Gaya is a good-sized city between Varanasi and Calcutta. It is 456km west of Calcutta, and 91km south of Patna. Gaya was included in the ancient kingdom of Magadha. Two or three hundred thousand Hindu pilgrims come here each year, many to do pinda (offer funeral cakes) and to perform the sraddha ceremonies for their ancestors. Gaya is the train junction for Bodhgaya (13km). Besides visiting the holy places in town, there is not much to see or do in Gaya.

The greatness of Gaya is described in the Mahabharata and in the Padma, Naradiya, Varaha, Kurma, Garuda, and Vayu Puranas. It is said that Lord Rama came here with Sita to perform ceremonies for his father.

Vishnupada Temple is the main temple in Gaya, where pilgrims worship the lotus footprint of Lord Vishnu and perform the sraddha ceremony to liberate their departed forefathers. Gaya is on the bank of the sacred Phalgu (Dry) River, so-called because part of the year its bed usually appears dry (if you scoop with your hand, however, you will at once come to clear water).

The city is named after Gayasura, the son of Tripurasura. The history of Gaya is found in the Gaya Mahatmya, an appendix to the Vayu Purana, and in shorter form in the Agni and Garuda Puranas. The asura (demon) Gaya acquired divine powers so that anyone who saw or touched him went straight to heaven. This intruded on the jurisdiction of Yamaraja, who rules death. Lord Vishnu killed the demon after granting him the boon that the ground covered by his body—some ten miles in extent—would become the holiest place on earth and be known as Gaya Ksetra. The ancestors of those who perform funeral ceremonies here are supposed to be sent straight to heaven.

There are fifty-five places in India to perform sraddha (pinda to one’s ancestors to save them from hell). Of these, Gaya is the most important, and the Ganges is the most important river.

The Tourist Office is at the train station.
You have to go to Bodhgaya to change money.

Sraddha Ceremony
We all perform both pious and sinful acts, which in subsequent lives bring both good and bad results. This is the science of karma: we reap what we sow. Pious acts in this life give good results in the next; sinful acts give bad results. The law of karma takes all our acts into account, so even the most pious soul may sometimes get stuck with a bitter dose of fate. Therefore a pious son, to save his father from the possibility of hellish or ghostly life, goes to worship Lord Vishnu at Gaya or some other holy place.

Vishnu, or Krishna, the Supreme Lord, is supremely pure. He awards liberation from material miseries. When a pious son offers oblations to Lord Vishnu and then by ritual and meditation gives the remnants of that offering to his departed father, the father is purified of sins, and if he is suffering from ghostly or hellish life, he is released.

To perform this offering is the traditional Vedic duty of a son. A pious son, therefore, is called putra, or “one who can deliver his father from hell.” It is best that the oldest son perform the sraddha ceremony. The sraddha ceremony takes fifteen days to perform. Pilgrims offer funeral cakes. Part of the ceremony consists of offering small balls of rice to birds, such as crows. The crows are supposed to represent dead ancestors. The sraddha ceremony is performed every year for the benefit of the dead ancestors.

Before going to Gaya to perform the sraddha ceremony, a pilgrim is supposed to walk around his village five times to call the souls of his ancestors to accompany him on the journey. There are many places where sraddha pinda is performed at Gaya. Within an area of 90 sq km (35 square miles) there are forty-five places where the pilgrims should offer funeral cakes, but most visit only seven places, and often, only the three most important places. The three main places are after bathing in the Phalgu River, to visit the Vishnupada Temple; Ramsila Hill in the north part of town; and Pretsila, the Hill of Ghosts.

Vishnupada Temple
On behalf of their forefathers, the pilgrims pour water on the temple’s main object of worship, a stone imprint, 40 cm (16 inches) long and 15 cm (6 inches) wide, of the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu in an octagonal basin, 1.2m (4 ft) in diameter. The footprint is imprinted in solid rock and is surrounded by a silver-plated basin. This temple has a 30m (99 ft) high tower. Ahalya Bai, Queen of Indore, renovated the temple in 1787.

The temple is situated on the banks of the Phalgu River. The river is completely dry in winter, but there is plenty of water in November.
Last rites are offered to the ancestor under the Akshaya-vat, or immortal banyan tree, which grows in the courtyard of the Vishnupada Temple. It is said that Buddha practiced meditation under this tree before going to Bodhgaya to attain liberation.

There are other shrines near the Vishnupada Temple. There are Deities of Adi Gadadhar, Sakshi Gopal, and Krishna Dwarka. There is an ancient carving of Lord Vishnu on Sesanaga in back of the temple where Lord Vishnu’s footprints are located.

Non-Hindus are not supposed to enter the temple, but converted Hindus may be permitted. Cremations take place on the riverbank near the temple.

Brahmayoni (Brahmajuni) Hill 
Brahmayoni Hill is 1km southwest of the Vishnupada Temple. There is a good view of the city from the top of the hill. You have to walk up 424 high stone steps to get to the top of the hill—a difficult, hour-long climb. There are two narrow caves at the top of the hill called Brahmayoni and Matreyoni. It is said that if you pass through these caves you will not experience rebirth. There is a temple dedicated to Astabhujadevi and other goddesses at the top of the hill.

Other Places
Ramshila Hill is 5km from the Vishnupada Temple. There is a Sita-Rama-Laksman Temple and a Paleswara Temple at the top of the hill. Pinda is offered at Ramkund.

Pretshila Hill is located 3km from Ramshila Hill. Pilgrims bath in the kund at the bottom of the hill and offer pinda there. They then climb the hill.
There is a Sakti temple on top of Mangala Gauri Hill. This is where the breast of Sati is said to have fallen when Lord Siva was carrying her body.
On the way to Brahmayoni Hill is the Akshya-vat, or the immortal banyan tree. Pilgrims come here to complete their rituals for their departed ancestors. It is said that the tree has existed since Treta-yuga, when Sitadevi gave a boon that the tree would remain immortal.

There is a Surya Temple in Deo, 20km away.
There is a small archaeological museum (10 am to 5 pm, closed Mondays) near the tank where the buses depart to Bodhgaya.

The Barabar Caves (the “Marabar” Caves of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India) are located 35km north of Gaya. It is believed that Jain monks lived in some of the caves. The area around the cave is known for bandits and is definitely not safe after dark. It is a good idea not to take any valuables with you when visiting the caves.