Originally part of the ancient kingdom of Magadha, Gaya has long been a major pilgrimage centre—as sacred to the Hindus as Bodhgaya is to the Buddhists. According to legend, Gaya was a celestial being whom Vishnu endowed with the power to absolve all sinners and elevate them to heaven. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gather here each year to offer last rites for their departed ancestors, believing that offerings of pindas (funeral cakes) will free them from the Hindu cycle of rebirth.As in Varanasi, they must first perform a lengthy pilgrimage; in this case an arduous tour of the 45 or so Hindu shrines around Gaya, before the final purificatory bath in the sacred Phalgu river.India’s holiest places are often her poorest, and Gaya is no exception. In itself, it is just another dirty, noisy pilgrim centre, where sanctity (temples) and insanity (traffic) go hand in hand. But it does have vitality and atmosphere—also the only half-decent accommodation and food for many miles. Gaya does have some worthwhile sights of its own—good for a leisurely day’s ramble—but is mainly useful as a base from which to explore nearby Bodhgaya, 13 km (8 miles) down the road.