Gaya is significant to Hindus from the point of view of salvation to the souls of ancestors (a ritual called pinda daan). According to Ramayana, when Lord Rama came to Gaya along with Sita for pitrupaksha (or to perform pindadanam), Sita cursed the Falgu River following some disobedience on the part of the river. The mythology states that on account of this curse, Falgu River lost its water, and the river is simply a vast stretch of sand dunes. At the same time Sita blessed a banyan tree to be immortal. This tree is known as Akshyavat. Akshyavat is combination of two words Akshaya (which never decay) and Vat (Banyan tree). This is the reason we utter Akshaya Vata chayayam Gaya Sraaddham Karishye during the Sraddha ceremony.Once a year banyan trees shed leaves, but this particular tree never sheds its leaves which keeps it green even in times of drought.
For Buddhists, Gaya is an important pilgrimage place because it was at Brahmayoni hill that Buddha preached the Fire Sermon (Adittapariyaya Sutta) to a thousand former fire-worshipping ascetics, who all became enlightened while listening to this discourse. At that time, the hill was called Gayasisa.