From the Editorial Team (Dr. Meera Baindur).

While ruminating on the phenomenon of walking barefoot, my thoughts turned to footwear. I was wondering while we did throw away the excess baggage of the metaphorical footwear, we do have close connections between footwear and philosophy. Let me recount for you two rather divergent recollections on Indian footwear and Indian philosopher.

A humble flat leather piece with a toe hold or toe strap and a belt that goes around the top of the foot: everyone knows the chappal.

Foot wear sketch courtesy: Nitesh Anchan

 ‘Chappal’ seems to be a word from Hindi. In fact, it is likely derived from a mathematical measure of four-fingers or in this case four toes (Cappa) because, in the traditional chappal, the toe hold separates the big toe from the other four. This is a more durable leather version of the earlier toe-hold footwear called Paaduka in Sanskrit.  While you have to hold on to the paaduka, the easier to use chappal holds on to your foot.

 While the paaduka has an experiential component that I have experienced during some spiritual training in the Himalayas, the popular form of chappal itself is associated with a great philosopher from the South of India, Basavanna, a member of the Sharana movement of Shaivism (also called the Veera shaiva movement).

In King Bijjala’s kingdom, as an important minister, Basavanna was eager to uplift the leather workers, who were considered low caste or untouchable. For their economic progress, he encouraged the production of durable footwear that was made of buffalo hide and sold in the temple of Kolhapur. Five villages in the regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra were centers of making this traditional footwear. We know them today as the special ‘Kolhapuri’ chappals. He created a philosophy of the Sharana-s that promoted a caste-less society and the creation of an egalitarian society. And also made the protection of feet possible. There is a Kannada word perhaps that refers to this footwear as Kerpu, Kera, Keravu, or  Keravu close to the Tamil equivalent Ceruppu*. As compared to the traditional Paduka, the Kerpu has a strap enclosure for the foot. So, in the humble Kerpu we have footwear that clings to the foot.

Gandhiji himself made some chappals as a part of his social action against untouchability. He used to make his own footwear in Tolstoy farm and in Sevagram. He not only taught others to make shoes but also learned tanning.

On a personal note, the Paaduka is nothing more than a carved base of a hard wood, metal or ivory with a toehold that has a knob at the top. No straps or any other support. The footwear is to be gripped between the first two toes and lifted up with two toes in order to walk. When I was first asked to wear this, I thought it was a fun thing to try, like roller skates or a new surfboard. But soon I realized that walking with the Paaduka was a very skilled and vigilant action. Gripping the toe hold required you to balance the rest of the heavy sole in a sort of aerodynamically correct angle for lift off. If you failed to balance the front of the paaduka, the soles would drag on the ground or worse, land down with a loud clattering on the floor. (It actually sounds like a horseshoe- a clap- clop). Maybe that was the intent. A kind of attention-seeking footwear. Footwear that required thinking and mindfulness. Intention and awareness. Landing one’s feet was also a delicate and controlled action. Land too hard on the edge of your front toes and the wooden sole may cleave into two pieces.  One had to lift up the feet high, one at a time, one couldn’t drag the foot or shuffle or even swing them out with gusto like a march past. Your paaduka weaponized your feet. It could easily fly off to land on some unsuspecting student. If you gripped the toe hold too hard, the feet would soon ache, and you would be likely to slide out the hard soles. The paaduka taught me to walk softly, with dignified awareness. The weight of it creating an extreme awareness in how I moved and how each movement was a continuum. Even when I got used to these, I could never wear them casually like the flipflop- Hawaii chappal.  Walking in this footwear made me conscious of how I was stepping on the ground how I balanced my body and how I entered every space with the violence of sound. I learnt to step lightly. I also learnt to be aware of reducing my footprints in a place. Most of all I learnt to take my footwear off quickly. It was easier to walk barefoot than with the paadukas.

*This may be related to the root of words like Kere, Sere, etc. that indicate a sense of enclosure.

  • From some references in this article, I posit this etymology: Burrow, T. “Dravidian Studies III.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 11, no. 1 (1943): 122-39. Accessed September 3, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/609208.

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