Buddha's footprint is a symbolic image of the Buddha. A Buddha footprint occurs in two forms: naturally as an indentation in rocks, or figuratively as made by human hands.
A figural footprint of Buddha was not created as a work of art, for decoration or just to please the eye. Rather, the intent was to remind, instruct, or perhaps even enlighten the viewer.
Footprints of the Buddha are very common throughout Asia, being an important part of the art traditions of the Theravada countries of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Japanese author Motoji Niwa (丹羽基二) estimates that he tracked down about 3000 footprints in his numerous travels throughout Asia, including 300 in Japan, and over 1000 in Sri Lanka.
During the first centuries after the death of the Buddha, he was never depicted as a person, but only as a symbol.
As late as the first century B.C., in Sanchi, North India, the descendants of Emperor Ashoka decorated the portals (torana) on the famous stupas all over with symbols of the enlightened one: the horse without a rider recalls the departure from the parental home, the empty seat under the Bodhi tree recalls the moment of enlightenment, the stupas stand for the entrance into Nirvana.
And there are footprints here, decorated in the center with a round symbol. They simply represent the presence of the sublime.
On the soles of the feet of the Buddha are almost always the 32, 108 or even 132 auspicious symbols of the Buddha, but they differ in almost all representations. However, one thing is common to all: in the center is always the Dharmachakra.
Around the Dharmachakra, a variety of figures can be seen, some of which represent royal insignia, and some of which are mythological in origin. Actually, one could say that the foot became a directory of mystical, mythological and cosmological ideas.
In summary, the 108 symbols and the Dharmachakra reinforce the viewer in the presence of the Buddha and his "message". One recognizes the Buddhist cosmology and also the higher spheres to which one can be reborn.
They can also be understood as a guide for monks engaged in jhana meditation. One can see the stages that meditators can reach as they perfect themselves for the path to nirvana.
Virginia McKeen, in her article in the May 2003 issue of the National Museum Volunteers newsletter, suggested the following classification:
The oldest representation of a Buddha footprint with 108 symbols was found in the Lokananda Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar. One starts counting on a right foot with the symbol of the Royal Spear at the top left and then continues in a circular clockwise direction until one reaches the center, i.e. the Dharmachakra. The imprint of a left foot would be correspondingly counterclockwise.
In the Sri Lanka design, the 108 symbols are arranged in concentric circles around the wheel in the center. One starts at the top center at 12 o'clock again with the symbol of the royal spear and reads further clockwise. An example of a footprint in Sri Lanka design can be found at Wat Bowonniwet in Bangkok.
On footprints in Thai design, at the top (below the toes) the realms of the 16 Brahmas with forms and the six Deva realms are arranged in three horizontal lines. Further on a left foot is read line by line from left to right and from top to bottom. An example of this can be found on the feet of the great Reclining Buddha in Wat Phra Chethubon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok.
There are also footprints where the symbols are not arranged according to a specific pattern, for example, a wooden footprint about one meter high in the National Museum of Chiang Mai. The design is decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays and gold.
In the design of the four Buddhas, each of the last four Buddhas who appeared in this Buddhist Age, Dipamkara, Konagama, Kassapa, and Gotama, left an imprint. The arrangement can correspond to any of the above four designs. The sizes of the four imprints are different due to the body size of the four Buddhas.
In the 5th century Madhuratthavilasini, the height of Kakusandha is given as 18.28 meters, that of Konagamana as 13.7 meters, Kassapa was 9.14 meters high and Gotama 8.23 meters. From there, of course, the size of the footprints is no longer surprising.