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The internationally popular and vibrant island city of Mumbai is well-known not just for being the financial capital of India, and home to the world-famous ‘Bollywood’ Hindi film industry, but also for its rich history and numerous tourist attractions. Among them, the oldest is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Elephanta Caves, located on an island in the Arabian Sea, eleven kilometres from the heart of the city.

Elephanta Caves are one of the greatest examples of rock-cut architecture and sculptural art of medieval India, with some of the most amazing massive rock-cut sculptures and reliefs dedicated to Lord Shiva. The most magnificent of them is the colossal 6.3-metre-tall Trimurti, a three-headed aspect of Lord Shiva:  as Creator, Protector and Destroyer. The caves underwent huge amounts of renovation work in the 1970s and in 1987 they were declared a UNESCO World heritage site for their vast historical value and technical marvel.

The island was called Gharapuri and was an important Hindu place of worship, before the Portuguese took over Mumbai in 1534. They named the island Elephanta for the large stone basalt elephant statue that greeted them on arrival at the island. The stone elephant is now housed at Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

Elephanta Island has two hillocks separated by a narrow valley. The small island is dotted with numerous ancient archaeological remains revealing occupation from as early as the 2nd century BC. There are two groups of caves – five Hindu caves (including the main cave housing exquisite Hindu sculptures) and two caves with Buddhist structures. The caves, hewn from solid basalt rock, were badly damaged by the Portuguese. Only the main cave with expansive panels on Hindu mythology associated with Lord Shiva has remained preserved. The sculptures were painted in the past, but now only traces remain.

The identity of the builders of these magnificent caves has remained a mystery. There are no inscriptions, and any evidence available was destroyed by the Portuguese. However, the rock-cut architecture of the caves has been dated to somewhere between the 5th and 8th centuries.

The caves are open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. They are closed on Mondays.

Overnight stay is not permitted on Elephanta Island. To rest for a while before the last ferry leaves the island at 5:30 PM, the state-owned Maharashtra Tourism Department Corporation (MTDC) restaurant Chalukya is a good choice. It offers a good view of the sea, while you enjoy your food and drinks. And there are many small restaurants too. As also plenty of shops for food, water and souvenir articles. Toilet and washroom facilities are available. A strong warning: The island is packed with monkeys, and they are not friendly. If they see food or water bottle in your hand, they will quickly snatch it away.

Sports shoes, sunglasses and a hat or a cap are bare essentials.

VISITING ELEPHANTA CAVES

 

The only way to reach Elephanta Island is by taking a ferry from Gateway of India, Mumbai’s iconic attraction.

The caves are closed on Mondays, but ferry service to the island is available on all days for islanders and tourists alike. Ferry timings are fixed but they leave only when seating capacity is reached. On weekdays, delays are probable due to lesser crowd. Early morning is the best time to start your tour as it gets very hot later, even during winters. The first ferry is at 9:00 AM. It takes about 50 minutes or an hour to reach the island.

At the entrance of Gateway, you will probably hear a ticket seller shouting “Elephanta…Elephanta…” Only ferry tickets are sold here. Tickets to the caves have to be purchased only on the island. An adult return ticket costs 180 rupees (as on 16 December, 2016). For the lovely view from the upper deck you will have to pay 10 rupees extra. You have to retain the ticket for the return journey. As there are many catamarans parked around, make sure that you board the right one. Snacks and drinks are available on board at extra cost.

When the ferry leaves the jetty, turn around to enjoy the fabulous panoramic view of Mumbai’s skyline and take some beautiful pictures and videos 😀

It’s a thrilling ride in deep sea. You will pass huge ships and exciting sights. And of course, there will be flocks of hungry seagulls hovering around the ferry for some time, looking for bits of food 😀

Nearing the island…

The island jetty…

From the jetty, it’s hardly a kilometre walk to the base of the hill. But to avoid walking in the hot sun, a mini train service is available at 10 rupees per person.

Getting off the train, you will see stalls selling food and touristy stuff on both sides of the path.

A few metres away is the entry point of the village. Close to it is a small canteen and a post office. You will have to buy a 5-rupee ticket per person as island fee or toll charge to pass through the village. The ticket has to be retained till you exit the island.

