Said to have been the place where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, Bodh Gaya is one of the four main pilgrimage sites in association with Buddhism. A much sought-after destination, this religious land, along with Nalanda, attracts hordes of tourists and devotees from all over the world to Bihar. While these locations can potentially top your list when visiting the state, the city of Gaya, an half-an-hour ride from Bodh Gaya, cannot be missed out upon.
A place sanctified by Jain, Hindu, and Buddhists faiths, Gaya is strapped on three sides by hills and the fourth by a river. The second largest city after the state capital of Patna, Gaya is situated at the banks of the Phalgu River or Niranjana as mentioned in the ancient Hindu text, Ramayana. It is believed to be the place where Rama visited to complete the final rites of his father.
Referred to as Gayapuri in the Mahabharata, the city derives its name from the mythological demon Gayasur. It is said that his body was transformed into a series of hills after he secured the blessings of Lord Vishnu that in modern day surround Gaya.
A trip to Gaya should include a visit to the Vishnupad Temple, located at the Phalgu River banks. Consisting of a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple is said to be constructed on the footprints of Lord Vishnu giving the revered place its name. Close to the temple, one will discover a flight of 1000 steps leading upto the Brahmajuni Hills from where a breathtaking sight of the temple and its surrounding areas are on offer.
The next sight that you cannot miss out on is the Mangla Gauri Temple, which is a short distance away from the Vishnupad Temple. Mentioned in numerous puranas, the temple is a part of the eighteen maha shaktipeeth temples. Several complexes are built in tribute to Lord Shiva, Goddess Kali, and Lord Hanuman.
Not too far from Gaya lie the Barabar Hill Caves.The oldest dating rock-cut caves from the Mauryan times contain rare Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. Containing four caves--Karan Chaupar, Lomas Rishi, Sudama, and Visvakarma--the caves are said to have had a great influence on the rock-cut architecture of the country.
Another series of caves that are nearby are the Mahakala Caves, also known as the Dungeshwari Caves. It is believed to be the spot where Buddha spent many, many years of life before he ventured to Gaya and enlightenment. Find a quiet place inside and start your own soul-searching attempt at this serene location. Two shrines in dedication to the founder of Buddhism can be spotted here. Popular among the locals as Sujata Sthan, this is also where a woman named Sujata offered a feeble and starved Buddha some food.
Once you are done strolling through the streets of Gaya, you can make your way to Bodh Gaya or to Nalanda, which is two and a half hours away. Both the mentioned places inculcate the foundations of Buddhism. The ancient university of Nalanda, which is said to have attracted students from all over in the past, is an absolute must on your tour of Bihar.