Will it be a permanent move?


IIISouthern Routes: from Sri Lanka to Cambodia/Laos. (Hinayana or Small vehicle)

These routes (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 42), mainly following the Hinayana/Theravada current, came successfully from Ceylon via the old Suvarnabhumi area,[9] after Buddhism’s collapse in India. In Southeast Asia, like in Sri Lanka, the numerous “natural” footprints of the Buddha have generated a corpus of stories intended to make history.[10]


MYANMAR (Called “Burma” until 1989 CE) (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 43)


In Magwe Division, Minbu District, the Golden Footprints Pagoda (Shwe Set Taw), the story goes that in the 12th year after his Enlightenment, the Lord Buddha came here with a retinue of 500 followers. There lived a Dragon King who invited the Buddha to his realm. At the request of this Dragon King, the Buddha left an imprint of his feet on the banks of the river (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 44). Then, up on the hill, he met an hermit and left his left footprint on the rock. Such stories have been developped for almost all places with an important Buddhap?da throughout Southeast Asia.

Left: A Drawing of the Buddha Footprint at Shwe Set Taw Upper Hill Temple.

In Bagan (or “Pagan”), a Northern capital after Thaton in the South,[11] the first paintings of Buddhap?da appeared on the entrance’s ceilings of some temples built from the 11th century CE (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 45). Footprints were also produced in stone or stucco, from crude designs to sophisticated sets, culminating with the classical “grid” of 108 symbols influenced by Sri Lanka Buddhism and exported throughout South East Asia (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 46, 47).[12]


Bagan fell and was destroyed by Mongols in 1287 but a second Buddhap?da golden age occurred later further North around Mandalay, until the British’ arrival in 1885 CE (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 48, 49, 50, 51).


136 new signs (108+136 = a total of 244) have been created and taught until nowadays by Buddhap?da masters, adorned with flamboyant Nagas and Nats (spirits). In Yangon’s gorgeous Swedagon Stupa, footprints are also purveyors of holy water for ablutions or drinking (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 52).[13]


THAILAND is the Champion with about 600 Buddhap?da registered (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 53).[14]

From Ceylon and through what is now Burma, Buddhap?da spread to Siam, Laos and Cambodia. The first maybe “historical” record of a Buddhap?da cult could be the mention of a pilgrimage to Phra Phutthabat Si Roi near Chiang Mai by King Mangrai. (r. 1263?-1311?) (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 54). Then, the footprints of the Buddha or other Buddhas[15] became popular masterpieces in successive Siam’s capitals, Sukkhotai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi and Bangkok, with various materials and sizes (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 56-64).

The most famous pilgrimage since the 17th c. is in Wat Phraphutthabat in Saraburi Province, with its Buddhap?da protected by a golden gate assaulted by crowds of devotees (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 65).

In modern times, during the Chakri dynasty since 1782, many new footprints, some gigantic, were made everywhere, including one in pure gold for the reigning Queen Sirikit (Bangkok, 1992) (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 66).


CAMBODIA and LAOS (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 67)

Angkor, in Cambodia, had first Hindu Shivapada[16] and then Buddhap?da sites since the 16th CE.

The oldest footprints are in situ in Phnom Kulen and Phnom Baken (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 68). Subsequent ones from Bayon and Angkor Vat were moved and sometimes damaged or lost during recent wars (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 69, 70, 71).

Phnom Penh, the present capital and its neighbourhoods, hosts several modern Buddhap?da (from 19th CE), the devotees’ fervour much exceeding their archaeological interest (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 72-75).

In Laos, Buddhism allegedly arrived via the Mekong to convert King Fa Ngum (r. 1353-1373) in Luang Prabang (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 76) but the rare old surviving Buddhap?da have greatly suffered. None was found in Vientiane.

Meanwhile, two crowded pilgrimages, in Wat Pha Bat Phonsan, Bolikhamsai Province, Laos (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 77) and Phnom Santuk, in Kampong Thom Province, Cambodia (Buddhapada-deGuerny.ppt 78), attest to the present popularity and rebounds of Buddhap?da.