At all times, beware of monkeys! The pesky creatures are everywhere and will try to steal your exposed food and bottled water. They come in groups and won’t stop from getting what they have just seen. Don’t be surprised, they drink water from a bottle just like humans. And you may be accompanied by dogs, cows and goats too – all hungry, and hanging around for food 😀

To enhance the beauty of the island, there is a lake and a garden. To reach the caves, you will have to climb a long flight of some 100-odd sharp stone steps, lined with souvenir stalls, food stalls and restaurants.

At the base of the stairs, there is a doli (or palanquin) service for the elderly and those who are unable to climb the stairs. The doli is a wooden chair with two long bamboos tied on either side, and is carried by two men. It may cost about 500 rupees or so one way.

By 10:30 AM, some of the vendors will have assembled their wares for display, the rest go about their pace slowly after half an hour or so.

Souvenir shops sell everything from beads, stone jewellery to Buddha statues. You will have to bargain for a good price.

The entrance to Elephanta Caves…

Entrance ticket is purchased at the ticket counter, to the left. For Indian citizens and visitors of the neighbouring SAARC and BIMSTEC countries, it is 30 rupees. For the rest, it is 500 rupees. Entry is free for children below 15 years.

To the right is a small site museum. The first cave near the entrance is the main cave, home to the famous sculptures and panels dedicated to Lord Shiva. You will find many tour guides at this cave. Else, you can use the Official Audio Guide of the Ministry of Tourism (Incredible India) called AudioCompass, a GPS based smartphone app that features audio tours of most tourists attractions in India.

The most important cave – the Great Cave or Cave 1 or the main cave…

All the caves here are excavated from solid basalt rock. The main cave measures 39 metres from the front entrance to the back. The main body of the cave, excluding the porticos on the three open sides and the back aisle, is 27 metres square and is supported by rows of six columns each.

This cave was a Hindu place of worship until the Portuguese rule in 1534, after which the caves suffered severe damage. It was renovated in the 1970s after years of neglect, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The central shrine is a free-standing square cell with a Linga in the centre and entrances on four sides. Large intricate reliefs of Lord Shiva in various well known forms surround the central shrine.  The massive exquisite carvings are not only one of the greatest examples of Indian art and the most magnificent achievement in the history of rock-architecture in western India, but also one of the most important collections for the cult of Shiva.

The main attraction of the cave is the sculpture dominating the entrance to the cave – the 6.3m (18 feet) high masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art, the Mahesh Murti or Sadashiva or popularly known Trimurti carved in relief at the back of the cave facing the entrance.

This is the most famous and spectacular sculptural expression created during or after the medieval period in India. The colossal bust depicts Shiva in his three-headed aspect as: the Creator (facing right), the Preserver (central face), and the Destroyer (facing left).

The right-half face shows him as a mild, pleasing and lovable young person with sensuous lips, embodying life and its vitality. In his hand he holds an object resembling a rosebud, depicting the promise of life and creativity. This face is closest to that of Brahma – the creator or Uma or Vamadeva, the feminine side of Shiva the feminine side of Shiva and creator of joy and beauty.

The central face, benign and meditative, resembles Vishnu – the preserver. He is Taptapurusha, “master of positive and negative principles of existence and preserver of their harmony” or Shiva as Yogishvara, yogi in deep meditation praying for the preservation of humanity.

The left half-face is that of a moustached young man, displaying anger. This is Shiva as the turbulent and fearsome Aghora or Bhairava, the one whose anger can engulf the entire world in flames, leaving only ashes behind. This is also known as Rudra-Shiva, the Destroyer.

Fortunately, the Trimurti has survived intact unlike almost all other sculptures in the cave that have been severely damaged, mostly by the Portuguese, who used the caves for target practice.

The state tourism board, Maharashtra Tourism Department Corporation (MTDC) has the Trimurti sculpture with Gateway of India in the background as its logo.

Guides mostly start the tour of the cave from the western side of the entrance going clock-wise stopping for 5-10 minutes at each massive relief to explain its mythological meaning.

