A place that has been identified since antiquity, where at the feet of Vishnu one is assured that good karma can lead towards moksha.
Legend of Gaya
Gaya is situated 90 km south of Patna, the capital of Bihar state in India. Gaya as such has never been the capital of any kingdom of the area such as Magadha, Gupta or Pala but its spiritual importance is very much nonpareil. It has a special place in the Indic tradition related to the most unique aspect of Hinduism, the concept of Moksha(Salvation). The concept of karma and rebirth based on the accumulated virtues or sins is a basic concept of Hinduism. Another related aspect is the offerings made to the departed souls of one’s ancestors. Gaya has a very special significance related to this aspect as well.
According to the legends associated with the place, Gayasur who was a demon king did severe penance and got a boon that he would become the holiest of the holies. He started to use his powers to grant salvation to everyone irrespective of the person’s Karmic merit. Due to this indiscriminate action, the concept of Karma and its effect was becoming redundant. Hence the Devas requested Lord Vishnu to manage the situation. Lord Vishnu advised them to ask for Gayasur’s body to conduct a Yagna. Lord Brahma, accompanied by the Devas went to Gayasur and asked for his body to conduct the Yagna, as there was nothing holier than that. Gayasur agreed and lay down with his head area in Gaya and the Gods performed the Yagna. To keep the surface stable, Lord Vishnu pressed his feet into his body. As a result, Gayasur died and his body became the land on which Gaya city was formed. Gayasur was granted a boon that his name would be remembered across aeons of time and anyone performing the Shraddha ceremony at Gaya on behalf of his ancestors will be deemed to have fulfilled his duty towards them. That is why Gaya is the most sacred place for doing the Pind Daan (offerings to the holy men) and Pitra Tarpan (offering of water to the ancestor’s soul) in the name of one’s ancestor, as it relieves the requirement of conducting any further annual Shraddha ceremony. (In Indic tradition, Pitra is the soul of the deceased ancestor, which exists in a higher celestial plane, awaiting its fate of either a rebirth or salvation).
Gaya existed as a spiritual centre much before the acknowledged history of the area, which coincides with the emergence of mahajanapadas and the time of Buddha and Mahavira around 6th century BCE. Gaya was part of the Shishunaga dynasty of Bimbisar and Ajatshatru, the powerful Nandas and the mighty Magadha Empire. Away from the political hubbub of the changing times, Gaya has continued to be the spiritual land attracting the faithful from all across India and beyond. During the medieval era of wanton destruction of everything Indic in this part of India, kings from as far away as Rajasthan took part in efforts to keep it safe. The campaign by Maharana Lakha of the Mewar dynasty (1382-1421) is the most notable in this regard. The current structure of many temples can be attributed to the Holkars who became patrons during the 18th century.
The Vishnupad Temple and the various shrines within its complex are considered the most spiritual sites in Gaya for Hindus. The river Phalgu flows on the east of the temple. The Vishnupad temple is said to be the exact site where Lord Vishnu had pressed his feet on Gayasura’s body, leaving the imprint of his feet on the rocky surface.
The present-day temple structure was built upon the existing site by Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in the mid-18th century. The core part of the temple consists of the main shrine with a tall Vimana, 100 feet high, and a pillared Mandapa. It follows the Nagara style of temple architecture and is made of granite.
(Vimana of the Vishnupad Temple)
The Shrine faces east and the interior is octagonal in shape. It is here that we find the 40 centimetres long footprint of Lord Vishnu’s feet on the rock. This is surrounded by an octagonal silver-plated frame on the floor. This footprint also has various symbols that are associated with the attributes such as conch, disc and mace (Shankh, Chakra and Gada) of Lord Vishnu. The inner walls of the octagonal shrine have numerous alcoves that are home to numerous gods from the Hindu pantheon. Apart from various representations of Vishnu, there are icons of Hanuman and many goddesses in these alcoves. The pillared Mandapam has a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva and one can personally offer pujas to the Shivalinga. The whole set up is aesthetically adorned and the devout pilgrim is transported to the higher realm of spirituality.
(The mandapam attached to the main Vimana)
The path that leads to the temple complex has rows of small shops that sell flowers, vermillion, baddhis (necklaces of scarlet/yellow thread) and other items that can be offered to the gods and taken back as prasad to be shared with near and dear ones. It is a typical site common to most temple entrance ways.
(The Vishnupad temple view from near the entrance)
The temple is built on undulating rocky ground. Since this place is supposed to be Gayasur’s body, which turned to stone, there has been no attempt to level the ground as done with normal constructions. There is a pillared courtyard made of granite pillars opposite the main sanctum area within the temple complex. The pillars and its superstructure has been built over the natural irregular existing surface of the rock, following its slope and curves. I have visited many temples but this is the first where I have noticed this impressive architectural feat. It is interesting to see sadhus, pujaris, devotees, and groups of people, who have come to perform Pind Daan sitting randomly amidst these pillars.