Buddhap?da never reached Mahayana’s Vietnam nor islamised southern Countries.

Conclusion: With the Buddhap?da Odyssey, we are essentially facing an important part of the Great History of Oriental Asia, affiliated to an antique tradition of footprints: only few other symbolic creations can compete worldwide, even if much more studies remain to be done.

You may now understand why I am a lover of Buddhap?da – Welcome on board!


2. Next Meeting (372): Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 7:30 pm

 “The past, present and future of stand-alone movie theaters

in Southeast Asia: a visual narrative”

A Talk by Philip Jablon



The Talk: By the middle decades of the 20th century, the countries of Southeast Asia were in the midst of a great push towards modernization, adapting modernist trends in architecture and planning to preexisting indigenous forms. An affinity for cinema accompanied this move towards modernity, resulting in thousands of artistically designed, highly-crafted stand-alone movie theaters across the region. Almost every urban area – large or small – could boast of at least one, as trips to the movies came to represent an important leisure activity.

Today, the stand-alone movie theaters of Southeast Asia are teetering on the brink of obsolescence. Despite their potential as sources of vital cultural capital for the towns and cities in which they stand, this unique architectural form is rapidly disappearing from the region with almost no effort to preserve any of them.

The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project (SEAMTP) is a documentary photography project focused on the remaining stand-alone movie theaters of Southeast Asia. It was created as means of chronicling the region’s stand-alone movie theaters with two main objectives: 1) to compile a professional, photographic archive of these structures in all the ASEAN countries while they stand; and 2) to advance the cause of their preservation and/or renovation with the aim of sustaining them as centers for the arts and education. Since the project’s inception in 2009, it has been responsible for archiving over two-hundred theaters across Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.                

The Speaker: Working out of Chiang Mai, Thailand, documentary photographer and researcher Philip Jablon has been creating a photographic archive of stand-alone movie theaters across Southeast Asia. Through his evocative images and qualitative research, the Chiang Mai University graduate (who earned an M.A. in Sustainable Development in 2010) wants to cultivate an appreciation of these institutions in the hope of stimulating preservation efforts. His work has been exhibited recently at the Asia Society in New York, the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok and the Luang Prabang Film Festival. His work can be seen at:



3. 2nd March 2014 Meeting (373): Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 7:30 pm

 “Ethnic Diversity of Laos: A Museum Perspective”.

A Talk by Tara Gujadhur



The Talk: The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is an independent, non-profit museum dedicated to promoting the appreciation and preservation of cultural diversity in Lao PDR. Like most museums, TAEC maintains a collection of artefacts, curates exhibitions, and promotes scholarship and learning through research and outreach activities. However, TAEC is also a museum representing living cultures in a developing country context, and as such faces a unique set of challenges. Tara will discuss TAEC’s history and goals, how it has developed relationships with source communities, and the establishment of livelihoods, intangible cultural heritage, and women’s empowerment programmes.


The Speaker: Tara Gujadhur founded the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre with Thongkhoun Soutthivilay (now Co-Directors) and has been based in Luang Prabang for over 10 years. Tara has a BA in Anthropology and an MSc in Tourism, Environment, and Development, and 12 years’ experience in sustainable tourism development, community development, and cultural heritage management in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa.




5. Future INTG Meetings



372nd Meeting : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 7:30 pm : “The past, present and future of stand-alone movie theaters in Southeast Asia: a visual narrative”. A Talk by Philip Jablon.

373rd Meeting : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 7:30 pm : “Ethnic Diversity in Laos: A Museum Perspective”. A Talk by Tara Gujadhur.

374th Meeting : Tuesday, 8 April, 2014, 7:30 pm : “An Artist’s Statement: Linking Culture and Creation”. A Talk by Chatcha Thavee.

375th Meeting : 13 May, 2014, 7:30 pm : “Sima: Monastic Space Throughout Theravada History“. A Talk by Anthony Irwin.

376th Meeting : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 7:30 pm : “Silenced Voices of History: Asian Labour on the Death Railway”. A Talk by David Boggett.




