Viṣṇupāda

Viṣṇupāda. Rajasthan, probably Mewar, circa 1820–40

Śripāda or Viṣṇupāda (divine footprints of Viṣṇu) have been regarded sacred since far back as the 2nd century B.C. in Hinduism. Often, the Śripāda motif is worked into stone or cast in metals and worshipped. The sanctity of the Viṣṇupāda motif originates from the the three strides taken by Viṣṇu in his Vāmana avatāra by which he is said to have traversed and conquered the entire universe.

Viṣṇupāda, engraved with the aṭamangaḷa or the 8 auspicious symbols is a common object of veneration. The symbolism connects with the three great strides taken by Viṣṇu through the cosmos.

The fifth canto of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa describes the origin of the holy Gaṅgā from the great toe of Viṣṇu in his Vāmana avatāra. As Vāmana, the Lord of the Universe, Viṣṇu took his second step, he pierced, with the nail of his big toe the covering of the Universe. Through the hole, the pure water of the primordial ocean flowed into this universe as the Gaṅgā. Having washed the reddish lotus feet of the Lord, the water of the Gaṅgā acquired a beautiful pink tint and the poet of vanquishing all sins. Emanating directly from Lord Viṣṇu’s feet, Gaṅgā was sanctified, and for that reason also known as Viṣṇupādī.

तत्र भगवत: साक्षाद्यज्ञलिङ्गस्य विष्णोर्विक्रमतो वामपादाङ्गुष्ठनखनिर्भिन्नोर्ध्वाण्डकटाहविवरेणान्त:प्रविष्टा या बाह्यजलधारा तच्चरणपङ्कजावनेजनारुणकिञ्जल्कोपरञ्जिताखिलजगदघमलापहोपस्पर्शनामला साक्षाद्भ‍गवत्पदीत्यनुपलक्षितवचोऽभिधीयमानातिमहता कालेन युगसहस्रोपलक्षणेन दिवो मूर्धन्यवततार यत्तद्विष्णुपदमाहु: ॥ Bhāgavata Purāṇa 5.17.1

Vāmana in his gigantic form Trivikrama, His right leg is raised towards the sky; c. 1830 Thanjavur, British Museum

After one thousand millennia, the water of the Gaṅgā descended to Dhruvalōka, that place at the top of the universe where the most exalted, firmly determined devotee, Dhruva (Sanskrit Dhruva meaning immovable or fixed, was an ascetic devotee of Viṣṇu in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa; he is the son of Uttānapāda and grandson of Manu) bathes in the water of the lotus feet of Viṣṇu. With his heart deeply immersed in an intense single-minded devotion, he accepts, with great reverence, upon his head the water that is free from impurities. Thereafter all learned sages and scholars proclaimed Dhruvalōka to be Viṣṇupāda [“situated on Lord Viṣṇu’s lotus feet”].

The place of Viṣṇu (Viṣṇupāda) is the zenith, the highest place of the sun, and in parlance, often synonymous with the attainment of mōkṣa. The idea of the zenith being the feet of Viṣṇu may have arisen from the knowledge that Viṣṇu himself transcends everything. At the beginning of the daily prayer-hymns of the Brahmans, or sandhyā, a mantra employed says that the wise see always that superior place of Viṣṇu, like an open eye in the sky:

tad Viṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padaṃ sadā paśyanti sūrayah divīva cakṣur ātatam.
(Ācamana mantra
of the daily sandhyā)

“Poojah of Vishnu” from The Sundhya or the Daily Prayers of the Brahmins. Illustrated by Mrs S.C Belnos

At the holy Viṣṇupāda temple in Gaya, considered one of the most important sites for. Hindus performing shraddha or pinḍa-dāna for their ancestors, Viṣṇu is worshipped as an engraving of his right foot in basalt. This footprint marks the place where Viṣṇu placed his foot on the head of the demon Gaya, and rendered him motionless. The present structure was built by Ahilya Bai Holkar, Maharani of Indore, in the 18th century who also who financed the construction of several temples, ghats, and dharmashalas at Gaya.