The first among them is of Ravana (the demon king of Lanka and a staunch devotee of Shiva) lifting Mount Kailasa, the abode of Shiva, who is seated atop it.

Climbing down a few steps of the main cave on the left, you will enter a 17m-wide (56 feet) courtyard with a circular pedestal in the centre. It is said to be the seat of Nandi, Shiva’s mount.

An outer view of the courtyard, with a Shiva shrine in the front, and the main cave to the right…

View of the main cave from the courtyard…

View of the Shiva shrine…

On each side of the steps leading to the Shiva shrine is a winged lion, or leogriff, each seated with a raised forepaw. The Linga is in the centre of the square cell.

Around the portico are two statues…

Returning to the main cave, there are reliefs of Shiva’s sons – Ganesha & Kartikeya…

They flank this panel depicting Saptamatrikas (or seven mother goddesses), a group of mother goddesses who are always depicted together in Hinduism…

Relief of Shiva and his consort, Parvati…

Ardhanarishvara, a composite male-female figure of Shiva together with Parvati…

This panel is based on a complex mystical theme, the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies of the universe and illustrates how Shakti (represented as Parvati), the female principle of God, is inseparable from Shiva, the male principle of God.

Next is the colossal Trimurti, following which is this panel Gangadhara in which Shiva, about 5m tall, and Parvati are portrayed standing in the classic tribhanga (triple flexed) posture…

Kalyana Sundara depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati with Brahma, Vishnu, Indra, and other divinities in attendance. The marriage is a very popular theme in Indian sculpture and temple art…

Intricately-carved pillars…

Slaying of Andhakasura depicts Shiva with eight arms, slaying a demon named Andhaka…

Shiva depicted as Mahayogi (Lord of Yogis), the aadiyogi (or original master of yoga), meditating on a lotus…

Again, Shiva depicted as Yogishvara (Lord of Yogis), the aadiyogi (or original master of yoga), meditating on a lotus…

Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. Shiva is considered as the cosmic dancer, who performs his divine dance to destroy the weary universe…

The central shrine is a free-standing square cell with entrances on each of its sides. Each door is flanked by two 4.6m (15-feet) dvarapalas (or gate keepers)…

The Linga is set on a raised platform above the floor of the shrine…

It is sad to see most of the panels badly damaged. The sheer vandalism, the sheer madness carried out by the Portuguese destroyed the glorious work of ancient art. Now, one can only imagine its ancient splendour.

Beyond the main cave, there are three minor caves with fewer details.

You can walk up higher on the island. An unpaved trail starting from just outside the cave entrance, leads to Cannon Hill, an old military post overlooking the harbour. The island was a strategic point, hence two cannons were placed here to protect the harbour from pirates. The hilltop offers panoramic sea views.

View of the jetty…

Cannon 1 dated 1905…

Cannon 2…

Views from the hilltop…

The MTDC restaurant is just next to the start of the trail to Cannon Hill, in case you want to rest for a while.

The first ferry leaving the island for Mumbai is at 12 noon. However, you might want to spend an hour or so at the main cave and check out the other caves, explore the island at a leisurely pace, perhaps a bit of shopping, and then, lunch and rest. Plan accordingly, bearing in mind that the last ferry leaves the island at 5:30 PM.

Don’t forget a parting shot of Elephanta Island 😀

Climbing up the stairs to the caves takes 10 minutes, if you are athletic. A guided tour of the main cave takes about 25-30 minutes. The short trek to Cannon Hill and back will be another 30 minutes, if you are athletic. And 30 minutes for the two cannons and the views.

But you can do all this and more within 2 minutes 😉 Watch my 2-minute video of Elephanta Island 😀

 

 

I hope you enjoyed reading this post 😀 You can read everything about Mexico and my adventures across this beautiful ancient land, right here on my blog. Check out my three e-books on Mexico:

Discovering Mexico

Mexico: The Country, Its History & The Maya World

A Guide To Mexican Cuisine

If you’re a fan of Mills & Boon novels or love reading romance novels, here’s one for you on this blog:

The Blue-Eyed Prince of Natlife

Thanks for stopping by, I hope to see you again 😀

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