Rana P. B. Singh
Dept.of Geography
John McKim Malville
Univ.of Colorado
Boulder,CO, USA
Anne L. Marshall
Univ.of Idaho
Moscow,ID, USA


Mythologically described as the last among the three pillars in "the Holy Bridge to the Heaven," and eulogized as the most sacred place for ancestral rituals, the city of Gaya has existed with its traditions of ancestral rites since at least the eighth century CE as narrated in the Vayu Purana. The VyP mentions 324 holy sites and spots related to ancestral rites in Gaya, of which 84 are identifiable at present and concentrated in the vicinity of nine sacred clusters. At present only twelve sacred centers are commonly visited by sacrificers. The cosmological hierarchy is marked by the three territorial layers--Gaya Mandala, Gaya Kshetra, and Gaya Puri. In this world of triad, Vishnu's footprint in the Vishnupad Temple serves as the axis mundi, and the radial and cardinal points are marked by hills possessing the manifestation of ghosts. The most common ritual period is a week, and each of the seven days is prescribed for particular rituals and ancestral rites, combining the sacred with space, time and function. The complexity of reference points for territorial delimitation, temporal phases of rituals and their locational association, and the sacred routes mobilizing the ritual functionality all followed a system that has resulted in a certain order. Complexity becomes an order in the maintenance and continuity of the tradition. The locational phenomena is given special consideration with the help of GPS values; the landscape view is presented by panoramic photographs; and the ritual system is described with the support of mythology and tradition.

Key words: Complexity, manescape, order, pilgrimage mandala, puranic mythology, ritualscape, sacred centers, sacred clusters, sacredscape, temporal phases.


The literal meaning of 'Gaya', "let's go to another place," refers to coming in contact with the other realm in which we are living; it symbolizes a destination linking this world of humanity with the world of divinity, the realm of ancestors. According to one of the most authoritative Sanskrit texts on pilgrimage and sacred places, the sixteenth century Tristhalisetu ,TS ("Bridge to the Three Holy Cities"), Gaya is the eastern most of the three pillars of the 'bridge to the realm of soul;’ the other two are Varanasi and Prayaga (Allahabad), both along the Ganga River to the west. The name 'Gaya' was referred to in the earlier Vedic text, the Rig Veda, RV (10.63, 64) as a sage and writer, while later in the Atharva Veda, AV (1.14.4) Gaya was mentioned as a mystic and magician. The first clear indication of Gaya as a holy place is metaphorically eulogized in the RV (1.22.17): "Vishnu crossed this and placed his first foot in three ways : the whole of it is encompassed in his steps." The treatise Nirukta, NrT (12.19), c. eighth century BCE, explains the above passage in two ways: (1) according to Shakapuni the three steps of Vishnu are the earth, the firmament, and the heavens, and (2) according to Aurnavabha, the three steps are the three sacred places called Samarohana, Vishnupad, and Gayashirsh. It is accepted that Nirukta's author, Yaska, was born long before birth of the Buddha (cf. Kane, 1973:645). The Mahabharata, MbH (3.87.11; 3.95.9) and the Vishnudharmasutra, VdS (85.4) also mention Gaya as an altar. The "Forest Retreat Canto" of the MbH (3.85) described Gaya together with other holy places, and in another canto Gaya (MbH, 13.25.42) is mentioned with respect to Ashmaprastha (modern Pretashila) where one gets release even from the sin committed by killing a Brahman.

The vast corpus of sixth to eleventh century Puranic literature consists of descriptions of Gaya (cf. AgP, 114-116; PdP, I, 38.2-21; GdP,I,62-86; NdP, II,44-47). In many instances the same verse is cited at several places in different contexts. The most elaborate mythology of Gaya is recorded in the Gaya Mahatmya, GM, a part of the VyP (chapters 105-112), dated c. eighth to ninth century (cf. Kane, 1973: 651-652). The GM also cites verses from the various Puranas and also the MbH (e.g.13.25-42). Two other chapters of the VyP (70.97-108; 82.20-24) describe many sacred spots and sites of Gaya. The glory of Gaya was already accepted in the period of Mahabharata, especially for ancestral rites; the MbH says (3.87.10-12) :

A man should aspire to have many sons; the reason is that one of them

may go to Gaya (and liberate the ancestors by offering them Pindas,

rice balls) or may perform an Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) or may

let loose a Nila bull (cf. Dave, I, 1970: 32).

The name Gaya is derived from a demon-king, Gayasura, who by his arduous austerity pleased the gods and received the blessing that the spirit of all the divinities would reside in his body--i.e. the territory of Gaya marked by his reclining body (cf. VyP, 106). By his power of great meditation the divine spirit met the earth spirit, resulting in the formation of a very powerful holy place named after him. To commemorate the glory and spiritual power of the demon Gayasura, his city is called Gaya (AgP, 114.41). The VyP (105.16-18) says that liberation (mukti) is achieved by acquiring the supreme knowledge of a Brahman, performing ancestral rites at Gaya, dying in the act of protecting a cow, or passing a simple life at Kurukshetra, however, performing ancestral rites at Gaya is the most beneficial. This view has also been supported by the other Puranas (e.g. AgP, 115.3-4, 5-6; VmP, 33.8; NdP, II, 44.20).

Asher (1989: 46) opines that the special sacred ritual of ancestral worship and pilgrimage to Gaya since the Mahabharata period "probably drew Sakyamuni to the outskirts of Gaya where he engaged in meditation that resulted in the attainment of Buddhahood." The MbH (3.87.10-12) specially eulogizes the Phalgu River, Gaya-shirsh/shir, and the Akshayavata, the holy banyan that gives never-ending merit by pleasing the ancestors.

