History, Travel

Elephanta Caves

My first trip to Mumbai (then known as Bombay) was in 1972 to attend my aunt’s wedding and I still retain hazy memories of that trip.  Since then, I have made several trips to Mumbai, but these have all been social visits, primarily to meet the family.  In fact, I’ve seen very little of Mumbai from a tourist’s perspective and so I was thrilled when I was able to sneak in a little sightseeing on my recent trip home.

My brother-in-law and family graciously sacrificed a precious Saturday to take me to Elephanta island where the famous Elephanta caves are located.   India has a long tradition of cave temples, perhaps initially as simple places of worship and residence for monks and then evolving into elaborate man-made caves hewn into solid rock replete with intricate carvings.  This tradition reached its apogee with Aurangabad’s Ajanta and Ellora cave temples.  Elephanta does not boast the grandeur of the Kailasa temple but is impressive nonetheless. 

Paul Fernandes’s inimitable take on Gateway of India with ferries bound to Elephanta in the foreground (From “Coast Line” by Paul Fernandes)

One needs to take a ferry from the iconic Gateway of India to reach the island.  The ferry charges a nominal fare of Rs 250 (approximately 3 USD) for the round trip and takes about 50 min to an hour to navigate the 6-odd miles to the island.  There is a short walk from the jetty to the base of the hill and then a climb of 120 steps to reach the caves.  A miniature train transports visitors from the jetty to the steps but on the day we visited, it was quicker to walk the distance than to wait in line for the train.

An 1880 Map of Bombay (From “Bombay The Cities Within” by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra)

The entire path to the entrance of the caves is lined with small restaurants, curio shops, and fast food shacks.  We stopped at the Elephanta Port restaurant to grab a quick bite before hiring a local guide.  Guides charge about Rs 700 (9 USD), expect to pay extra if you are looking for a guide who speaks English.  A booklet called “Guide to Elephanta” is also sold by vendors at the Gateway of India as well as on the island.  It sells for Rs 180 ($2.20) and is well worth the price.

Elephanta Island – Two hillocks flanking a narrow valley

We started the short ascent at 3 pm and quickly realized that the best time to visit is perhaps at 9 or 10 am in the morning.  The sun was beating down and the path was crowded.  The steps are not steep and we soon reached the entrance of the caves.  There is a nominal charge to visit the caves.  There are five caves in the complex, Cave 1 is the most impressive and complete.  The other caves were either not completed or were used as places of residence or meditation.

Archaeologists date the caves to between the 5th and 7th century CE.  Given the scale of the caves and the effort required to carve them, it is likely assumed that the caves were constructed under royal patronage.  The dynasty though is unknown.  Our guide told us that the caves were constructed by the Chalukya dynasty.  They were responsible for the construction of the Badami cave temple complex in Karnataka between the 5th and 8th centuries CE.  Some scholars speculate that the caves were constructed by Krishnaraja I of the Kalachuri dynasty. Others state that the sculptures bear the hallmark of the Gupta dynasty. I decided to pose the question to the latest savant who is taking the world by storm – chatGPT.  Here is the answer verbatim “The exact identity of the builders of the Elephanta Caves is unknown. However, they are believed to have been constructed by the rulers of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, who ruled over much of western and central India between the 7th and 10th centuries AD.”

The richly illustrated guide book

The island was originally called “Gharapuri.”  A search on the web indicates that “Gharapuri” stands for “city of caves”.  However, the guidebook states that “Ghara” stands for the community of priests who officiated at the temples and “Puri” for town, hence “Town of Ghari Priests”.    The current name “Elephanta” comes from the Portuguese word “Elefante”.  The Portuguese invaders found a monolithic statue of an elephant at the entrance to the caves and named the island after the elephant. The caves are carved from Basalt rock and it must have taken considerable time to fashion them.  The entrance to the caves is impressive with stone pillars carved to seemingly support the roof of the caves.  The caves are lit naturally by sunlight streaming in through three entrances.  The caves were perhaps illuminated with oil lamps in the distant past. 

Entrance to Cave 1

Of the five caves, the first one is the most complete.  It is spacious with high ceilings.  Once inside the cave, it is easy to imagine that one is standing within any other temple that was constructed with stone.  This feeling is reinforced by the presence of pillars that give the impression that they are load-bearing and are in place to support the ceiling.  The pillars have a carved pedestal at the base with fluted tops.  Four seated figures adorn each corner of the pedestal.  The pillars support stone beams carved into the ceiling of the caves.

