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.
The origins of the temple caves, thought to date from about the 7th century, are obscure. It is known, however, that the island was originally called Gharapuri - the Portuguese renamed it Elephanta after they found a large stone elephant near their landing place. The figure collapsed in 1814 and was subsequently moved to the far-off Victoria Gardens and reassembled.
Shortly before the Elephanta temples were created, Bombay had experienced the golden age of the late Guptas, under whom the arts flourished. Sanskrit had been finely polished, and Kalidasa and other writers had helped incite a Hindu religious revival under the court's liberal patronage. Shaivism, the worship of Shiva, inspired the building of these temples.
Many of Elephanta's priceless statues were damaged or destroyed by the Portuguese, who apparently used the Hindu gods for target practice. There have also been reports of vandalism and carelessness by modern visitors, so take extra care to avoid damage during your visit.
What to See
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.
Festivals and Events
A spectacular dance festival is held at Elephanta Island every February, hosted by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC).
Quick Facts on Elephanta Caves
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|Coordinates:||18.963400° N, 72.931400° E (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Elephanta Caves
Below is a location map and aerial view of Elephanta Caves. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Frommer's India, 1st ed.
- Fodor's India, 5th ed.
- Elephanta Caves - UNESCO World Heritage
- Elephanta Caves - TempleNet
- Elephanta Caves - World Heritage Site
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