According to inscriptional sources, the antiquity of the site and the tradition of ancestral rites in and around the Vishnupad Temple goes back to the period of Samudragupta. An inscription dated 872 CE of the Pala monarch Narayanapala commemorates the dedication of a house that was provided for ascetics (cf. Asher, 1989:46; also Fleet, 1970). Despite mythological evidence of the sanctity and glory of Gaya before the eighth or ninth century, the sculptural or inscriptional sources are not available for earlier periods. Another record of c.1058 mentions a ruler of Gaya named Vishvarupa who built a temple of Gadadhara which today forms part of the Vishnupad complex (cf. Banerji, 1915; also Sircar, 1965). Construction of another temple by Vishvarupa is testified by another inscription of the same year in the Krishna Dvaraka Temple (cf.Chakravarti, 1901). Vishvarupa has erected other temples also (cf. Asher, 1989:48-49). Later inscriptions of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries attest to the tradition of continuous pilgrimage to Gaya, even from South India (Sircar,1959; Sircar and Sarma,1959). In the late eighteenth century, Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore built the Vishnupad Temple complex, the largest in Gaya.

The Census of 1901 recorded a population of 71,288 in the town of Gaya. The population declined 29.97% by 1911, a year known for drought and epidemics. By 1921 the population had grown rapidly, by 35.34%. The town was declared a Municipality in 1961 with an areal extent of 30.51 square kilometers, and its boundary was reconstituted in 1971 with an area of 28.62 square kilometers inhabited by 180,000 people. From 1971 to 1981 the growth rate was 37.35%, the highest that has been recorded by the census. Between 1981 and 1991 the growth rate was below the Indian average at 18.98% and the population reached 294,000 in 1991.

Bodh Gaya, 10.98 square kilometers in area, was declared a town in 1961 when the population was only 6,299. By the 1970s, the town was declared a heritage and pilgrimage site for Buddhist adherents. This resulted in an accelerated influx of migrants, business growth, the opening of Magadh University, the establishment of monasteries and international institutions, and the development of supporting infrastructure. Between 1971 and 1981, the population grew by the unprecedented growth rate of 125.66% to reach a population of 15,724. Between 1981 and 1991 the population grew by 37.92% to reach 21,690, and in 1991 the town was declared a Notified area.


Although the city of Gaya is predominantly a place for pilgrims to perform ancestral rites, during the two periods each year, i.e. in the Hindu months of Chaitra (March-April) and Karttika (October-November), a large mass of devotees pay visits to Sun-related sites, especially the sacred tanks (e.g. Surya Kunda, Uttar Manasa, and the Sun Temple at Brahmani Ghat) and perform special rituals, taking holy dips and offering sacred items to the Sun god. In the Krishna Dvaraka Temple a record of Vishvarupa's son Yakshapala mentions the homage he gave to the Sun and "draws upon solar imagery to convey a sense of the resplendent city that his father has built" ( Asher,1989:54, also Kielhorn, 1887). Most probably the 1.5 meter high Sun image was installed by Yakshapala in mid eleventh century. The figure stands by a black slab carved with flying figures and seldom found planets above his head. The biggest image of the Sun god (2.44 m high) is at the Brahmani Ghat facing the east towards the Phalgu river. Like so many images of Surya (the Sun-god) scattered all around Gaya, it is now cloaked in a Vaishnava mantle. In the vicinity of the greater territory of Gaya (Gaya Mandala), there are nine grand, architecturally significant temples at Deo (Devarka), Madanpur (Umga), Hanspura (Deokunda), Madhusrava (Chyavanyashram), Ular, Belaur, Baragaon, Aungari, and Pandarak (at bank of the Ganga river). In Bihar the most popular festival celebrated with deep faith and big show is Chhath--worship of the Sun god as 'mother'. This festival is held twice a year, i.e. in the light-half fortnights of Chaitra (March-April), and Karttika (October-November). These nine places with their historical monuments, setting associated with a great tank, and folk mythology attract devotees from all parts of Bihar. It is said that Barua (1975, II:64) erroneously citing Kern's work argues that "Vishnupada and Gayasirsa were originally astronomical terms" (cf. Asher, 1989:60), however his statement refers to an important perspective of nine Sun god temples in the reach of Gaya Mandala (see Fig.1). The prevalence of Sun images in and around most of the old sites in Gaya further supports this idea. Among the rock sites or stone slab the VyP (111.56) mentions sixteen sites related to different divinities, including the Sun god. The two tanks associated with the Sun god, viz. Uttar Manas and Surya Kunda, are referred in the VyP (111.2,22; 111.6,8). The worship of the Sun god is described as a fasting ritual and festival in the MbH (3.16-31); people believe that since that time the tradition has been maintained. Some of these Sun temple sites are considered to be reference points in the pilgrimage journey and delineation of the territorial boundary (Mandala) of Gaya.


The Gaya Kshetra is generally a flat area with an average elevation of 100 meters, however, four hills rise up out of the plain, and on the hills are many holy spots. These hills are symbolized as interlinking ladders between the earth and the heavens along which the soul may rise for final release. These hillocks—representing height, verticality, and a different realm from the earth—play a major role in the spatial symbolism of transcendence. They are also the special domain of all hierophanies of atmosphere, and therefore the dwelling of the divinities (cf. Eliade, 1958:99), in the case of Gaya the resort of demi-gods or associates to the God of Death, Yama. The mythological literature mentions their roles in helping the departed soul to settle down in the abodes of divinities.

