Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Footprints & Handprints

Footprints & Handprints Main Page | Footprints & Handprints Outline Page

Paintings of hand and footprints of famous Buddhist teachers, predominantly Kagyu, Gelug and Nyingma.

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Footprints & Handprints Definition (below)
- Footprints & Handprints Outline Page
- Footprints Only
- Handprints Only
- Double Handprints
- Footprints & Handprints
- Handprints on the Back of Paintings
- Shakyamuni Buddha Footprints (& Hands)
- Footprints & Chakrasamvara
- Kagyu Teacher Footprints
- Gelug Teacher Footprints
- Painting Set (Gelug)
- Nyingma Teacher Footprints (Terdag Lingpa, etc.)
- Buddha or Manjushri Footprints from Wutaishan, China
- Three Manjushri Embodiments (with Hand and Footprints)
- Handprints for ritual or magic practices: Sample 1, Sample 2
- Handprints on the front of a painting
- Handprints as blessing on the back of a painting: Sample 1, Sample 2, Sample 3,
Sample 4, Sample 5, Sample 6.
- Confusions
- Others...

The Tibetan custom of having drawings done based on the physical outline of a teachers feet appears to be an oral instruction coming down from Gampopa Sonam Rinchen. The most famous early text describing this practice was written by Pagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo - a direct student of Gampopa. A number of early paintings are known that depict the feet of Drigung and Taglung teachers. Currently there are only about four paintings known - in the East or the West - depicting a Karmapa with footprints.

Note that with some Karmapa Guruyoga paintings the lineage Karmapas are depicted with the palms of the hands and soles of the feet directed towards the viewer.

Following after the use of footprints, handprints begin to appear and be incorporated into the composition of paintings. Although somewhat later, they become popular with the Gelug Tradition in the 17th century.

Although with a different meaning, handprints are also found on the backs of paintings placed there as a blessing - as part of the sanctification of a work. This manner of blessing appears to have been done by all traditions of Himalayan Buddhism but with the very different intention than that of the footprints placed on the front of a painting.

The Nyingma Tradition appears to have adopted the practice very late, possibly following the example set by the 5th Dalai Lama and Desi Sanggye Gyatso in the 17th century. So far there are no examples on the Himalayan Art Resources website of Sakya footprint compositions, or any affiliated schools. Historically it is a Kagyu tradition supported by early Kagyu writings later taken up by the Gelug hierarchs and painters.

Jeff Watt 11-2010 [updated 5-2017]

(See the publication Eternal Presence. Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art. Kathryn Selig Brown. Katonah Museum of Art, 2004).