Artillery firing continued profusely for weeks and months, though there was not a single enemy in the vicinity. In fact, Portuguese soldiers kept firing cannonballs at the mighty rock sculptures in Elephanta Caves for target practice. A journey through the timeline of explorations, invasions, and colonization reveals the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied every successful event. Successors of those ruthless invaders who turned the treasures of a great country into heaps of rubble and sand must feel ashamed of their forefathers’ deeds. While we boast about the rich culture and heritage of India, those disturbing facts are often ignored.
Gharapuri was the name of that ancient island kingdom situated near Mumbai harbour. Gharapuri literally means ‘City of Caves’ in Marathi language. Traces of early inhabitation that dates back to 2nd century BC is still visible in this little island. For travelers visiting Mumbai, it would be a quick escapade from the hustle and bustle of one of the largest cities in the world.
The island consists of two small hillocks on its east and west sides with a narrow ravine situated in the middle. Caves and sculptures have been carved out of Basalt rock similar to that existed in Ajanta or Ellora caves.
Though the exact period of construction is not known, the architecture of the caves suggests the influence of Konkan Mauryas and Badami Chalukyas of 6th and 7th centuries. It passed through the hands of several dynasties like Trikutakas, Rashtrakutas, Yadavas, Potuguese, Marathas and British. When the Portuguese occupied the island in 1534, there was a large Elephant statue made out of solid basalt rock that greeted them at the entrance of the island. Hence, they named it the Elephanta island (“Ilha Do Elefante”). Interestingly, there is a mention of Elephanta in one of the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci. The island measures around 10 SqKm to 16 SqKm during high and low tides respectively and situated approximately 11 Km east of the Gateway of India at Mumbai.
The Portuguese once decided to carry the elephant statue home, but during the lifting process their chains broke and the statue got dropped into the sea.
In 1661, Portugal’s King John IV’s daughter Catherine was married to Charles II of England and as part of the marriage treaty, Elephanta island was handed over to the British as dowry. This marked the end of Portuguese ownership of the island. The elephant statue collapsed completely in 1814 and fifty years later the British shifted the dilapidated elephant statue to the shore (1864), fully restored it and preserved it at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum at Jijamata Udyan in Mumbai till date.
There are 5 Hindu Caves and 2 Buddhist Caves in Elephanta island. Cave-1 is the largest and most prominent one which was once a Shiva Temple. Carved out of solid basalt rock, this magnificent monument still survives nature’s fury and man’s cruelty.
Elephanta is open throughout the week, except on Mondays. A boat trip to Elephanta could be an unforgettable experience for many. Frequent ferry services are available from the Gateway of India, the first service starts at 9:00 AM and the last boat returns back from the island at 5:00 PM. Though Economy and Deluxe round trip tickets are being sold at the counter, I did not see much of a difference with the boats, because they are all old fishing boats, but with adequate safety measures and life jackets in them. It costed me 180 Rs per head for a deluxe boat ticket, an additional 10 Rs for a seat on the upper deck.
The boat ride could take around an hour through the busy waters occupied by large container vessels and merchant ships. What really fascinated me was the flock of seagulls that followed us all the way for a bite of snacks thrown out by the people. Though I wouldn’t recommend junk food being served to those birds, their acrobatic skills to grab some food in mid-air was absolutely stunning and an entertaining experience during the trip.
Once you land at the jetty, there is a long narrow path by the side of the mangrove forest that leads you to the bottom of the hill. A toy train is also an option for those who cannot walk that far. The steps passing up between the souvenir shops will take you to the entry gates of the caves. Ticket for the entry to the caves costs 30 Rs. for Indians (and alliance partners) and 500 Rs. for other country nationals. Entrance to Cave-1 comes first. You will be surprised to see that it is not just a cave, but a magnificent temple complex with massive stone pillars supporting the roof that covers 60,000 SqFt area with a number of smaller Shiva shrines and courtyards placed around it. All the walls are decorated with fine sculptures of Shiva in various poses which were once covered with mural paintings as well. Once you walk in through the dark chamber and reach the south wall, the most magnificent wall carving of Shiva in his Trimurti (Trinity) form adorns the centre portion.
The massive monolithic statue is 20Ft tall which depicts the three forms of Shiva as Creator, Protector and Destroyer. On the left side of Trimurti statue is the Ardhanarishvara form (half male, half female) of Shiva and the carving on the right-side show Gangadhara Shiva or the one supporting the descend of river Ganga from heaven. These are probably the masterpieces among the whole lot. It is worth mentioning that many of these huge pillars have been destroyed my nature’s forces and also due to vandalism, which were restored by the hard work of Indian archaeology department. A walk through the courtyard will lead you to another Shiva Shrine guarded by Dwarapalakas which are in partly destroyed condition.
Descriptions about the individual statues have been mentioned alongside the pictures displayed here. Though there is nothing much to fancy about the other caves, you could just go for a quick round about in less than 10-20 minutes. Two large British Cannons could be still seen on top of the hill, being the reminiscence of the colonial past. Watch out for those naughty monkeys who could snatch your food items.
Elephanta caves received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1987. Main threats to these monuments are industrial pollution, natural forces, water seepage and salt content in the atmosphere. Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) with the help of UNESCO are trying hard to preserve this magnificent monument for the future generations to get a glimpse of our glorious past.
How to Reach Elephanta Caves :
- Nearest Airport : Mumbai
- By local train : Alight at CST (Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus) or Churchgate station
- By Bus or Taxi : Go to Gateway of India
Remaining part of journey to Elephanta island by Ferry/Boat Services
Distance between Gateway of India and Elephanta island : 10Km
Time required : 1 Hr