Interior of Cave 1, looking towards the shrine to Shiva

This cave is dedicated to various manifestations of the Hindu god Shiva.  Traditionally considered the destroyer, he forms part of the triumvirate along with Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the sustainer.   He is the supreme being in the Shaivism branch of Hinduism.  Our guide pointed out the various sculptures starting with Shiva depicted as Mahayogi,  the lord of the yogis as well as Nataraja – lord of the dancers. His is no ordinary dance, it is the divine dance, Tandava. In its creative aspect, it supports all movements in the cosmos and when he chooses, it becomes the doomsday dance that spells the dissolution of the universe.   The marriage of Shiva and Parvati is also depicted in a couple of sculptures.  Our guide pointed out that in the one sculpture, Parvati is to Shiva’s right indicating that they are yet to be married, and in the next, she is to his left indicating that they have been married.  A custom that I was unaware of.

Nataraja – Lord of the Dancers. Notice the considerable damage to the statue

As I gazed at the sculptures, I was reminded of the Amar Chitra Katha comics that I read as a young boy.  I was never formally taught any Hindu texts.  My parents taught me a couple of prayers and that was it. Parables from the Ramayana or Mahabharata popped up during conversations but unlike my Christian contemporaries in school, there was no Catechism class or formal instruction in religious texts.  For that matter, I don’t think my parents or grandparents had any formal religious instruction either.  In many ways, Hinduism is a way of life and is lived via traditions and customs. “Amar Chitra Katha” which literally translates to “Immortal Picture Stories” brought Hindu mythology to life for young readers like me.

The sculptures depicted some of the stories that I had read in those comics. Shiva is depicted as Gangadhara, cushioning the earth from the impact of the river Ganges as she descends from the heavens, by absorbing her impact in his matted locks and then releasing her on earth. Parvati is shown looking away with a bemused smile. In another corner, Shiva’s fierce aspect comes to life as he seems to spring forth from the rock with the mutilated body of the demon Andhaka impaled on a trident. Each drop of Andhaka’s blood when spilled on earth would give rise to another thousand demons, so Shiva is shown collecting his blood in a cup.

The Slaying of Andhaka

“Do you know what GOD means?” asked our guide jolting me from my reverie.  As I pondered on the metaphysical ramifications of his question, he answered his own question triumphantly “Generator, Operator, Destroyer!”   We were standing in front of the most well-known and recognizable sculpture in the complex,  the Trimurti (three forms).   In Shaivism, Shiva is considered to embody all three aspects of creation, preservation, and destruction. The central face is serene and represents the preserver. It is flanked on the right by the hard-set face representing the destroyer and to its left by the almost feminine form representing the creator. This sculpture is set in a recess and seems to be almost hidden. It took a little while for my eyes to adjust to the gloom and I was then rewarded by the splendid sight of this exquisite sculpture.

This form of Trimurti was likely very familiar to Indians in the post-independence era (1947).  For one, the Indian Posts and Telegraph department issued a stamp in 1948 depicting the sculpture, and given that the Indian Postal Service was probably the main form of communication then, the stamp was likely purchased and viewed by a large part of the population. 

The famed Trimurti

If you missed the stamp, you could not escape the sculpture in the opening dream sequence of the song “Ghar aaya mera pardesi” (My foreigner has returned home) from the iconic Raj Kapoor/Nargis movie, Awaara (Vagabond) released in 1951.  Awaara went on to become a big hit in India and in the former Soviet republics as well as in countries such as Greece, Turkey, and parts of Africa.  The popularity of the movie was brought home to me when a Russian student borrowed the cassette from me while I was studying at Clemson University in the early nineties.  More recently, the construction worker who worked on fixing our ceiling, grinned when I introduced myself and said “Just as in Awaara” and promptly hummed “Awaara hoon”, the titular song from the movie.

The other two entrances to Cave 1

Ardhanarishwar Shiva depicts the divine unity that harmonizes the masculine and feminine. Literally translated, it stands for the lord who is half man and half woman. The spiritual ascetic is represented by Shiva while the material and corporeal aspects are represented by Parvati. There are sculptures of Vishnu too with Ganesha, Kartikeya, and other gods from the Hindu pantheon.

