REDISCOVER THE ENCHANTING ELEPHANTA CAVES
The Elephanta Caves are a boat ride away and nearly 1,300 years old, featuring some of the best rock-cut architecture and sculptures in the country. Ramya Ramamurthy recently visited the caves on a heritage walk organised by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.
Elephanta Caves, Gharapuri, Maharashtra 400 094.
Eighteen years ago, as a young student on my first visit to Elephanta, I walked up the steps to discover the caves were dingy, putrid, and full of bats. The only thing scarier than the bats were the monkeys that tried to steal our food. We couldn’t get off the island fast enough.
The intervening years have been kind to the caves, which were restored in the 1970s and declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. They’re now regularly maintained, and the addition of a restroom has made all the difference to tourists. For the approximately 1200 people (mostly fisher-folk like the Aagri and Koli) who live on Elephanta though, life is as it always was. For example, they received round-the-clock electricity only in February 2018.
Named after the elephant statue discovered on the hill by the Portuguese, Elephanta was locally called Gharapuri or the island of caves/temples. A series of caves sit within two hills and contain sculptures carved from basalt rock. Nothing quite prepares you for the awe-inspiring artistry of the 10 Shiva sculptures of the first cave. Estimated to have been built in 6th century AD, these predominantly Shaivite caves are possibly from the Gupta, Chalukya, or Kalachuri empires, though there is no conclusive proof of this.
Getting there: Ferries ply from the Gateway of India, the first one leaving at 9 a.m. and the last at 2 p.m. The newer “luxury” ferries hew to some sort of timetable, though at Rs. 200 for a return ticket, don’t expect much luxury from the boat itself. But the ocean breeze and the bobbing of the waves as the boat makes its way to the island at a leisurely pace, taking one whole hour, make up for it. Once there, a toy train takes you from the docks to the start of the climb for Rs. 5, but you can just walk this stretch in five to seven minutes if it isn’t too hot. There is a Rs. 5 tax to be paid at the start of the climb, and the ticket to enter the caves (Rs 30 for Indian nationals) can be purchased at the top. There is a ferry every half-hour from the Elephanta docks to return to Mumbai. The caves are closed on Mondays.
The climb: The caves are only 150 metres above sea level, approximately 120 steps from the start. The stairs, built just 150 years ago, are now dotted with shops selling beads, jewellery, bags, carved curios, and wooden bowls. There is a particularly steep stretch up to shop number 100, which marks the 100th step. Beyond that it’s fairly manageable, but if huffing and puffing your way to the top isn’t your syle, there are palkis you can hire. Watch out for the island’s original inhabitants – monkeys – on the way up. If you don’t offer or open up your snacks and drinks supply, they will leave you alone.
The caves: The cave sculptures were carved out of volcanic rock as a monolith – from top to bottom and back to front. As you enter, the first thing you notice are the pillars that divide the cave into squares, apparently in the shape of a mandala. The pillars near the entrance, however, are not original. Badly damaged over time, they were reconstructed in the 1960s.
The caves were built primarily for tradesmen, seafaring men, and fisher-folk as a mere stopover, which may explain why there is little else on this island. They are labelled sequentially from Cave 1 to Cave 7.
Cave 1 is the best preserved and, at 39 metres long, the largest. The highlight of the island, it contains impressive sculptures of Shiva in 10 different avatars. The other caves are more dilapidated but house idols like a shivaling, Ganesh, Karthik, and Ashta Matrikas. There is even a Buddhist stupa on site.
The highlight of the island has to be the 10 forms of Shiva in Cave 1. Each is fascinating in its own right, but these three are not only glorious to behold but also tell incredible stories.
Shiva as Shivaling (Shiva as a symbol)
Still worshipped as it has been for nearly a millennium, the Shivaling (the phallic stone idol that represents Shiva) today sees about 30,000 devout visit on Mahashivratri (the birthday of Lord Shiva) .
Remove your footwear before entering and pause to consider the 18 feet tall dwarapalakas (guardians of the door); two on each side making a total of eight imposing sculptures. If you look closely, you’ll see each of them has a different face and hairstyle, and the one on the right of the shrine facing west is remarkably well-preserved.
You can tell this is the most important shrine in the cave not just because of the heavy sculptural muscle guarding it, but also because it’s constructed as a seventh square in the mandala, marking it out as a special shrine within the cave. This was possibly the first sculpture one saw if one entered via the original entrance in the east, which has since caved in.
Shiva as Bridegroom
Well-preserved enough for the facial expressions to be clearly evident are the shy face of Parvati, the bride and to her left, serene and proud, the bridegroom Shiva. In the representation of Hindu idols, wives stand to the left of their husbands; because of this, we know that, in this avatar, they are yet to be wed. Brahma, the god of creation officiates at this wedding. Vishnu and Himavat, Parvati’s father, are wedding guests. Chandra is holding the kalash or the auspicious pot, and a retinue of gods hovers above to bless the couple.
The marked Greek and Roman influences in the rendering of the hair and jewellery in these sculptures is thanks to the ancient trade routes between Elephanta and Greece and Rome. It is striking how these influences render a common Hindu mythological scene anew.
Maheshmurti or Shiva as Trimurti
This is the best-known of all the idols here with an impressive height of seven metres or 22 feet. At first glance, this sculpture may remind you of the Bayon temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. The central avatar of Shiva is a doppelganger of King Jayavarman VII or the Lokeswara Bodhisatva in the Bayon temple.
The three faces of Shiva signify creation, protection, and destruction. Not only is the hair different for each sculpture, but the facial features are also unusual, reminiscent of Buddhist sculpture. Each avatar holds something different – a flower in the first, a fruit in the second, and a cobra in the last. There were meant to be five faces; one more at the back to signify regeneration and a face on top to signify salvation, but these were never built.
Legend has it, at a tea party for King Edward VII held on the island, the British actually clambered on top to see if there were two more faces. They likened the sculptors to Amazons, based on the height of these sculptures. It was only after this that the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) was formed and the caves were declared a heritage monument in 1909.
The remaining sculptures show Shiva in various avatars – from an angry warrior to a householder who cheats at dice, from a voluptuous and androgynous Shakti to a sagacious Yogi. Once done with the caves, you could hike up to the stupa or to see the cannons the British left behind. You can also grab a bite to eat or get a drink at one of the cheap and cheerful restaurants along the steps.
Beyond that there isn’t much to do, which is perhaps a hidden opportunity. A more scenic route to the caves, a better attempt at officially curating the history of these caves, and a choice of cafés dotting the docks could make this a truly global cultural site.
For now, it is mostly as it has always been.
Photographs by Ramya Ramamurthy