(The Pillared courtyard)
There is a Vat Vriksha (Banyan tree) in this complex. It has an important role to play in Pitra puja. It is said to be an ancient tree. This tree is surrounded by a cemented raised platform.
(The Banyan tree around which people perform pitra pujas)
One can walk around this platform chanting hymns. There is a navagraha panel of a much earlier era, installed on one side of this platform.
(The Navagraha Panel installed on the platform of the Vat Vriksha)
There are numerous small shrines within the temple complex. Most of these sculptures and panels date back to the early medieval era. There is a plethora of evidence about the sanctity of Gaya in our ancient scriptures but the earliest available evidence for the physical existence of the Vishnupad temple goes back to the period of Samudragupta, who ruled over a vast empire during the 5th Century CE. The inscriptional source for this evidence is based on the Basarh Seal discovered in Vaishali. This seal mentions ‘Sri Vishnupad Swaminarayan’, who is the patron deity of Gaya. The Basarh seal of Vaishali in all likelihood describes the ancestral ceremony performed by King Vishala at Gaya. Further evidence is found in the Mehrauli Pillar inscription of King Chandra, who is now identified with Chandragupta II. The inscription mentions this King as a devotee of Lord Vishnu and records the installation of ‘dhvaja’ or pillar of Vishnu on the Vishnupad Hill. A royal seal of Chandragupta’s wife, Dhruva Devi has Vishnupada-Swaminarayana stated on it. These pieces of evidence go to prove the existence of the Vishnupad temple site to at least the early 5th-century CE. A 9th-century inscription commemorates the dedication of a house for ascetics at Vishnupad by the Pala king Narayanapala. A record dated to 1058 CE mentions that Vishvarupa, the ruler of Gaya built the Gadadhara temple, which forms part of the Vishnupad temple complex.
There are numerous small shrines within the Vishnupad complex. The sculptures and panels of yesteryears depicting the Navagrahas, Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga in various forms, Makaras etc. have all been given a revered space within this complex. These are proof of earlier shrines that must have existed within the area and had been desecrated during the onslaught of the barbaric invasions that engulfed most parts of Bharat during the medieval ages.
The present-day shrines are very basic and one can freely pray before the Gods. Lord Vishnu’s Narasimha Avatar in black granite adorns one shrine. He has been depicted slaying Hiranyakashyapu with his bare hands.
One shrine has a standing iconic Lord Vishnu with his attributes. On the floor is a Shivalinga. A blessed sight with both the Lords in one view. A devotee is free to touch the feet of Lord Vishnu and wash the Shivalinga with water and decorate with flowers and vilva leaves (Bel Patra).
(A Shivalinga and Lord Vishnu in the same shrine)
Another shrine has multiple deities installed on the wall. Lord Vishnu and Uma-Maheshvara have been installed in separate niches on the wall but the prime place has a deity which can only be identified as Kubera, treasurer of the Devas.
(Kubera, Vishnu and Uma Maheshvara)
It is from within the Vishnupad complex that one can find a way to the Ghats of the Phalgu River, where the Pind Daan is done for the ancestors. It is while climbing down the stairs to reach the river bank that one realises that the Vishnupad temple is situated on a rocky hillock. The river bed is dry almost throughout the year except for the monsoon season. Even during the monsoon season, the water is very shallow and seldom rises beyond ankle depth. This geological oddity is related to an interesting legend.
(Pathway to the river ghats)
The ghat area is fairly long, capable of accommodating large gatherings of pilgrims. One can see families performing the pujas guided by the priests. One has to dig a little into the sandy riverbed to find water that is used for the rituals. It seems that subsurface water is always present just below the sandy ground.
There are a few temples in the area abutting the main Vishnupad temple. One of the significant temples is the Adi Gadadhara temple, where Lord Vishnu is venerated in Gadadhar form. Another temple nearby is the Gayeswari Devi temple representing the presiding deity of the city. The whole area has a plethora of temples which can all be accessed from the bylanes.
(One of the temples adjoining the Vishnupad Temple)
There is evidence of a strong cult of Surya (Sun) worship in Gaya area that dates back to antiquity. There is mention of Surya worship even in the Mahabharata. There is a sun temple in close proximity to the Vishnupad temple. Another Surya temple is at the Gayatri ghat with a seven feet tall image of the Sun god. The Navagraha panels and Surya icons are spread around the whole of Gaya Kshetra indicating that probably this tradition of Sun worship is even older than the tradition of associating Gaya with the Shradda ceremony for ancestors. On the way out of Vishnupad temple towards the ghats, there are many such images installed in various niches. One of the most important representations among such deities is the one called Surya Narayan.