The three symbolic primal objects of nature are described and given ritual connotations including the Phalgu River, 'flowing water;’ Akshayavata, 'the imperishable banyan;’ and Pretashila, 'the hill of the ghosts.’ The river symbolizes fertility by liquidity (living water) containing life, strength and eternity (cf. Eliade, 1958:193). The AV says, (6.91.3) "The waters are indeed healers; the waters drive away and cure all illnesses." The growth and expansion of natural elements in the symbolic manifestation of the Cosmos is represented by Akshayavata. The Maitrayaniya Upanishad, MtU(6.7) says, "Cosmos is a tree. Its branches are the ether, the air, fire, water, and earth." Climbing up on the hills for rituals is like "following a ladder passing by a bridge to reach the celestial world" according to the Taittiriya Samhita, TaS ( One of the three most important sacred places in Gaya mentioned in the Vedic period is 'Samarohana'--literally meaning 'a retreat to the celestial world' (cf.NrT,12.19). It can easily be interpreted as the hill of Pretashila.

The five hills marking the territory of Gaya Kshetra are Pretashila (northwest;VyP,108.67), Ramashila (northeast; VyP,110.15), Prabhas, across the Phalgu river (east; VyP,108.13, 16;109.14), Brahmayoni (southeast; NdP, 2.47.54), and Griddhrakuta (southwest; VyP, 109.15). Prabhas hill is 163 meters high, Pretashila is 266 meters high, and the remaining three hills are around 218 meters high. These hills are described with respect to the surrounding forests and specific trees, e.g. banyan (Ficus bengalensis) close to Brahmayoni (MbH,3.84.83; VyP,105.45), mango (Magnifera indica) close to Goprachar (VyP,111.35-37), holy bo-tree (Ficus religiosa),i.e. the present Mahabodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (VyP,111.26-27), and thorny bushes (mostly Karaunda, Amaranthus viridis, and Ber, Zizyphus jujuba) around the Griddhrakuta (VyP,108.63).

Among the nine rivers, streams and rivulets described in the VyP only the Phalgu is existent and described as Mahanadi, ‘great river,’ in the AgP (115.25). The drainage of Kapila (VyP,108.58) originating close to the temple of Kapiladhara, and Akashaganga (AgP,116.5) originating from the Griddhrakuta hill (the temple of Griddhreshvara lies there) are still visible during the rainy season. Twelve waterpools, kundas, are also described as holy spots for bathing and purification. The two kundas considered most auspicious are the Phalgu Tirtha and Rama Tirtha, stairways (ghats) opposite each other, along the east and west banks of the Phalgu River.


Like most of the pan-Indian holy centers Gaya also records the three-tier hierophanic expression comparable to macro (i.e. Mandala), meso (i.e. Kshetra), and micro (i.e. Puri /city) cosmos, represented by covering circles whose radii are fixed by the peaks of the three hills, respectively they are Korambe Hill, 767 meters high, from where the Punpun river originates in the south; Pretashila in the northwest; and Ramashila in the north. The center of this three-tier territorial extent is Vishnupad. The Sun Temple of Belaur at the other side of the Son river, Pretashila summit, and Vishnupad fall in a straight line which further indicates the perception of solar association in the acceptance of territorial limits.

The triad division is comparable to the three cosmological divisions of shamanic landscape. By the specialized rituals of transcendence and complexity (i.e. shamanism), a human being becomes attached with the departed but mobile soul and ascends to the sky or descends to the underworld with a view to travelling in other realms to have an out-of-body experience comparable to 'ecstasy' (cf. Devereux, 1992:55). Shamanism is considered to be the primary experience of human consciousness. The triad division are the 'upper world ' of spiritual beings (celestial world), the 'middle Earth ' of human reality (human world), and the 'underworld ' of the shades (demonic world). These three worlds are linked with the point of the highest state of manifestation of power serving as the world axis, the axis mundi, the omphalos, from where the Four Directions, the cardinal points, are marked. Devereux says, (1992: 56) "Making the omphalos is the first great act of geomancy, or sacred geography, remembered today in the laying of a foundation stone for a building. The omphalos is the center of a circle whose circumference is nowhere and everywhere." Vishnu's footprint in the center of Vishnupad Temple in Gaya serves as the omphalos for the whole territory. Eliade writes, (1965: 12) "Being an axis mundi, the sacred city or temple is regarded as the meeting point of heaven, earth and hell." The earthly extension of the cosmos is represented by kshetra, e.g. Gaya Kshetra, meaning the concentration of cosmic influence in the topography (cf. Devereux, 1996: 136).

i. The Gaya Mandala ( Fig. 1 )

The Gaya Mandala is marked by a radius of 25 krosha (80 kilometers), delineated by three reference points all related to the Punpun River: the riverbank in the north, the riverbank in the southwest, and the river’s source from Korambe hill in the south (Fig.1). The VyP (108.73) and the NdP (II, 47.75) mention that the first rites of purification and initiation are to be performed at the bank of Punpun (Punapuna) river. Hair tonsuring is the prescribed standard rite, followed by the offering of pindas (rice balls) to the manes, deified souls of dead ancestors. The Punpun River flows into the Ganga about fifteen kilometers east of Patna, the capital of Bihar. The mythology mentions that by arduous meditation and austerity a prostitute had been transformed into a river and received the power of giving release from sins. Some pilgrims first take a holy bath in the nearby channel of the Ganga. Those coming from the Patna side by railroad first stop at Punpun Railway Station for the initiation ritual. Similarly pilgrims coming from the west stop at Anugrah Narain Road Railway Station and walk down to the bank of the Punpun River, and sometimes to the Son River. Both of these sites symbolize the radial points of the Gaya Mandala. The references cited above also mention the sacred abode of the sage Chyavanya (Chyavanyashram) on the bank of Son in the northwest. A Sun Temple, close to the village of Madhusrava, exists today, and the mythology glorifies this site where the divine doctors, the Seven Ashvanikumars, transformed the old sage, Chyavanya, to an young person.

