The problem with Elephanta Caves is that it is too close to Mumbai. Despite being on the World Heritage list, not too many seemed to have visited it or remembered anything beyond the dirt and monkeys they had encountered during school picnics. Travel guides admitted that most of the sculptures were damaged. So when I decided to visit with a few friends, we decided to make it an easy relaxed trip, as much about the caves themselves as about the ferry and the company.
Boats go from the Gateway of India to Elephanta, starting from 9.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. The ride lasts for an hour, through relatively calm waters and at the disembarkation point, there is a cute toy train. In anticipation of the 200 steps we had to climb next, all of us decided to board the toy train which reached the steps in no time. From there, the climb turned out to be quite easy, wandering past the usual touristy shops. We picked up a guide book called ‘Guide to Elephanta’ by Pramod Chandra. Surprisingly, the one guide who offered his services was willing to charge us just 200 rupees. In the end, the guide book turned out to be pretty good investment since it turned out to be perfect guide to each panel, pointing us the details and telling the stories behind each.
Elephanta has one main cave in which are carved wondrous figures of Shiva in various settings – his wedding, slaying demons, in dance postures, yogic postures et al. I was taken aback by the expressions on each of Shiva’s faces. A lot of the figures were damaged, but enough had survived for us to admire. The most beautiful of the carvings, of Shiva as Tatpurush had three faces – one powerful, one of the destroyer and one of his feminine side. Each of them looked exactly the part.
The Andhakasura Vadh was my next favourite. Shiva as the raged god killing the demon Andhaka practically leapt out of the stone at us.
The Gangadhar – Shiva statue was also charming in its subtle depiction of human (and clearly divine) relationships. Everyone knows the famous story of how when the river, Ganges fell to earth, Shiva captured her in his matted locks and then gently released her to the earth as earth would not withstand the force of the river otherwise. The stone portrait captures Ganges falling on Shiva’s locks but the main story told is of Shiva assuring a rather miffed Parvati by a pat on her arm, that despite the presence of another woman, she was still the love of his life
After the main cave, we were pretty much done with the Island. The Buddha Stupa and a couple of caves were in forbidden forest territory. The other caves were empty or small and had nothing much to offer except for the excitement of going into a cave. ASI has a small museum that tells the story of the panels and has some information on other cave temples in Maharashtra. We did not venture into Cannon Hill, which lies atop Elephanta and has a cannon on display. We were quite tired by then and having reached the Island only in the afternoon, had just about enough time before the last ferry at 5.30 p.m. to lounge around in the MTDC restaurant. It was already winding up time, and the friendly MTDC waiters informed us that they had run out of all food but some stale sandwiches and excellent masala tea. We ordered both and watched the beautiful view of the sea.
On the way back, gulls flew all around us, picking at the food tossed by passengers. Nearer, Mumbai we could see the dull outline of the Taj and the dark silhouette of the Gateway of India.
Elephanta is a wonderful day trip for the winter and definitely worth a visit. Be sure to buy the guide book though.