Ardhanarishwara

The caves served as a place of worship until the Portuguese took control of the island in the 16th century.  Our guide mentioned that they used the idols as target practice, in the process destroying and desecrating the statues.  They obviously followed the colonizer’s maxim that anything that cannot be traded, looted, proselytized, taxed, enslaved, or pillaged is fair game for wanton destruction.  The “Guide to Elephanta” booklet states that the Portuguese fired shots from a large gun into the cave to test the echo thereby damaging the sculptures. Seems like a rather unscientific experiment to me. On questioning our guide as to how the Trimurti escaped destruction, he replied that it escaped notice as it was camouflaged behind wooden beams.   While visitors gazed at the sculptures, I noticed some of them bowing and offering flowers to the Shiva linga in a small shrine. The shrine rests on a tiger skin carved in stone. The shrine has four entrances each flanked by a pair of Dwarpalakas. Dwara – door, palaka – guardians, are traditional guardians of temple doorways in Hindu temples.

Entrance to the Shiva shrine with Dwarapalakas in attendance
The Shivalinga resting on a tiger skin carved of stone

The guidebook notes that Elephanta was designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987. Prior to that, it had been declared a protected site under the “Ancient Monuments Preservation Act” in 1909 and entrusted to the Archaeological Survey of India. Restoration effects are visible in certain places. When I visited, work was in progress to lay out a new cobbled path at the entrance of the cave 1.

Entrance to Cave 2

Cave 2 has a small meditation chamber and our guide stood at the corner of the room and chanted “Om.” It reverberated across the chamber. “There is nothing more to see in the other caves,” he said and they indeed seemed to be bare. I made my way alone down to the fifth cave which was a little way off. A security guard was holding court to a small group and he beckoned me to come closer. He was narrating a fantastic story in Hindi. Apparently, the cave had a secret tunnel with an entrance that could be opened by an incantation. The Indian government had detected forces that exceeded those of atomic bombs. People had gone in never to reappear. That was the reason he was posted there, to save people from their certain doom. He asked for tips after his fantastic tale and I tipped him for his imagination. He certainly has a future as a scriptwriter for a certain genre of Bollywood movies! When I mentioned his story to our guide, he shook his head in disgust.

Cave 5 which is closed to the public

The hill also has a couple of Buddhist stupas that date back to the second century BCE. These will apparently be opened for tourists in the near future. When the British took control of the island, they mounted a cannon at the top of the hill. I did not climb up to view it as we were running short on time. The last ferry was to leave at 6 pm so we made our way back at 5:30 pm to board the ferry. Signs warned tourists not to feed the gulls that circled the ferry as we made our way back. That did not stop the passengers from tossing chips and other assorted snacks up in the air as the gulls dived in to scoop them up. Some passengers held the snacks in their hands and intrepid gulls fought against the wind to grab the food from their hands.

We returned to the Gateway of India as it was bathed in the soft light of the setting sun. It had been a wonderful albeit tiring day and my indefatigable brother-in-law took me to Jafferbhai’s Delhi Darbar on Grant Road for a sumptuous dinner. As we drove home in the busy Mumbai traffic, I wondered what drove people to construct those caves over a thousand years ago. Mumbai was hardly the metropolis it is now. Comprising seven islands it was occupied by a community of fishermen.

Gulls addicted to fast food follow a ferry for free handouts

The Gharapuri island itself probably sustained a population of a thousand people. Away from the mainland, it was certainly not a population center. In fact, it might have served as a strategic location to intercept invading naval forces. Yet, over a thousand years ago, a group of skilled craftsmen chiseled 128 feet into a rock face by hand to fashion out the great cave. They worked painstakingly to carve sculptures up to 21 feet in height, imbuing them with life. The ceilings were perhaps painted with frescoes at some point in time. It was their faith no doubt that drove them to fashion this monument. It must have inspired awe and reverence in the hearts of the faithful as they streamed in to worship the deities. How many pilgrims made that trip across the water I wonder. Yet, all over India, are humble shrines, indeed some of them mere slabs of rock less than 21 inches in height that evoke the same fervor and awe in the faithful. Faith certainly finds expression in myriad ways. Mine is not to question why but to appreciate the legacy.

The stone elephant that now resides at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad museum (Source: From the book “Guide To Elephanta”)

What of the colossal elephant statue that gave the island its name? Accounts on the web state that when the British took over the island from the Portuguese they planned to ship the elephant back to Britain. An attempt was made in the mid-19th century but the statue broke during the process. The pieces were reassembled and housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Mumbai, which is now called the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad museum. I visited the museum as a seven-year-old and if I did see the statue, I have no recollection of it. That is a trip for another day.

Gateway of India with the Taj Mahal Hotel

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