ii. The Gaya Kshetra ( Fig. 2 )

The Gaya Kshetra is approximately marked by the radial distance of 2.5 krosha (8 km) measured roughly from the summit of Pretashila in the northwest, or the Mahabodhi tree in the south (in Bodh Gaya) from Vishnupad. The first day of the ancestral rites is prescribed to be performed at Pretashila where pilgrims request approval of the model and system of rites to be performed at other sites (cf. VyP, 110.61). This clearly indicates the importance of this site; even at the beginning of the second day of rites pilgrims are advised to visit Pretashila and repeat the rites as a mark of thanksgiving and to receive a blessing for the successful completion of the rites followed for the remaining five days (cf. VyP, 110.23-24; also TS,355).

iii. The Gaya Puri ( Fig. 3)

The Gaya Puri (sacred abode) expands radially at a distance of 1.25 krosha (4 km) from Vishnupad to the summit of Ramashila (218m) in the north. On the third day of ancestral rites Ramashila is prescribed as the central point. The core area of Gaya Puri, known as Adi Gaya (the old Gaya), is marked by a radial distance of 0.25 krosha (0.8 km) from Vishnupad to Sita Kunda across the Phalgu River in the east and referring the edge of Prabhas Hill.

The four-tier territorial framework corresponds to a numerical multiplier system. The core is at 0.5 krosha from the navel point Vishnupad, and the successively covering territories are at the radii of 5 times (Gaya Puri), 10 times (Gaya Kshetra) and finally 100 times (Gaya Mandala) over the core. Ultimately, it reaches to the multiplier system of five, i.e. 5:10:100 converging to 2:10, and finally 5. The number five symbolizes the Panchamahabhutas, the Five grass substances together making the life according to the Hindu cosmogony, viz. the Sky/ether, the earth, air, water, and fire. For most of the ancient holy centers the territorial extension is described in light of the number five (cf. NdP, II.44.16; also compare Singh, 1994: 193, 195).


Various texts list different numbers of holy spots and in many cases cite them by different names. The VyP mentions 324 holy spots and images which correspond to the numerical cosmology, i.e. 12 signs of the zodiac x 9 planets x 3 mythical realms. By taking the AgP, GdP and VyP altogether, the total number of holy spots comes to 432; this number may be compared to numerical symbol of 12 signs of the zodiac x 12 months x 3 mythical realms. According to the glorifying mythology all the sacred spots and holy images of the world are manifested in the holy territory of Gaya Kshetra. This is comparable to the cosmic frame of Varanasi Mandala, Kshetra, and Puri where 324 forms of Siva exist, and other holy numbers like 144, 108, 72, etc. also correspond to various systems of numerical symbolism (cf. Singh, 1993: 59-60). Many of the holy spots in Gaya have vanished, and now only forty-five exist. These spots are known as vedis (altars) where pindas (balls) are offered in a systematic order, beginning at the bank of the Punpun River, and ending at the holy banyan tree, Akshayavata, after which pilgrims give a donation to the overseeing priest at the Gayatri Ghat. The forty-five active sites are arranged spatially into eight sacred clusters; each cluster is known by the name of a sacred center that interlinks the associated images. Most sacred clusters are under a single sect of priests, yet each sacred cluster is not necessarily characterized by a single set of sectarian deities (cf. Vidyarthi, 1978:7). Of the 324 sacred centers and spots described in the VyP, 84 are easily identified (see Table 1).

Table 1. Gaya : Sacred Clusters and Sacred Centers


Sacred Cluster No. Sacred Center


1. Vishnupad (14) Vishnupad, Gayakupa, Gayashirsh, Gadadhar,

Gayeshvari, Shamshan Ghat, Narasimha, Sakshi

Siva, Krishna Dvaraka, Parvati, Adi Gadadhar,

Surya Kunda and the temple.

2. Uttar Manas (11) Uttar Manas (Gangatirtha; Sitala), Pitamahesh-

vara, Surya (Brahmani Ghat), Phalvishvara,

Gayaditya Sun, Mahabir, Parvati, Gayatri Ghat

(Kaleshvara, Kalabhairava).

3. Sita Kunda (11) Sita Kunda, Ramagaya, Rameshvara, Bharat

Ashram (and Jagannatha), Brahma's foot, Hans-

tirtha, Nagakuta/Parvat, Amarakantak, Prabhas

hill, Phalgu's bank.

4. Ramashila (11) Ramashila (images of Rama, Siva, Yama), Rama

Kunda, holy banyan at foothill, Kakabali Vedi

(and Yamabal, Svanabali); and temples of

Bageshvari and Baglamukhi.

5. Pretashila ( 4) Pretashila (and Pretabhairavi), Brahma Kunda,

Brahmeshvara Siva.

6. Griddhrakuta ( 8) Griddhreshvara, Griddhraghat, Akasha Ganga,

Radha Kunda, Patal Kunda, Vaitarini, Godavari

Kunda, Maha Kashi (Varanasi).

