Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Elephanta Caves

The World Heritage Site nearest to Mumbai

The Elephanta Caves contain the most striking collection of rock-art statues, sculptures and reliefs panels in India.
They contain the most exquisite works of art skillfully hewn out of basaltic mountains.
They are comparable to the works of Ellora.
It is quite possible that the Elephanta and Ellora caves were built by the same artists.


We have not been able to determine the precise period of construction.
There is mention of the Elephanta Caves in the Aihole (Karnataka) inscriptions of King Pulkesin II of Chalukya dynasty.
In the inscriptions, Elephanta Island has been described as Puri.
Later, the island came to be known as Gharapuri - the Place of Caves.
Some historians say that the great warrior King Pulkesin II raised the shrine to celebrate his victory.
Other historians suggest that these caves were built much earlier - in the 6th century A.D. - by the Kalchuri King Krishnaraja.
But we do know that during different periods of time, different dynasties ruled over this little island.
The Konkan-Mauryas, Trikutakas, Chalukyas of Badami, Silaharas, Rashtrakutas, Kalyani Chalukyas, Yadavas of Deogiri, Muslim rulers of Ahmedabad and the Portuguese.
The Marathas also ruled over this island. From them, the island passed over to the British.
When the Portuguese came, they found a large monolithic stone elephant at the place where they landed so they named the island Ilha do Elephanta, island of the elephant, or Elephanta Island.
The elephant statue collapsed in 1814.
The British removed it to the Victoria Gardens (Mumbai’s zoo - now renamed Jijamata Garden) and reassembled it there.
Even today, the monolith stands guard at the entrance of the zoo.
The Portuguese also found a stone horse.
But we do not know what happened to it.
It has simply vanished.
The Portuguese built a fort on the island with a watch tower.
And they used the caves for target practice, damaging most of the beautiful statues - intentionally, or due to sheer rashlessness, we do not know.

The Magnificent Caves

A flight of about a hundred steps, from the ferry landing, take you to the two groups of caves. Towards the east, Stupa Hill (named because of a small brick Buddhist monument on the top) contains two caves, one of which is unfinished, and several water cisterns.

Towards the west is the larger group of five rock-cut caves containing Hindu shrines.
The main cave is famous for its carvings of Shiva, in various forms,
performing different actions.
The cave consists of a square mandapa whose sides measure 27 metres each.
The interior is divided into smaller areas by rows of pillars, columns, supports and arches.
The whole structure, meticulously carved out of basaltic rocks, closely resembles a cemented stone building.

At the entrance to the caves is the 20 feet high Trimurti (three faced statue), the world famous trinity of Elephanta - depicting Lord Brahma the Creator, Lord Vishnu the Preserver and Lord Shiva the Destroyer.

In a chapel on the right of the entrance is a huge Shiva Linga (the phallic form of Lord Shiva). The chapel has four doors, each guarded by colossal figures of dwarapala, or temple guards.

There are 15 beautiful relief panels depicting - Ardha Nari Ishwara (Lord Shiva in half male and half female form), Shiva receiving the waters of the Ganges, marriage of Shiva to Parvati, Shiva killing the devil Andhaka, etc.

The Elephanta Festival

The Elephanta Festival is organised on Elephanta Island in February every year.
Renowned dancers and musicians perform outside the Caves, under the open star-studded sky. This is an event eagerly awaited by lovers of art and culture.

Scenic Beauty

The place is very beautiful.
You can walk around the island. You can climb the hills.
There is also the Cannon Hill with a rusty canon which was used
by the Portuguese to drive off pirates.

Reaching there
Elephanta Caves are located on Elephanta Island - a small island (7 square kilometers in area) - 7 kms. off the shore of Mumbai.
You can reach the Island only by boat (11 kms).
The journey is enjoyable.
There are regular ferry services from the Gateway of India to the Elephanta Island and back. Boats usually leave every 10 or 15 minutes from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.
You can even hire your own boat.

During the monsoons, the sea becomes very rough and the journey dangerous.
Ordinary boat services are usually suspended.

There is no place for overnight stay on the island.
So you have to go in the morning and return back at night.


UNESCO has included Elephanta Caves in its World Heritage Site in 1987.
If you visit Mumbai, this is one place you should not miss.
I am sure you will feel cosmic vibrations in the caves.

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