The Elephanta Caves, signifies the glorious abode of Lord Shiva. Consisting of seven caves on the Arabian Sea, it stands as an epitome of Hindu cave culture and is a testimony to a civilization that has long disappeared.
The Elephanta Caves are a complex of ancient cave temples on Elephanta Island, an hour-long ferry ride from Mumbai. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Elephanta Island is not only a worthy destination in itself, it also provides a great view of Mumbai’s skyline and an escape from the chaos of the city.
What to See at Elephanta Caves:
The hour-long ferry ride provides a good introduction to Hinduism thanks to the guides on board. Try to plan your trip so you see the sunset over Mumbai on your return journey. Elephanta Island is quiet and picturesque, with light-green foliage and monkeys scampering about. Try not to bring food to avoid harassment by the monkeys.
Entry to the caves is via the main northern entrance to a massive hall, supported by large pillars, where the enormous Mahesamurti statue is housed. At 6.3m (18 ft.), the remarkable sculpture depicts Shiva in his three-headed aspect: as Creator (facing right), Protector (the crowned face at the center), and Destroyer (facing left, with serpents for hair).
Other sculptures near the doorways and on side panels celebrate Shiva’s accomplishments. The beauty of this stonework lies in the grace, balance, and sense of peace conveyed in spite of the subject’s multiple actions.
One statue shows Shiva bringing the Ganges River down to Earth, letting it trickle through his matted hair. He is also depicted as Yogisvara, lord of Yogis, seated on a lotus, and as Shiva Nataraja, the many-armed cosmic dancer.
Left of the Mahesamurti is Shiva as both male and female, Ardhanarishvara, an aspect suggesting the unity of all opposites.
History of Elephanta Caves:
The rock cut architecture of the caves has been dated to between the 5th and 8th centuries, although the identity of the original builders is still a subject of debate. The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. All the caves were also originally painted in the past, but now only traces remain.
Since no inscriptions on any of the island have been discovered, the ancient history of the island is conjectural, at best.Pandvas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharta, and Banasura, the demon devotee of Shiva, are both credited with building temples or cut caves to live. Local tradition holds that the caves are not man-made.
The Elephanta caves are “of unknown date and attribution”. Art historians have dated the caves in the range of late 5th to late 8th century AD. Archaeological excavations have unearthed a few Kshatrapa coins dated to 4th century AD.
The known history is traced only to the defeat of Mauryan rulers of Konkan by the Badami Chalukyas emperor Pulakesi II (609–642) in a naval battle, in 635 AD. Elephanta was then called Puri or Purika, and served as the capital of the Konkan Mauryas.
Some historians attribute the caves to the Konkan Mauryas, dating them to the mid-6th century, though others refute this claim saying a relatively small kingdom like the Konkan Mauryas could not undertake “an almost superhuman excavation effort,” which was needed to carve the rock temples from solid rock and could not have the skilled labor to produce such “high quality” sculpture.
Later, Elephanta was ruled by another Chalukyan dynasty, and then by Gujarat Sultanate, who surrendered it to the Portuguese in 1534. By then, Elephanta was called Gharapuri, which denotes a hill settlement. The name is still used in the local Marathi language. The Portuguese named the island “Elephanta Island” in honour of a huge rock-cut black stone statue of an elephant that was then installed on a mound, a short distance east of Gharapuri village. The elephant now sits in the Jijamata Udyaan zoo in Mumbai.
Festivals and Events at Elephanta Caves:
A spectacular dance festival is held at Elephanta Island every February, hosted by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). Jai Maharashtra…!!