7. Akshayavata (15) Akshayavata (holy banyan), Manglagauri,

Agasteshvara, Goprachar, Pundrikaksha,

Janardan, Gadalol, Prapitamaheshvara,

Brahmasara, Kapiladhara, Brahmayoni

(Gangasagar), Savitri, Rukmini Kunda, Pushka-


8. Bodh Gaya ( 2) Mahabodhi Taru (tree), Muchkand Kunda.

9. Punpun ( 8) banks of the Punpun river in (a) the north

(scattered) and (b) the west; Madhusrava (Chyavanyashram);

Deo; Deokunda (Hanspura); Son-tirthas (may be

Sun temples at Belaur and Ular); Kothagiri,

51 km southwest (probably Sun temple at



According to a recent survey (January 1998), out of all of the pilgrims performing ancestral rites at present, about 60% visit only three places—the Phalgu River, Vishnupad, and associated sacred centers, 30% perform rites at about five to seven places, and the remaining 10% visit eight to ten places. The most important sacred centers are briefly described below.

i. Vishnupad (Vishnu's footprint)

The mythology in the VyP (106) narrates the story of a demon Gayasur who by his meditation and austerity was endowed with great strength and vigor. Later Brahma and Vishnu requested that he provide his body to serve as an altar on which all the gods stood as directed by Vishnu. Vishnu's footprint commemorates the story. Vishnu's footprint (c. 40cm), in a block of basalt in an octagonal basin, is the central point of attraction in the temple. This sacred center was also mentioned in the MbH (3.87.10-12). Vishnu is accepted as the patron deity of the city.

Vishnu's footprint is believed by Mitra (1878: 124-126) and Cunningham (1871: 9-10) to have been originally a Buddhist emblem which was appropriated by Hindu devotees as Hinduism eclipsed Buddhism in Gaya. Hindu devotees, however, have strong faith that the footprint symbolizes Vishnu's mark. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter in the temple, and until the 1950s, even low caste people were not allowed to enter. The 30m high temple of Vishnupad has eight rows of beautifully carved pillars which support the mandapa (pavilion); the building was rebuilt in 1787 by Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, central India. A gateway that lies between the Vishnupad temple and Surya temple was made by king Krishna Deva and his wife Tirumala Devi in 1521 CE (Buchanan, 1811-12: 109). The main bronze bell in the compound was presented by Ranjit Pandey, the minister of the king Rana of Nepal. Another bell that hangs at the entrance is a testimony of a gift presented by a British Officer, named Gillander, in January 1790 (O'Malley, 1906: 215). Around the Vishnupad Temple during the 1960s the Lodging House Committee has constructed a dharmashala (pilgrims' resthouse), a monument consisting of a park in the honor of Shankaracharya, and two other parks named Vishnu and Tulsi in back of the temple. The neighborhood around the temple is not well maintained. Many of the old houses and religious buildings are presently in dilapidated condition, and some of the old spots have already been lost (cf. Vidyarthi, 1978: 28-29).

ii. The Phalgu river (the merit giving river)

The Agp (115.27) explains that the name Phalgu is a combination of Phala (merit) and go (wish-giving cow); the etymology implies that the river manifests the highest power of piousness and merit. The Vyp(111.16) says that the Phalgu is superior even to the Ganga River, because the former is the liquid form of Adi-Gadadhar (Vishnu), whereas the latter originates from Vishnu's foot. The puranic literature (e.g. AgP, 115.25; VyP, 110.4-5) describes the Phalgu as Mahanadi (the Great River). Among the sites of ancestral rites, the bank of the Phalgu River is given special status in mythology (cf. KmP, 2.20.32).

The two streams, Lilajan and Mohana, originating from Korambe Pahar, a 767 meter high hill about 75 kilometers south of Gaya, meet about 5 kilometers south of Gaya and the resulting river is named Phalgu. Lilajan is a corrupt form of old name Niranjara, a river in which the Buddha bathed and finally released his begging bowl. Flowing approximately 82 kilometers north from Gaya, the Phalgu turns to the east and finally meets the Ganga (cf. Fig. 1). Of course, in the greater part of the year the Phalgu River remains dry.

Presently eleven ghats along the west bank of the Phalgu River are used for rituals, bathing, and ancestral rites ( Fig.3 ). The Shmashan (cremation) Ghat is the southern most and is used only for cremation rituals. The area between Gadadhar and Sangat Ghats is most intensively used for various types of rituals, oblutions, and festivities. On the east bank, facing Vishnupad, is the Sita Kund sacred cluster; the stairway to the bank is known as Ramagaya Ghat and is used for religious purposes associated with this cluster. Devotees from as far away as 150 kilometers visit to take sacred baths in the Phalgu and perform rituals on the special occasions of the full moon day (Purnima) of Karttika (October-November), Bishua (close to the vernal equinox, the 21st of March), and the solar eclipse. These three occasions are believed to be the moments when the "fire" element of the Sun and sky and the "water" eìement of the Earth meet in a powerful way. The ancestral dark-fortnight, Pitripaksha, falling in Ashvina (September-October), close to the autumnal equinox on the 21st of September, is another period when a hundred thousand sacrificers from all parts of India come for ancestral rites, and almost all perform various rites of different degrees at the bank of Phalgu river.

iii. Akshayavata (imperishable banyan tree)

The mythology mentions that at the time of a cosmic flood (pralaya) when the earth submerged into ocean Lord Vishnu (the Preserver) took the form of a child and went into a deep sleep on a branch (or leaf) of the banyan tree (VyP, 111.79-82). The present banyan symbolizes that mythic tree. The puranic literature describes this story in different ways, yet each account indicates its location at Gaya (cf. MbH, 3.84.83, 85.14; VyP, 105.45, 109.16; AgP, 115.70; PdP, I.38.2). Asher (1989:58) describes that, "the size of the banyan tree, enhanced by its many great prop roots and the contrast with the diminutive temple beneath it, suggests that it has been in place for a very long time. As the name of place (akshaya) suggests, it appears to be undecaying, perpetual, an appropriate point of conclusion for a ceremony intended to propitiate the spirit of the deceased."