(Niche with the Sun God)
Mangla Gauri Temple
Not far from the Vishnupad complex, on the banks of the Phalgu is the Mangla Gauri temple along with a cluster of temples and small shrines. This temple is one of the 51 Shaktipeeths based on the tradition of tracing the story of Sati, Lord Shiva’s first wife. This place has special significance as it is where the breasts of Sati fell. That is why this Peeth is especially revered for nourishment and motherhood. It is considered one of the 18 Maha Shaktipeeths due to its importance among these shrines. This cluster of temples is upon a small hillock that can be accessed from the main road through the steps leading to the shrines.
(The pathway leading to the Mangla Gauri temple)
There are many different shrines representing deities like Shiva, Hanuman etc. in the small complex. The main Mangla Gauri shrine is a two-chamber construct covered with slabs of marble. This construction is said to be of the 15th Century. The roofs of the double shrine are covered with red cloth with designs made of gota (fine laces of silver or gold shades) that makes this structure distinctly identifiable as a Shaktipeeth. The entrance is rather small and the first chamber is the waiting area. The Garbhgriha is in the next chamber. The image of Sati’s breasts adorn the wall and pujas are performed by the designated pujaris. The images inside this shrine are of the early medieval period.
(Dual chambers of Mangla Gauri temple)
Akshaya Vat tree shrine
On the way to Mangla Gauri temple, at a locality called Maranpur, there is a big Banyan tree, which is revered as the Akshaya Vat shrine. This tree is really ancient and one look at it leaves one in no doubt that all the traditions related to it can be true. The local legends trace its importance from the time of Ramayana. Ram and Sita came to Gaya to offer Pind Daan for his father, Raja Dashrath. While Ram and Lakshman had gone to get the materials for the ritual, Dashrath’s soul told Sita to offer Pind Daan immediately as the auspicious time was going to be over. Sita conducted the rituals in the presence of the river Phalgu, a cow and the banyan tree. When Ram and Lakshman returned, they asked Sita about why the rituals were over. Sita explained the sequence of events and asked the witnesses for confirmation. The river and the cow denied the event and only the tree confirmed the truth. The river was cursed that it will never have water despite having rains and this geological oddity is evident in the present time also. The tree was given a boon that it will always be venerated and it will never face drought, hence the name Akshaya Vat.
This Akshaya Vat tree is situated on a high rectangular platform. Many small shrines have been established on this platform. This is an important site where people perform rituals and offer Pind Daan to their departed ancestors. Among the most significant trio of the places meant for Shraadh (along with the Phalgu river at Vishnupad and the Pretshila hill), this location is considered the place where the final ritual of the sequence has to be performed.
(Sculptures at the Akshaya vat shrine)
Numerous images of gods that belong to the 10th-12th century CE have been installed onto one side of the raised platform. A Hanuman temple can also be found amidst the hanging roots of this ancient tree. The strips of red and orange cloth cum threads hang on all the humanly reachable places on this tree. It is spiritually charged and one can even find devotees sitting at peace or in meditation.
(Hanuman shrine at the Akshaya vat)
Just behind this shrine, there is a water pond which is called Rukmini Sarovar, Named after the wife of Lord Krishna. This tank is considered auspicious and a large crowd celebrates the Sun Pooja festival during the famous Chhath festival during the autumn season. Another name of this water body is Vaitarani Kund, which is interesting in itself, as Vaitarani is the mythical river which the soul has to cross after an individual’s death to reach the celestial abode.
There are many sites within the city and in nearby areas with specific legends attached to them. These play an important role in the process of pilgrims offerings for their ancestors. The whole area is called Gaya Kshetra and treated as a holy location. Many of these sites are on top of hillocks, as the steps leading up to these shrines depict the metaphorical ladder to the celestial plane where the souls of the ancestors are supposed to go after death. We do not find any elaborate temple structures but the sites hold immense importance for the devout pilgrim searching for spiritual solace.
This hillock is around 8 kilometres from the Vishnupad temple. This hillock symbolises the place of the soul while it is transiting to the celestial plane and has a temple dedicated to Pret Bhairavi, the Goddess of ghost spirits. Hence this hill is the first place where the ritual of Pind Daan is performed. Lord Brahma is supposed to have performed Ashvamedha Yagna at this location and there is a water tank called Brahma Kund at the foot of this hill.
This temple is just one kilometre away from the Vishnupad temple and one has to climb more than 420 stairs to reach its peak. It has an ancient temple of Ashtabhuji Devi (Goddess with eight hands) and two small caves named Brahmayoni and Matreyoni. There is no separate significance related to the rituals for ancestors here but many pilgrims climb this hill to view the temple landscape across the city as the hilltop offers great views. This hill is very significant for Buddhists also as Buddha preached the Fire Sermon (Adittapariyaya Sutta) to a thousand fire-worshippers on this hill. They became enlightened and converted to Buddhism. There seem to be many facets to the spiritual energy of this ancient land.
