The earliest known manifestation of the three-fish-one-head symbol is in ancient Egypt, where it was a familar motif on ceramic dishes from the New Kingdom period between the 16th to 11th centuries BCE. Representing the tilapia fish and found together with depictions of the lotus, it is associated with the Goddess Hathor.
Two millenia later the motif appears well entrenched in Christian contexts in Europe: it is clearly portrayed in the famous album of Villard de Honnecourt, a French architect active between 1225 and 1250, who worked for the Cistercian Order of monks and who left a sketchbook full of architectural drawings and geometrical diagrams now held in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. In Christian circles, the fish is a symbol of Christ, and the three fish were believed to represent the Trinity.
Around the same period, the motif was also known in Yuan China, as attested by a brown-glazed stoneware jar excavated at Hancheng City, and now on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an.
Intriguingly, what may be an early Buddhist use of this motif seems to have been brought to attention by the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who adopted it as his logo. According to Ginsberg, he first saw this symbol in 1962, engraved on a stone sculpture of the footprint of the Buddha at Bodh Gaya in India. He describes the incident in a letter published in the Catholic Worker in May 1967, along with his sketch: “I saw the three fish one head, carved on insole of naked Buddha Footprint stone at Bodh-Gaya under the Bo-tree. Large – 6 or 10 foot size – feet or soles made of stone are a traditional form of votive marker. Mythologically, the 32 signs – stigmata, like – of the Buddha include chakaras on hands and feet. This is a sort of a fish chakra.” In 1982, Ginsberg’s sketch was reworked by Harry Smith and in this form appeared on the front cover of his books.
In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in Buddhist circles in Japan in this particular manifestation of the Buddha’s footprint at Bodh Gaya – said to be dated to the 5th century CE – and some replicas have been created. One such Buddhapada was erected in 2010 at Nanshoin temple at Kasaoka City in Okayama Prefecture.
There are many unanswered questions though, for while the fish by itself or in pairs is commonly encountered in Buddhist iconography, the three fish with one head is not a standard Buddhist symbol, and the footprint at Bodh Gaya does not appear to be firmly established in the scholarly literature. Nor is the ‘three fish’ symbol mentioned in a study of footprints of the Buddha by Anna Quagliotti, who found no early stone footprints of the Buddha in Indonesia.
In fact, a different origin altogether for Allen Ginsberg’s logo is asserted by Malay Roy Chaudhury, one of the Bengali ‘Hungryalist’ poets of the 1960s who influenced Ginsberg during his Indian travels. According to Roy Choudhury, it was he who pointed out to Ginsberg the design of three fishes with one head on the floor of the tomb of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and they later saw the same design in Patna Khudabaksh Library on the leather cover of a Persian book on Akbar’s ‘composite’ faith, Din-i Ilahi, combining the major tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
However, these references to the motif on the floor of Akbar’s mausoleum and on the book binding appear just as elusive as the Buddha footprint at Bodh Gaya, for no corroborative documentation can be found.
The symbol of three fish with one head does, however, appear occasionally in a variety of later non-Buddhist contexts in India, notably in the southern region of Karnataka. It is found on the 13th-century Hindu Harihareshwara temple in Harihar and in a flat schematic depiction on the wall of the Bangalore Fort – fortified between the 16th and 18th centuries, latterly by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan – as well as in a few other visible architectural contexts linked to the Muslim ascendency in the south.
In two examples from Hindu contexts – carved in stone in the Hanuman temple in Munvalli Fort, and in a 19th-century drawing from Oudh of Krishna with two Gopis, standing on a lotus – the fish are depicted with wavy tails, unlike all the other straight-tailed examples shown.
Reach to Southeast Asia
Returning to Southeast Asia, the question remains about how and when this motif of three fish with one head reached Sufi circles in Java. If it was indeed familiar as an early Buddhist or Hindu symbol, we would expect to find manifestations in pre-Islamic antiquities from Java, but none are known so far. Perhaps the image was introduced from southern India through mystical networks, but it is also equally possible that a chance encounter with this motif resonated so deeply with one individual in the Shaṭṭārīyah chain of transmission in Southeast Asia that it was incorporated into the guidance texts. Indeed, citing the 16th-century Malay mystical poet Hamzah Fansuri, the scholar Karel Steenbrink noted the profound attachment to fish imagery in the region: “The fishes, of course, remind us of the frequent use of the symbolism of the ocean, the waves and the fishes in the mystical poetry of the Southeast Asian divines. […] This is imagery far away from the sand of the Arabian Desert: it developed when the Indian Ocean became an Islamic Mediterranean and the Indonesian archipelago the most populous Islamic civilisation.”
In short, just like the equally enigmatic ‘three hares’, the motif of ‘three fish with one head’, which may have originated in ancient Egypt, appears to have so been universally appreciated as such a perfect graphical manifestation of threefold unity that at certain times and in certain places, it has been appropriated by almost every great world religion – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam – yet without ever having evolved into a recognised essential component of the respective religious iconography.
This article first appeared on The British Library’s Asian and African Studies Blog. It is part of a two-part series. You can read the first part here.