The history, eternity and religious glories of Akshayavata are testified in the wide corpus of Sanskrit literature of the historical period (cf. Gode, 1957). Like a mountain, such a unique tree is also symbolized as a pillar or post serving as a link between the heavens and the earth; this significance justifies its attribution to the ancestral rites. Presently, its spreading branches shade a small shrine whose exterior walls bear many sculptures, and also an inscription to the right of the doorway. Asher (1989: 58) opines that, "the shrine, a relatively modern structure, preserves the Saiva dedication of an older structure on the spot," as supported by the inscription of Vigrahapala III (1058-1075) which documents the installation of a linga called Vatesa, meaning Lord of the Banyan tree (ibid.: 6).

iv. Pretashila (the rock of ghosts)

The Pretashila Hill, lying at a distance of 2.5 krosha (8 kilometers) northeast of Vishnupad, may have been originally a site of folk religion of spirit worship that was transformed over time to become a site for ancestral worship; later the shrine of Pretabhairavi (the goddess of ghosts) and Vishnu have been added. The MbH (13.25.42) says that by performing rituals at this site, one can get release even from the sin of killing a Brahman. The VyP (108.15) describes this hill as part of series of hills, and prescribes (110.15) that after completing rituals at the bank of the Phalgu, in the afternoon the sacrificer should visit Pretashila. The VyP (110.10-12) also mentions that one has to offer pindas to ancestors on its summit, take a holy bath in the Brahma Kunda at the foot of the hill, and offer water from above waterpot to the divinities. Close to this waterpool Brahma (the Creator) had performed his horse-sacrifice ritual.

v. Ramashila (the rock of Rama)

The old name of this hill was Pretaparvata (the mountain of ghosts). Its location is identified by the TS (355). The VyP (110.61) suggests that all of the rituals and oblutions to be performed here are similar to those performed at other important sites in Gaya. It is uncertain when and how the name Pretaparvata changed to Ramashila, but based on Buchanan's (1811-12: 128) report it is assumed that by the end of the eighteenth century when the temple of Rama was built here, the name had changed and the folk stories had been created to mythologize it. In the course of time people have forgotten its original nomenclature, however, the age-old tradition of a non-Brahman overseer of the shrine still exists and close ties with Brahman priests are maintained.

vi. Sita Kunda and Ramagaya

Prabhas hill, about 800m east of Vishnupad, lies along the east bank of the Phalgu River. The meeting point of the hill and the waterfront is considered an especially holy place for a sacred bath. The Prabhas (light manifested) Siva linga and Rama are worshipped by offering special rice balls (VyP,108.22). The MtP (22.70) and AgP (116.13) have described this area as Ramatirtha. The VyP (108.16-18) also mentions Ramatirtha and Bharatashram. The mythology refers to all of the gods standing on the body of the demon Gaya, in the same way the goddess Lakshmi in the form of Sita, Parvati as Manglagauri, and Sarasvati as Gayatri were seated (VyP, 106.77-98; cf. Kane, 1973:659). Sita's image in a tiny shape exists in a small basin known as Sita Kund. Sita is described as Lakshmiangna (part of Lakshmi) in the MbH (13.46). In this basin is a stone image of a big hand holding a ball; it is popularly narrated that it symbolizes the right hand of Rama's father Dasharath who from the netherworld put his hand out to receive the pinda offered by Sita (Rama's wife). The priest and overseer assistants narrate this story to any visitor with elaboration and justification. Rama's brother Bharat was living in a hermitage at a place now known as Bharatashram and marked by a shrine of the same name (cf. BdP, 3.13.105).

vii. Uttar Manas

The holy tank of Uttar Manas is assumed to be an ancient pool (cf. MbH, 12.152.13; MtP, 121.69) which in the course of time was deserted and filled with silt. However, by the mid-eleventh century it was renovated and reconstructed by King Vishvarupa's son, Yakshapala, as mentioned in an inscription of 1040 (Kielhorn, 1887:63). This was misinterpreted by Barua (1975,II: 67) that this waterpool was made by Yakshapala and later on added in the Gaya Mahatmya, GM. Kane (1973:651) opines that the spot was already famous as a site of ancestral rites by the ninth century (cf. AgP, 115.10; VyP, 82.21). At the waterpool of Uttar Manas three other holy spots are manifested, i.e. Udichi in the northwest corner, Dakshina Manas in the southwest corner, and Kankhal at the center. Sacrificers are advised to offer rice-balls at the four above sites, followed by bank of the Phalgu River; altogether these five places are known as Panchatirthi (cf. TS, 360; VyP, 111.1).

