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According to folklore, the name of Gaya derives from the demon Gayasura, who purified himself through rigorous yoga and received as a reward the sacred tract of land along the River Phalgu. As a further reward, Gaya was imbued with the power to absolve ancestral sins – it is said that one Shraddha (funeral rite) in Gaya is equivalent to 11 shraddhas at any other place. Hindu pilgrims would visit each of the 45 shrines in Gaya (including the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya), offering up prayers for the dead and money for the gayaval (attending priest). But today, most pilgrims are unable to afford the full circuit and restrict themselves to the Vishnupad Temple (housing the footprint of Vishnu) and the smaller shrines clustered around it.

The high season is in September when the Phalgu swells up with monsoon rains and thousands of pilgrims descend the ghat to perform their ritual ablutions. Off season, Gaya’s religious character reveals itself only when you realize that nearly every visitor in town has come on account of a recently departed relative. Western tourists who wish to spend any time in Gaya are a complete mystery to the auto-rickshaw drivers lurking outside Gaya Junction, who can only repeat helplessly and hypnotically, “Body Gaya?” hoping to shuttle foreigners to the Buddhist centers 14 km south. Yet Gaya is as important to devout Hindus as its sister city is to Buddhists.

Sights

Gaya is one of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities. But its temples are not nearly as spectacular as those in large pilgrimage centers such as Varanasi, and non-Hindus may not enter the main shrine, Vishnupad. Towering over the bank of the Phalgu River, this golden-spired temple is said to house the footprint of Vishnu in the form of Buddha. The footprint is two meters long and enshrined in a silver basin. Non-Hindus can get a close look at the Sanctum (but not the print) by climbing the stairs at the back of the first shop to the left of the temple entrance. Continuing left along the row of shops and taking the first right, you can walk down to the riverbank, where Hindus bathe and worship. Bodies are cremated in a she along the beach, to the right, smaller temples cluster around Vishnupad, but most are off-limits to non-Hindus.

One kilometer east is a rather mundane Durga temple, where non-Hindus can observe and even participate in the shraddha – funeral rites for dead ancestors. Pilgrims who wish to perform the Shraddha at Gaya must first circle their own village five times. Once in Gaya, a gayaval (priest trained in the Shraddha) guides them in a complicated ritual involving Sanskrit prayers and offerings of Pinda (water and rice kneaded into a ball). The pilgrims usually repay the gayaval for his services with a hefty donation. Two steps away lies Shaktipith, where Sati’s breast is said to have fallen after she was destroyed. Images of the goddess are housed in a squat, cavernous mausoleum, inscribed on the front with the epic verse of Sati’s destruction.

One kilometer southwest of the Vishnupad Temple is the entrance to the Brahmyoni Hill. Climb 1000 stone steps to Shiv Mandir, where cool winds whip across the top and views of Gaya and Bodh Gaya (on the left) impress the impressionable. There is also a small goddess temple with an image of Shiva’s foot at the door. The hill is sacred to Buddhists, as it is associated with Gayasirsan (The Head of Gaya), the mountain where Buddha is said to have delivered several important sermons. Guides will try to tell you that Shiva’s footprint is Buddha’s and even that the images of the goddess are statues of the enlightened one.

Map of Gaya

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