UNESCO World Heritage Site and a collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Elephanta Caves, a mere 10kms from Gateway of India, Mumbai are a treasure trove if you want to re-discover history and relive the moments of centuries gone by in a matter of hours
By Joy (Sirshendu)
It takes around two hours to reach the island of Elephanta from Mumbai, India’s bustling metropolis. Two hours in which the scene shifts dramatically from the busy mundane excitement of a big city to a place steeped in history, mystery and mysticism. Two hours away lies magic in Elephanta Caves.
Elephanta is around 10 kms away from Mumbai. Regular boat services from the iconic Gateway of India ferry tourists to the place. Our visit took place in the month of June. It had rained heavily the previous night and the area around the Gateway of India looked washed and clean in the early morning sunshine. We had heard that Elephanta Caves can get quite crowded especially on a weekend and were keen to get on the earliest boat out. So we quickly bought tickets, had a hurried breakfast of idlis from a roadside vendor and lined up on the queue for the boat.
The first boat was already full and was just about leaving as we arrived. Standing in the queue for the next boat with the sun shining on the blue sea, the grand Gateway to our right with birds swarming around its still empty foyer and the happy chatter of visitors, made it a pleasant wait full of anticipation. Presently our boat was docked and we found comfortable seats on the open upper deck and soon after we were on our way.
The Gateway of India looked spectacular in the distance as the boat made its way out to the sea. It was fun to watch the huge cargo ships with exotic names, some new and gleaming and some looking rusty and tired, anchored all around us. As the boat chugged along, outlines of several small islands emerged and then disappeared in the morning mist that hung over the Arabian sea. After a while it turned cloudy again and it started drizzling. We were happy when the boat finally started to slow down in front of a thickly wooded island with an inviting jetty extending to the sea.
It is about a kilometer from the jetty to the caves. A toy train from the jetty connects to a half-way point. From there, steps lead up to the top of the hill where most of the caves are situated. We decided to walk the whole way. After the boat ride it felt great to walk leisurely along the walkway with the sea on both sides and the green island in front of us. The toy train laden with passengers passed us on the way. Stalls of all varieties line the winding path to the top. The row of shops practically eclipses all the views but here and there during the climb there are gaps between the shops that afford spectacular views of the tree covered island and the surrounding sea. At that hour most of the shops were just opening. We grabbed a freshly roasted bhutta(corn on the cob) as we climbed.
Once atop, there was a ticket counter at the entrance and the ASI protected area beyond. There are six caves in Elephanta but the most important one is Cave 1.
Cave 1 is dedicated to Shiva and has huge sculpted figures depicting different aspects of the divine. It is a large hall with ornate columns and sculptures as high as 20 feet carved into the walls. The place is believed to have been constructed in 6th century CE but the history of its construction is still debated. Time and human callousness have taken their toll on the beautiful sculptures and most of them are visibly damaged. However, despite the heart-breaking destruction one can still experience the astounding beauty of the sculptures and wonder at the profound truths they represent.
Shiva as the primeval energy is represented in various avatars. First there is a central chamber with a Shiva Linga which represents Shiva as an infinite column of light. Then to the right is the spectacular three-headed depiction of Shiva as the creator, preserver and destroyer. Shiva as Adhanarishwar is depicted as a huge half man and half woman figure beautifully proportioned and exquisitely sculpted to depict the balance of masculine and feminine energies in the universe. Then there is the scuplture of Nataraj depicting the cosmic dance of Shiva which is believed to be the basis of all existence. Besides these, there are frescoes depicting Shiva-Parvati’s marriage and his life in Kailash; Shiva destroying a demon and a few other smaller sculptures.
We spent quite some time at Cave 1 wondering what this place would have seen through the passage of time. Perhaps some 1500 years ago a divine spark tremendously inspired some royal imagination, ignited the creativity of hundreds of brilliant craftsmen and then directed their concerted efforts through decades of back-breaking labor. What would it have been like when they finally finished their work? Looking at the broken and eroded figures one can only imagine how beautiful they would have looked then with the finely crafted features, almost life-like with their beautiful expressions and a sense of stilled animation. How would this place have been when it was a place of daily worship and devotion?
And then the centuries would have rolled by, the series of conquerors and marauders, callous armies camping in the grounds perhaps fighting for some petty spoils of war completely oblivious to the priceless treasure around them. This cave would have been a visual extravaganza and a place of pilgrimage at one time but not anymore. Today it is a place to ponder about the immense possibility of divinely inspired human endeavour and its ultimate impermanence.
There is very little known about the early history and actual construction of these cave temples. There is evidence that the island itself, known in local Marathi as Garapuri, was inhabited at least since the 2nd century CE. Many sources attribute the construction of the temples to the Kalachuri dynasty around the mid-6th century CE. This is based on evidence of coins found at Elephanta, the fact that the Kalachuris were known to be ardent Shiva devotees and the similarity of construction styles of that period.
Down the ages the area came under the influence of several ruling dynasties including the Gujarat Sultanate, the Portuguese and finally the British in the 18th century. The name Elephanta was probably given by the Portuguese referring to a statue of an elephant that adorned the island at that time. Later this statue was moved to Mumbai by the British.
It is not clear as to who was responsible for the desecration and damage to the sculptures. Some sources attribute it to Muslim invaders and others to Portuguese soldiers doing target practice on these exquisite works of art and worship. In 1875, a banquet for 400 people was organized by the then British governor of Bombay in honor of the Prince of Wales.
There are a few more caves on the island but none as remarkable as Cave 1. The route to the other caves on the hill is a pleasant walk with greenery all around and the caves carved into the hillside. There is also a beautiful view of the Elephanta lake from the top.
After about an hour of walking around and later sitting in front of some of the caves, it was time to return. Coming out of the cave area it is somewhat of a shock to find oneself amidst the shops, all open by now, with hawkers trying their hardest to get the tourists to buy something. The feeling of nostalgia and magic that we carried in our hearts all but vanished in the craze to haggle the right price for some trifles that we bought along the way.
After a satisfying vegetarian lunch we took the toy train back to the jetty. A boat was just about to leave as we reached and we climbed aboard and took the seats along the front on the deck below. We soon realized that there was a reason why they were empty in an otherwise packed boat. The return ride was not as smooth as while we were coming. The heaving sea combined with a sharp wind and incessant drizzle soon got us thoroughly drenched. With no other option we eventually started to enjoy each time the boat met with a fresh squall and drenched us all over again. Perhaps to top it all just when we started to breathe easy on seeing the Gateway of India once more there was a sort of traffic jam at the harbor which took an inordinately long time to sort out. It was with a feeling of fatigue and relief that we finally emerged from the boat on to firm ground once more.
The mild late afternoon sun shining on the Gateway of India, with crowds of tourists milling around, soon lifted our spirits and we could look back at a wonderful day spent on the small island of so much mystery and enchantment.
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Joy (Sirshendu), an engineering grad, had his schooling in Shillong before moving to Bangalore. After a couple of decades of excitement and monotony alternately of the corporate world, he has now moved to an NGO that focuses on education-to-employment programs for the deserving and underprivileged college students. Joy is an avid traveller and is the co-author of the book -“Faith” in journeys: 20 places that tuned our beliefs.