6. INTG Contacts : Convenor – Secretary – Website



1) Convenor : Rebecca Weldon : e-mail : < [email protected]>. Mobile : 087 193 67 67.

2) Secretary : Louis Gabaude : e-mail : <[email protected]>. Mobile : 087 188 50 99.

3) INTG Website :



Informal Northern Thai Group (INTG)

29 years of Talks!


Movie theaters in

Southeast Asia:

a visual narrative

A Talk by Philip Jablon

Tuesday 11 March 2014 19:30

At the Alliance Française

131, Charoen Prathet Road, Chiang Mai – Opposite the EFEO



Informal Northern Thai Group (INTG)

29 years of Talks!


Ethnic Diversity in Laos:

A Museum Perspective

A Talk by Tara Gujadhur


Tuesday 25 MARCH 2014 19:30

At the Alliance Française

131, Charoen Prathet Road, Chiang Mai – Opposite the EFEO

[1] The Buddha’s footprint is, with an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, a riderless horse, and the Dharma wheel, one among a few “symbols” considered by many as representations of the Buddha himself. In the beginnings of Buddhism, anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha would have been considered as improper, which led to “aniconic” respresentations of the Buddha through these cryptic “symbols”. According to this school of thought, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction, in particular in Gandhara (now in Afghanistan/Pakistan), after Alexander the Great’s expedition. In the early nineties, the “aniconic” theory stirred fierce debates. Susan Huntington, an art historian, had suggested that the so-called “aniconic” representations of the Buddha through symbols were not in fact “aniconic” because they were not depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha but scenes of worshipping relics and places of pilgrimage. The image of an empty throne was simply depicting an actual relic-throne, etc. On this debate, see: Susan L. Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism”, Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 4, New Approaches to South Asian Art (Winter 1990), p. 401-408. This article is available at:,ArtJournal.pdf.

Huntington’s position was challenged by Vidya Dehejia, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems”. Ars Orientalis, 21, 1991, p. 45-66. This article is available at:,Ars%20Orientalis.pdf.

Huntington response can be found in: Susan L. Huntington, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems: Another Look”, Ars Orientalis, 22, 1992, p. 111-156. This article is available at:,Ars%20Orientalis.pdf

[2] See: Anna Maria Quagliotti, Buddhapadas, An Essay on the Representations of the Footprints of he Buddha with a descriptive Catalogue of the Indian Specimens from the 2nd Century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., Kamakura, Institute of the Silk Road Studies, 1998.

[3] See the official site for Adam’s Peak at

[4] See: S.S.M. Nanayakkara, “Sri Pada: Sanctuary for all Faiths”, The Sunday Observer, 27 August, 2000. Available at:

[5] On Aluvihara site, see:;

[6] On the Buddhap?da in Gandh?ra, see also:

CityNews – At 5:30 a.m. on March 9th, Chiang Mai police received a report informing them that a western woman was found dead in an alley near the Amora Hotel, Chayaphum Road. She is the second English person to die in strange circumstances in the same area over the weekend.

Police notified a medical examiner and Ruam Jai Rescue unit. The deceased was Joanna Caroline Martin (43) of England. She was wearing a green top with red trousers when she was found. When police arrived they found her boyfriend sobbing next to the body. The medical examiner found no sign of trauma, and said that she had been dead for at least two hours.

Her boyfriend (name not specified) told the police that he and Martin had been staying in Chiang Mai for six weeks after a visit to Koh Pha-Ngan. He said they often drank alcohol in the Thapae and Loy Kroh areas of the city, and over the last few days they had been drinking heavily even though Martin had food poisoning and had not been eating.

A day before her death she was photographed looking as if she had passed out, lying in the middle of the road near Thapae Gate. Witnesses told police they had seen her before crying in the alley. 


                ? 5.30 ?.? 9 ? 57 ? ?.? ? ? ? ? ?.? ? ? 100 ? ? ? ? ? ? ?.?. Joanna Caroline Martin ? ? 43 ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? 2 ?

                ? ? 6 ? ? ? ?.? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?.