The VdS (85.36) has elaborated the rituals to be performed at Uttar Manas (cf. KmP, 2.37.44). The VdS (85.65-67) has described 55 holy places in India for ancestral rites and emphasized five spots of Gaya and Gayashirsh including Akshayavata, the Phalgu River, Uttar Manas, Matangavapi, and Vishnupad. By the early nineteenth century it had become an important center (Buchanan, 1811-12: 108, 122). Near Uttar Manas are many other temples and spots where very few sacrificers perform rites.

viii. Mahabodhi Taru

The Mahabodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) was already described in the puranic mythology as a sacred spot for viewing, worship, and ancestral rites (cf. AgP, 115.34-37; MtP, 22-33; NdP, II.45.103-105; and VyP, 111.26-29). This sacred bo-tree has a definite association with Buddhism as its spatial affinity to Buddha Gaya also testifies (cf. Barua, 1975, I:234, II:2-9). Gaya and Gayashirsh are described as well-known sacred centers during the Buddhist period (e.g. Mahavagga,1.21.1; and Anguttar Nikaya, IV.302). In the seven-day period of ancestral rites, sacrificers visit this place on the fourth day. According to Vidyarthi (1978: 24) the tree was an object of worship by Hindus as early as the seventh century, however around 600 C. E. the Bengal king, Shashank, a devoted adherent of Brahmanism, dug it up and burned it with fire. This is supported by Hiuen Tsiang (629 C. E., bk VIII.117-118). It is argued that "the Brahman priests might have adopted the tree as a suitable object for veneration on the decline of Buddhism and in this way made profitable use of the worship it received from the Buddhists" (Vidyarthi, 1978:24). It is also believed that c. 620 King Purnaverma replanted the sacred tree. The VyP (111.24) describing the Mahabodhi tree also mentions the 'yajna' (fire sacrifice), the Bodhisattva, and the sacred ficus on which Vishnu resides. The area was well recognized as a Saiva and Vaishnavite place of worship. This is supported by a relief dated in Dharmapala's twenty-sixth year (c. CE 807) depicting Surya, Lakulish, and Vishnu (cf. Asher, 1989: 56). Buchanan (1811-12: 126) also mentions this site as an active place for rituals. The PdP (6.117.30) describes the Bodhi Tree in respect to its association with the Buddha. Another of Dharmapala's reliefs dated c. 850 also mentions the story of the Buddha (cf. Cunningham, 1883:3). Presently very few sacrificers visit this site. Sometimes a closeby waterpool, Muchkand Kunda is also used as a ritual site.


The earliest known text describing the elaborate and systematic form of rituals at Gaya is The Book of Rituals, VdS (85.4, 40, 65-67), dated c. fourth century CE. Additional texts of successive periods also describe ancestral rites at different levels (e.g. MbH, 3.87.10-12; VdS, 111.42; Shankhasmriti, 14.27-28; Likhitasmriti, 12-13; AgP, 115.46-47), however, the most elaborate form of ancestral rites at Gaya is prescribed in the VyP (110-111). The three commonly used texts elaborating the ancestral rites with special reference to Gaya are Vachaspati's Gayashraddhapaddhati (c. fifteenth century), Raghunandan's Tirthayatratatva (c. sixteenth century) and Madhava's Gayapaddhati (c. late sixteenth century). In the course of time many local or folk versions of texts developed that claimed their derivation from the ancient texts, however, in practice no standard textual or traditional system is followed. During our recent field work the priest informed us that "everybody is now in a hurry and wants to complete the rituals mostly within a day; that is why we go to visit only three or four places and guide the rituals in an abbreviated form" ( based on an interview, 15th January 1998). Many of the ancient sites are now in ruins, and some have already lost their identity or have been transformed by encroaching buildings. The generalized form of a week-long visit to sacred centers for the purpose of performing shradha ceremonies is given in Table 2.

Table 2. Gaya : Week-long Series of Ancestral Rituals and the Spots/Vedis


Day Places visited and rituals performed


1 Purificatory and ritual bath and water offering at the bank

of the Punpun and the Phalgu Rivers, and at Sita Kunda; also

water offering at Pretashila.

2 After holy bath in the Phalgu River visit to Pretashila and

water offering there and in the holy waterpool at the

foot of the hill, Brahma Kunda. Followed up rituals at Ramashila, its

foothill, nearby Kunda, Surya Kunda, and Kakabali altar.

3 Visit to five sacred places, Panchatirthi : Uttarmanas,

Udichi, Dakshina Manas, Kankhal, and Adi Gadadhar; also

visit to two images of Sun-god (Dakshinarka and Maunarka).

After holy bath in the Phalgu and initiation rites sacrificer

may visit these places in the above sequence.

4 Visit to the southwestern part : Dharmaranya and Matangavapi,

and at the end performing rites at the Mahabodhi tree.

5 Visit to Goprachar, Brahmayoni, Brahmasar, and special

offerings of water to the mango groves near Goprachar.

6 After holy dip in the Phalgu, visit and rituals at Gayashirsh,

Adi Gadadhar, Vishnupad, Gaya Kupa.

7 Visit to Gadalola, Prapitamaheshvara, and the last rituals

at Akshayavata. At the end again returning back to Vishnupad

where donation is given to the priest and the last ritual of

thanksgiving at the nearby Gayatri Ghat, and at the end to

worship Lord Vishnu.


(mostly based on VyP, 110; TS, 368; GdP, 1.84.34-43; and AgP, 115.34-40)

Ghosts and related spirits are the intermediary realm of demi-gods between human beings and the divine beings. According to Hindu mythology an ancestor must have male progeny who have not yet properly received a place in the realm of the heavens. Ghosts are dead persons whose spirits are believed to be still active; stories and folktales narrate their appearances as ectoplasmic shadows or mists. Virgin or isolated lands, peaks of hills, deserted places, wild gardens or shrubs, cremation grounds, and old and huge trees are some of the preferred haunts of ghosts. In some cases the spirit of the dead can be a force for good, for help, or for well being; such spirits are worshipped as ancestors. In other cases the malicious category of ghosts are also propitiated with a view to keeping them away or keeping them silent. The rituals performed by family members help those spirits to proceed in the right direction. The physical setting of Gaya is well suited for the settlement of ancestors and ghosts. The development of holy cities in India, in many ways the supreme achievement of humankind, also stands as a monument to human greed, guilt, and a symbol of cultural tradition (cf. Tuan, 1979: 144).

