The Elephanta Island is the site of the magnificent Elephanta caves, containing beautiful carvings, sculptures, and a temple to the Hindu God, Lord Shiva. These caves are located at a distance of 11-km from Mumbai and are now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island of Elephanta, being a commercial, military and religions centre for centuries has traces of early Buddhist culture.
The Elephanta caves are thought to date back to the Silhara
kings belonging to the period between 9th - 12th centuries. With the
Brahminical resurgence during the reign of Gupta dynasty in 3rd century
AD, these great cave dedicated to Lord Shiva exploded into existence at
Elephanta. Legends and history suggest that the great warrior prince of
Chalukya dynasty Pulkesin ll raised the shrine to celebrate his victory.
Some historians also suggest that these caves were built by the Kalchuri
King Krishnaraja in 6th century AD.
As the worship of the figure of the Buddha began to be encouraged with rise of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, a shrine was introduced to house Buddha's image, replacing the cells at the centre of the back wall. The Monasteries of Ajanta lead us directly to Elephanta. It appears that the same families of craftsmen and sculptors who were working on the Kailasa temple of Ellora and adjoining Buddhist caves at Ellora were employed at Elephanta.
No doubt the cave was the creation of an unknown genius, a
master architect, who having thoroughly absorbed and assimilated the
magnificent contribution of his predecessors in the dual traditions of the
independent free standing sculpture and rock-cut architecture, produced a
monument which introduced a whole new world of form quite distinct from
any previous achievement.
The island was the capital of the powerful coastal kingdom and the excavations of the caves in the 6th century added to the glory of the kingdom. Later the Portuguese took possession of the island and as they first found a monolith elephant the island was named Elephanta.
It is believed that the caves were used as target practice after they constructed a fort and put a flag to ward off pirates. Whatever the cause may be many of the sculptures have been desecrated. From the Portuguese, the Britishers captured the island and tried to find out who had build these caves, but failed. The Britishers planned to take the monolith elephant to England but they could not lift it. It is now kept in the Bombay Museum.
island rises in two conical hillocks. The architect sculptors carved out
of solid basalt rock create a representation of the heavenly mountain
residence of Lord Shiva. Opening out from three sides, the temple lets in
light from many angles making the sculptures seem to move with the
changing angles of light.
Inside the temple is a large hall, with nine sculptured panels representing Lord Shiva in different moods. The temple plan is so symmetric with important focal points worked out in a geometric Mandala (the design that represents the energy field).
Flights of steps, which can prove to be very daunting, take one to the caves. One can also hire a chair to be carried up. Today the caves can be easily approached, but think of the time when the artisan used only the contours of the hill to reach the top and then chiselled out the basalt rocks to give it the shape of heavenly abode of Shiva. He has tried to create the cave similar to the one in which Shiva resides in the Himalayas.
The pillars inside the cave give an impression that these pillars support the roof. Again the cross beams on the roof makes the visitor feel there is a ceiling of the caves. The pillars have been deliberately kept simple as to attract the attention towards the exquisite carvings on the panels, which are nine in number. There are three opening to the caves, which allows light to enter from various angles in different seasons giving an expression that the images are moving with transition of light.
Elephanta is the place where the main events in the mythology of Lord Shiva are depicted most powerfully, consistently and exclusively. At Ellora though other Gods appear on the panel with Shiva, but at Elephanta there is nothing but Shiva. To spend a day at Elephanta is to spend a day outside of the world, or rather in another World, "the World of Shiva".
caves are temples dedicated to Shiva. According to Hindu Mythology three
Gods govern their world: Brahma -- the creator, Vishnu -- the Preserver
and Maheshwara -- the Destroyer. Elephanta has a story that there was a
pillar whose end could not be found. Even the Gods failed to determine the
length of the pillar. Then "Lingobhava", Lord Shiva emerged from
the temple and hence every body accepted that Lord Shiva is infinite, the
Greatest of them all. The temples in the Elephanta caves and the carvings
on the walls show Shiva in different moods and shapes, Lord Shiva
practicing Yoga, Lord Shiva meditating with snakes coiled around his neck,
at places He is in company of his wife, Parvati. Panel 6 of the caves
represents the marriage of Shiva with Parvati with the rites being
performed by Brahma and scores of other Gods attending the marriage. Panel
5 of the cave describes the coming of Ganga from heaven to Earth. As the
great force of Ganga might have destroyed the Earth She lands in the hair
locks of Shiva who then gently releases her. The wise and righteous Lord
before whom the forces of evil and ignorance flee and are terrified into
submission is carved on the 7th panel. Similarly other wall panels narrate
the story of Lord Shiva. On the western end is the sanctuary of Linga
denoting the essence of creative power, in which Lord Shiva is worshipped
as the Lord of Fertility and Procreation. Two smaller shrines flank the
eastern and the western entrances to the main cave. The sculptures here
are badly mutilated, not much is known of the artists who designed and
carved these caves representing Shiva in his paradoxical nature in
different forms and moods. The architects must have been genius who dared
to construct something which was totally different from what was being
constructed in those days.
Best Time To Visit: Between November and March
Boat: The Elephanta Island is accessible only by boat from the Gateway of India, Mumbai . A chugging ferry ride from the Gateway of India, surpassing the fishing boats, large ships, little islands, occasionally leaping fishes, reminding in its way down the ever changing face time and it takes 15 minutes to reach the Elephanta Island.
Accommodation is available at the hotels in Mumbai.