Ramagaya hill (Prabhas Hill) and Sita Kund
This is a hillock on the opposite bank of Phalgu river just across the Vishnupad temple. There is a Shivalinga and Rama and Shiva both are worshipped here. This place is supposed to commemorate the event when Sita offered Pind Daan to King Dashrath’s soul. A small stone basin is called Sita Kund and there is an icon of a hand reaching up to receive the Pind of Rice ball offered by Sita.
This hill is situated to the north of Gaya city. It is associated with the ancestral worship by Rama. There is a 1000-year-old temple on the top of this hill, called Ramesvara or Patalesvara, dedicated to Shiva. Rama, Sita and Hanuman are represented as statues in this temple. This structure was built over ancient ruins as there are many older sculptures lying around the area, indicating that it was a site for worship for a long time.
Dungeshwari caves- The Penance of Buddha
More than 2500 years ago, when Prince Siddhartha of the Shakya principality in eastern India left home in search of the eternal truth and meaning of life, he came to the area of ancient Magadh Empire, attracted by the spiritual importance of this area in the ancient Indian tradition. Gaya had an important place in the contemporary tradition as it traced its spiritual traditions to the remote antiquity when the complex interplay between Devas and Asuras was being played out. Prince Siddhartha’s initial attempt to gain knowledge followed the traditional path of doing severe penance and he chose the Dungeshwari hillock for his meditation and fasting. This location is slightly farther than the other hillocks in Gaya city and it must have been slightly remote and peaceful, exactly as it has remained till today, some tourists and a few hawkers notwithstanding.
Dungeshwari cave is situated on top of Dungeshwari hill, located on the east bank of the Phalgu river and is nearer to Bodhgaya. This hilltop is a holy place for both Buddhist and Hindu worshippers. The trek to the top of the hill is easy and one gets a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
(The hillock at Dungeshwari Cave)
There are seven structures of varying importance on top of this hill. Most of the stone and brick structures appear to be Buddhist Stupas. Chinese monks’ travel accounts reveal the incident of Buddha’s stay and meditation on this hill. A temple and a Buddhist monastery have been recently built here.
What is of much importance to both Buddhist and Hindus is the Dungeshwari cave. It is inside this cave that Buddha had performed extreme penance in order to find the right path.
(The cave where Buddha meditated)
A golden statue of Buddha in dhyana-mudra or meditation pose sits at the end of this small cave. Buddha is shown emaciated and his bones jut out. It is a very effective depiction of Buddha having not eaten for days on end.
(Emaciated image of Buddha doing penance)
There are two more deities inside this cave – Goddess Durga (locally referred to as Dungeshwari Devi) and Tara. These sculptures date back to the early medieval period.
(Devis in the Dungeshwari Cave)
After visiting the cave with the statue of the emaciated prince, it is easy to identify with his struggles to attain the knowledge of the true meaning of life and mankind’s existence. The Chinese pilgrims’ Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang must have also been overwhelmed at the thought of the solitary penance performed by this seeker of knowledge. After realising the futility of such efforts, Prince Siddhartha abandoned this effort, came down from this hill, crossed the Phalgu river and was revived by the timely nourishment provided by the kheer given by Sujata in the village of Bakrour. He moved on to the Peepul tree at Bodhgaya, meditated for seven weeks and attained the knowledge which spread throughout the ancient Asian civilisations and changed the face of the society in the eastern hemisphere.
Vishnupad Temple and the other temple sites on the banks of the river Phalgu date back to antiquity and find mention in innumerable texts and inscriptions of religious traditions. The ancient temples may have been ornate but except the scattered fragments of sculptures, there is nothing left of note. What we see today are temples that have been built by the patronage of kings and queens who tried to keep this area safe from total destruction and to ensure continuity of Hindu dharmic traditions, especially with regards to Pitra Pujan and Shraadh rituals. There is a rich collection of sculptures attesting to the sacrality of the place. Pilgrimage to holy sites are defined as one of the essential elements of the Indic religious tradition and hence a pilgrimage to Gaya is considered the most important duty for every follower towards their ancestors as the multitude of crowds converging to this location during the auspicious months of Pitru Paksha undeniably prove. A blessed place for both the living and the departed
References / Footnotes
– Archaeological Gazetteer of Gaya District by Bijoy Kumar Choudhary and Abhishek Singh Amar; Publisher K.P.Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna
– Sacredscape and Manescape: The Sacred Geography of Gaya, India by RANA P. B. SINGH