Sunday, May 27, 2012

Elephanta Island and Caves.

Photo by Andy Hay
Elephanta Island (also called Gharapuri Island) is an island in Arabian Sea, east of Mumbai. The island, which owes its name to owes its name to the enormous stone elephant found there by Portuguese navigators, is a popular tourist attraction.

The island, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987,  is known for its cave temples dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.

Because of its proximity to Mumbai, it's the perfect destination for a day trip. At the moment, my plan is to spend the good part of my first day in Mumbai at Elephanta.


The island is located about 10 kilometers off the southeastern shore of Mumbai and is easily accessible by ferry. Boats leave daily from the Gateway of India, taking about an hour each way for the journey. I read that if you purchase a roundtrip ticket for the *luxury* boat, it comes with a guided tour. Tours depart every hour on the half-hour from the ticket booth. Round trip tickets on the luxury boat are 130 INR and for an extra 10 INR, you can sit on the upper deck. Unless it's a torrential downpour, I'm heading for the upper deck with the hope that it will be a cooler ride though I don't think it will be any less packed. The first ferry leaves at 9 am, the last at 2 pm.

Photo by Balajijagadesh


From the boat landing stage on the island, there's walkway leads to steps that go up to the famous caves.  I read somewhere that it's 1000 steep steps! There is also a narrow-gauge toy train that will take you from the boat area on the dock to the base of the steps.  A ride on the train costs 5 INR each way.  I think I might take the train from the boat to the steps but walk back.


The Elephanta Caves date back from sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries AD.  There are two groups of caves. The larger group consists of five rock-cut Hindu shrines and the smaller group is comprised of a small brick stupa and two caves, one of which is unfinished, and several cisterns.

The largest and main cave, also called the Shiva cave, Cave 1, or the Great Cave is dedicated to Shiva. The cave is divided into several shrines.

I have a map of the cave on wikipedia and I'm going to print a copy to bring with me to help me identify what's what.  The wikipedia article also describes all the carvings on the walls.  There's also a very informative article about Elephanta on Wondermondo.

The most famous sculpture in Cave 1 is of the Trimurti.  Trimurti  is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer. These three deities aree commonly referred to as the *Great Trinity*.

The 6.1 meter tall sculpture of Trimurti in Elephanta depicts a three-headed Shiva. Each of the heads represents one of essential aspects of Shiva – creation, protection and destruction. Creation looks to the right and is shown as a young, lively, women with sensuous lips.

Destruction looks to the left and is shown as an angry young man.

The central figure is meditative, praying for the preservation of humanity.

Gangadhara Shiva (right) with part of the Trimurti and a guardian (left).
Photo by Ricardo Martins
Each wall has large carvings of Shiva, each more than 5 meters in height. The central Shiva relief Trimurti is located on the south wall and is flanked by Ardhanarisvara (a half-man, half-woman representation of Shiva) on its left and Gangadhara to its right, which denotes river Ganges's descent from Shiva's matted locks.

The last ferry, returning back to Mumbai, leaves at 5:30p, and with a 1000 steps to go back down, I don't think I will be able to spend much time on Elephanta.  Even if the only cave I get to see is Cave 1, I will be happy.  This is the first time I've ever seen cave temples so I'm really looking forward to Elephanta!