|Rana P. B. Singh
|John McKim Malville
|Anne L. Marshall
Gaya is a center of sacred places marked by temples and shrines that are visited by pilgrims who perform shraddha ceremonies so as to liberate the souls of their ancestors. Most of these places have been known as sacred sites since the time of the Vayu Purana c. A.D. 500, and some are mentioned in the Vishnu Sutra c. A.D. 100.
Gaya is named for the holy demon Gayasur, who after being killed by Vishnu and others, was transformed into the series of rocky hills that make up the landscape of the Gaya Kshetra. Gaya was so holy that he had the power to absolve the sins of those who touched him or looked at him; after his death many people have flocked to Gaya to perform shraddha sacrifices on his body to absolve the sins of their ancestors. Gods and goddesses had promised to live on Gayasur's body after he died, and the hilltop protruberances of Gaya are surmounted by temples to various gods and goddesses. These hilltop temples at Rama Shila, Preta Shila, Ram Gaya Pahar, and Brahmayoni are part of the pilgrimage circuit, and grand staircases have been built up to most of them.
Sacred places in Gaya correspond to physical features, most of which occur naturally. Ghats and temples line the banks of the sacred Phalgu River. Trees such as pipal trees and Akshayavat, the undying banyan, are especially sacred. The Mangla Gauri shrine is marked by two rounded stones that symbolize the breasts of the mythological Sati, the first wife of Shiva. The most popular temple today is Vishnupad, a place along the Phalgu River, marked by a footprint of Vishnu incised into a block of basalt, that marks the act of Vishnu subduing Gayasur by placing his foot on Gayasur's chest.