The mythological history of Gaya was associated with a fierce and erratic king, known as asur (demon), Gayasur, who by his meditational power received a boon from the gods that the whole territory would become holy and a place of ancestral spirits. These spirits settled down at the centers possessing mysterious forces in the environment. By the combination of such spatial affinity and the rituals performed, the centers have become awakened and the invisible spirits bless the living sacrificer with wellbeing. Among such centers, hills, water pools, and cremation ghats became more prominent. These are the symbols of spirits marking a fence and the boundary of the sacred power of the territory. By the manifestive power of holiness at centers, together with multi-layer territorial structure interconnected by the paths and routes, and the rituals to make them awakened, the whole territory converges to 'manescape' or 'ghostscape' or 'ancestralscape'. Through the passage of time, variety, complexity and order with respect to the sacred nature of space and temporality of rituals has been mythologized and accepted in the tradition (e.g. VyP, GdP, AgP).

Sacredscapes are the powerful places where power is needed for transcendental energy or for protection against spiritual danger. Mythological descriptions of these sacredscapes (e.g. Puranas ) help to develop a variety of images and imaginations ( Singh, 1995:97). Manescape, or ancestralscape, is a distinct form of sacredscape manifesting the power of ancestors in association with the concentration of cosmic influence in the topography. The mythological stories merge the divinity's acts and life into a divine environment making a spiritual sphere of manescape more meaningful and attractive (ibid.: 97). By the special rituals to have communion with the ancestors, known as pindadan (offering rice balls) the sacrificer pleases the ancestors to have power from the Other world. These rituals (like shamanism) connote a variety of interpretations capable of accommodating diverse meanings and practices.

The spatiotemporal purview of the rituals to be called 'ritualscape' finally converges to manescape. The complexity and diversity in terms of physical features, cultural taboos, and faith systems are invariably the result of historical processes. In this way a truly harmonious relationship developed between This world and the Other world, and this helps human beings to identify themselves in the realm of the Cosmic world.

There are two types of sacred performances most commonly related to ancestors. Tarpana, the offering of sacred water to please and purify the spirit is a type of preparatory or initiation rite. Pindadana, the offering of rice balls, a complex form of rituals performed under the guidance of specialist priests known as Gayawals, follows several stages of rituals and performances. The tarpana is offered to four groups of ancestors, viz. devas (divinities), rishis (ten ancient holy sages), Yama (Lord of Death) and his accountant Chitragupta, and pitri (immediate paternal ancestors--father, grandfather, great-grandfather and other progenitors).

The ancestral rites (shradhas) are generally of three types : nitya, related to a fixed date such as a death anniversary; naimittika, performed on special occasion for a particular purpose such as marriage or the wellbeing of a son; and kamya, performed on sacred dates. The kamya rites can be categorized into two groups: a regular performance of rites to celebrate the death anniversary of mother and father (ekoddhistha), and performances on the occasion of prescribed sacred time (parvana) for ancestral rites--the most auspicious period mentioned is the dark-fortnight of Ashvina (September-October), Pitripaksha, close to the autumnal equinox (cf. VyP, 85.4, 22, 40, 65-67). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many treatises and texts were written describing the details of sacrifices and the ways and steps to be followed at Gaya (shradhapaddhati), e.g. by Vachaspati, Raghunandan, and Raghunath (cf. Kane, 1953).

7. RITUALSCAPE : The Pilgrimage-Cognitive Map (Fig. 4)

Devereux says (1996: 158), "Other people in other times and places have mapped the world quite differently from the way we have, and no less truthfully in their own terms." Some of these maps have an inherent quality of sensuous feelings and cognition. Such notional maps showing the mythology and sacrality in space and pictorial symbolism are true representatives of cultural systems when a deep sense of faith works in the formation of spiritual-mental topography fitting into the setting of physical topography—and may be termed as faithscape (cf. Singh, 1995: 97). Such maps produce a visual impression to remember the mythology, and go further to convince the pilgrim or sacrificer to develop a sense of feeling. Like other similar maps for several sacred cities of India, the pilgrimage cognitive map of Holy Gaya (see Fig. 4) is an example of cartography where faithscape is portrayed through the means of pictorial signs and mythological support concerning sacred topography (cf. Dubey and Singh, 1994: 324-326).

Avoiding the sense of distance, the cognitive map of Gaya highlights various symbolic representations of mythology and topography. The Phalgu River is prominently shown as base on whose bank the holy Gayasur was lying down and on whose body a fire altar was made where the Trinity of Hindu pantheon, i.e. Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Siva (destroyer) had performed sacrifices. All of the important hills associated with ancestral rites are shown prominently while marking the divinities' images and devotees. The directional and locational contexts are also given some consideration. All of the important sacred centers visited during the course of ancestral rituals are well marked, including the centers at Bodh Gaya.

The mythic story of the demon Gayasur and Vishnu is prominently shown with sketches that help the devotees to understand the meaning and messages manifested there. By performing ancestral rites at those sacred centers, sacrificers become a part of communication between the world of humanity and the world of divinity. Sacrificers and pilgrims seek to realize the sense of interrelationship between the two. The map also suggests the procedure of pilgrimage for seven days and the cluster of holy centers to be visited on respective days in the sequence of time and space, from north to south--starting at Pretashila and concluding at Akshayavata or the Bodhi Tree (Bodh Gaya).






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