Vishnupad Temple, Gaya, Sir Charles D’Oyly

Viṣṇupāda in Jewelry

Pendant with Blue Sapphire Viṣṇupāda surrounded by nine triangular parab cut diamonds, Andhra Pradesh, early 20th century © Van Gelder Traditional Indian Folk Jewellery

The continuing tradition in footprint motifs related to deities also relates to the Indian religio-cultural tradition of touching the feet of a revered person as a mark of respect. Of all the footprint symbols, Hindus consider the Viṣṇupāda to be the most sacred. Viṣṇupāda pendants commonly found include some or all of the symbols associated with Viṣṇu on the sole — the sun, bow, lotus, conch, swastika, moon, banner and mace. Small versions such these pendants are strung into entire necklaces by devotees.

Shrinathji Pendant; Nathdwara, Rajasthan, Mewar Region, 19th century. This leaf‑shaped, scalloped pendant has two rings at top and one at the base, allowing it to be worn around the neck, or tied to the arm. Both sides are enameled. One side depicts Viṣṇupāda. On the reverse, inside a floral and bird border, the name of the deity Shrinathji is inscribed in Devanagari.
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Viṣṇupāda amulets are often found enamelled in gold and silver. Those in gold were, and still are, made in Jaipur and Nathadwara in Rajasthan. In Nathadwara they were often purchased by pilgrims visiting the local temple of Shri Nathji as commemoratives of their pilgrimage.

Silver pilgrimage pendants
Necklaces with pendants featuring Viṣṇupāda motifs, from Northern and Southern India

The Ciaruteun Inscription

The Viṣṇupāda motif reached as far as Java. Throughout Southeast Asia, the earliest and most important archaeological and epigraphic evidence for Indian influence relates to the worship of Viṣṇu and his avatārs. From his first known appearance in Southeast Asia (ca. 450) in the Ci-arutön rock inscription, associated with the polity of Tārumā in Western Java, Viṣṇu was linked to kingship and to territorial control and expansion. Carved in situ into a massive boulder in the Ciaruteun River, the inscription identifies the footprints as those of Visnu by naming his avatāra Trivikrama, the Visnu “who strides the world in three steps”. A small, radiating circle, presumably a sun symbol, probably denoting the association of Vishnu as a sun deity or Āditya, appears beside it. The Sanksrit inscription, written in the Pallava Grantha, a Brahmi script adapted from the Pallava dynasty of South India, is accompanied by a pair of carved footprints and refers to Pūrnavarman, comparing his footprints to those of Viṣṇu (Viṣṇupāda).

Sanskrit Inscription of the ruler Pūrnavarman from one the oldest kingdoms of Indonesia, the Hindu Tarumanagara from the 5th century, near on the bank of the Ciaruteun river in Ciampea village, Bogor, Indonesia.

The text of the inscription:

vikkrantasyavanipateh shrimatah purnavarmmanah tarumanagararendrasya vishnoriva padadvayam

‘These two footprints which are like Wisnu’s feet belong to the brave king of the world who is famous for Purnawarman, the ruler of Tarumanagara.’

The linking of royal authority with Viṣṇu and his footprints occurs again in the inscription of Tháp Muòi now in southern Vietnam in the second half of the 5th century and in the southern part of Takėo province in Cambodia. Visnu is understood as the universal monarch (a concept similar to the Buddhist ‘cakravartin’), and the close identification of earthly rulers with Visnu’s divine kingship is a familiar concept.

Another inscription from the mid fifth-century inscription of Prince Gunavarman from Dong Thap (Óc Eo, an archaeological site) in the Mekong delta, Vietnam, celebrates his father’s devotion in founding “countless shrines to Bhagavat [Visnu] adorned with treasures” and notes that the footprints of Visnu (Viṣṇupāda) were placed on this earth for the benefit of all devotees (bhaktas).

Inscribed limestone stele, Bia đá có khắc chữ, Thap Muoi, Dong Thap, 2nd half of 5th century AD, Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City

References:

  1. Pragmatic View on The Inscription Heritage of Tarumanegara Kingdom; S E Wibowo , S Rosalina, Singaperbangsa University of Karawang

2. Lavy, Paul A. “As in Heaven, So on Earth: The Politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara Images in Preangkorian Khmer Civilisation.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.01 (2003)

3. Mapping Multiplicity: The Complex Landscape of Bodh Gaya, Amit Kumar

4. Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, Guy, John

5. Bhagavata Purana Motilal Banarsidass

______________________________________________________________

If you find value in my work, I hope you consider becoming a patron through Patreon. Hindu Aesthetic requires a lot of time and effort and your support would mean that I can continue bringing you the highest quality content. Link to my Patreon:

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store