Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island


Elephanta Island is the principal tourist attraction of Mumbai. Renowned for its cave temples, it is a small island in the Arabian Sea about 10 km. northeast of the Gate of India in Mumbai Harbor. The small island has two forested hills and its cave temples have been turned into a museum. We reached the island by ferry, after which we climbed the 120 steps to reach the cave temples cut in the mountainous rock. The way was lined with men and women selling jewellery, drawings, and postcards.

Little is known about the origins of this island and its caves because records are poor. It was known as “Gharapuri” in ancient literature. Translated, this means the town of the “Ghari-Priests,” or priests of the shaivite temples. Due to records dating from 635 AD, it is thought that King Pulkesin II set 100 ships and vanquished the Kokan Mauryas who were ruling Western India. Several Hindu dynasties followed before the island fell into Muslim hands. The Portuguese took control in 1534, and renamed the Caves and Island, “Elephanta,” after an enormous statue of a carved elephant that was in the caves.

Unfortunately, the Portuguese did considerable damage to the sculptures, though the size, the beauty, and the detail remain impressive. The Elephant statue collapsed in 1814, epoch when the British were in control, and its remains were taken to the Victoria Gardens in Mumbai.

The Cave Temples…

The sculptures of the Elephanta Caves belong to the medieval Gupta period that was marked by India’s greatest artistic, cultural, and religious renaissance. Hindu sculpture was at its zenith during that period. Because the people at Elephanta followed the Saivism sect of Hinduism (there are two main branches; the Saivist sect regard Shiva as their Supreme Lord), the sculptures are centered on the god Shiva and his consort Parvati and tell popular stories of these two figures.

The main cave has many statues, the largest of which is the Trimurti – the three faces of Shiva. The central face is calm and represents Shiva as Preserver of the Universe. The face to the left represents Shiva as Rudra, the Destroyer of the Universe. He has a severe look, cruel eyes, and a third eye on his forehead. Snakes are entwined in his matted hair. The face to the right represents Shiva as Creator of the Universe. He is shown as Vamdeo, a beautiful, feminine God of calm expression, who holds a lotus – the symbol of creation – in one hand. It is regarded as the crowning achievement of Indian sculpture.

Another sculpture shows Shiva as Nataraja, the king of dancers. He is shown performing his mystic dance of creation, setting the whole universe in motion, while he himself – from the expression on his face – remains unperturbed. In vivid contrast are his legs and many arms, which move wildly. To either side of Shiva is the Goddess Parvati and the God Ganapati, the elephant-headed god. Other figures can be seen, and above them, we see Brahma, the God of Creation, with four heads, being carried by flying swans.

Other sculptures and scenes are carved from the rock – Shiva as the killer of the demon Andhak, a scene of Shiva’s marriage (with the god Brahma officiating as a main priest and the god Vishnu blessing the couple), and a scene of the Goddess Gang, who descends to Earth to become the Ganges River. Ascetics pay homage to Lord Shiva in most of the panels.

The main cave, which is 130 sq. ft., consists of a central hall and four vestibules, which are supported by rows of massive pillars (36 total). The roof is approximately 30 ft. high. The ceiling had originally been covered in painted frescoes, of which only a few outlines are distinguishable. The loose sculptures from Elephanta are housed in the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai.

The most impressive part about the caves is the finely detailed sculptures (some of the best in India) and the fact that the cave and all of its sculptures are carved out of one single piece of rock.

Protection of the Site…

Though Elephanta has been a protected World Heritage site for several years, the federal government had been severely criticized for its lack of maintenance at the site. Stephane discretely watched the man who was checking tickets (and supposed to be returning half to the visitors), and caught him in a scam. Without going into details, he was saving half of the tickets to re-sell them again, thereby pocketing half of the money that came in – the money that is supposed to go for upkeep and maintenance. Only a magician would notice such a thing (Stephane’s a good magician!). We wrote to the UNESCO committee to alert them.

Funny Monkeys…

As a funny anecdote, the monkeys on Elephanta are much more aggressive than elsewhere. They come right up to people and grab bags of food or drink bottles, and little children whimper or cry in fear. We saw how they’ve learned to turn on water faucets and drink from them, then turn them back off again! One snuck under the barbed wire that surrounded a restaurant where we were eating and stole a piece of bread right off my plate, and then bounded away again, as quickly as he had come!