Elephanta Island, the Place of Caves

Elephanta Island Mumbai, India By Irene Butler –

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Elephant IslandTwo colossal elephants once stood regally at the entrance of the island’s temple caves, hence the name coined by the Portuguese when they landed on its shores in the 1500s. In 1864, however, British attempts to take these elephants to England ended in disaster. While being hoisted onto a ship, the crane broke shattering them. One was eventually salvaged and stands reassembled outside the Bhau Daji Lad (formerly Victoria and Albert Museum) in Mumbai. An archaeologist friend says the cave sculptures on Elephanta Island are some of the most impressive in all of India.

Boarding a ferry leaving from Mumbai’s Gateway of India dock, an hour skimming the blue waters of the Arabian Sea brings my husband Rick and I to the shores of Gharapuri, the island’s local name meaning “place of caves.” A miniature train transports us to a lively area filled with handicraft shops and restaurants around the foot of the hill that leads up to the temple caves.

Mouth-watering scents waft our way. Succumbing to temptation, we are soon sitting in an open-air restaurant lapping up yummy *masala dosa*: crispy rice flour pancakes filled with potatoes, spiced with cumin, coriander and mustard seed. The animals milling about outside the restaurant have us in stitches. Our server tells us they have wandered in from the village farms. Our take is that due to their isolated island upbringing, they think they’re human. A goat sits on a bench alongside an elderly gentleman. Cows walk about sticking their heads in the souvenir and handicraft shops seemingly checking out “what’s new.”

Fortified by our zesty snack, we climb the 120 steps sided by more souvenir stalls to reach the cave temples. With the animal antics so far, we’re not surprised to be greeted by a monkey swigging an Orange Fanta at the top. The courtyards outside the caves are rampant with these cheeky creatures, begging for a handout of food or pilfering items from unattended picnic lunches.

Our focus leaves the mundane as we pass through the giant pillars of the massive main cave and into the realm of Shiva, the god to whom these cave

Elephanta Island

temples are dedicated. Before us is Shiva as the King of Dancers, with seven of his original eight arms still intact, although most of the hands are now missing, as is the bottom of the sculpture. The top of one broken arm is draped across his chest in the characteristic dance pose; another arm with the hand still attached holds a battle-axe.

We walk on to see more of Shiva’s multi-accomplishments carved in stone: his marriage to Parvati, bringing the sacred River Ganges down to earth, and slaying the demon Andhaka.

I ponder how very little is known about the history of these caves; however, from the costumes and jewelry that decorate the Shiva figures, it is believed they were carved into the basalt rock between 450 and 750 AD. I am awed by the incredible size and the preservation of the sculptures – perhaps if Portuguese soldiers hadn’t at one point fired a big gun into the caves to test the echo, they would even be more intact.

Elephanta Island cave

The light wanes as we travel deeper into the cavernous hollow. I peer up at one of the gigantic *dvarapala* or door keepers flanking the stairway leading to the inner shrine. Then, there it is before me – in half-darkness in the deepest reaches, I stand riveted at the sight of a stunning 6.3-metre image of Mahesamurti, representing the supreme Shiva in its three-faced full manifestation – destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe. The face to the left is the face of destruction with a bulging forehead, cruel mouth, and serpents for hair symbolic of death. The right face portrays feminine features representing creation. The preserver’s colossal central face above a chest of mighty proportions is calm and serene; and this head is topped with a mountain of wavy locks and a three-point crown.

After Rick’s reminder that we have only an hour until the last boat leaves for the mainland, we jauntily head for the other remaining caves on the island. They are mellow-dramatic after this main cave, but the walk in the brilliant sunshine along the tree-lined paths to reach them makes a visit to each worthwhile.

What a day! From our ferry rides, to mingling with the friendly locals, to the sophisticated and spectacular artistry of the cave sculptures – we concur with our Mumbai-born friend, who with an endearing head-bobble had said, “Elephanta Island must not be missed.”

Getting there and away:
Ferries head to Elephanta Island from Gateway of India every half-hour from around 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. Boats cost approximately 120 rupees (C$2.60). Buy tickets at the booths lining the Apollo Bunder pier, which is across from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

The ferries dock at the end of a concrete pier, from where you can walk (around three minutes) or take the miniature train (8 rupees) to the stairway leading up to the caves.

Hire an English-language guide service from the ticket booth or if you prefer to explore independently, pick up Pramod Chandra’s *A Guide to the Elephanta Caves* from the stalls lining the stairway.

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