The Elephanta Caves, located off the coast of Mumbai, in Maharashtra, constitute one of the finest specimens of traditional Indian art. Two hillocks, separated by a narrow valley, makes up the island of Gharapuri (later christened Elephanta by the Portuguese). The cave sanctuaries carved onto these hillocks contain archaeological remains that make them a world-renowned heritage site. Despite being one of the remotest places, where the entire island still runs on electric generators, this is a site that has cultural significance that dates back to the 2nd century CE. To reach the island of Gharapuri, one needs to catch a ferry from the Gateway of India ferry point. Reaching the island takes about an hour, depending on the water currents; and a small trek from the banks takes one to the majestic caves.
It is estimated that the Elephanta caves were constructed during the period between 5th to 6th centuries CE. In Indian art, the period between the fifth and eight centuries CE are known as the age of experimentation. This period in history was at the crossroads of two of the greatest traditions – the already existent and well-rounded Buddhist art tradition and the sowing the seeds of Hindu temple architecture. Architects, adept in the style of the rock-cut caves and gavaksha style window motifs, used their knowledge and pat experience in Buddhist monasteries to carve out some of the finest temple structures during this time, including the cave sanctuaries at Ellora and Elephanta. Taking inspiration from the caves at Ajanta, the Elephanta Caves were built in the similar vihara style of design, with a central hall leading up to the shrine carved on the rear wall.
The biggest and most prominent attraction at Elephanta is Cave 1. It is in this sanctuary that one finds the grand shrine of Lord Shiva. Known to the west as the ‘Indian Trinity’, the Mahesamurti is the central shrine that captivates the viewer. The Eternal Shiva sculpture in the center exudes tranquility. This median sculpture is complemented by two forms of the Hindu God – the Feminine (Vama) figure on the left-hand side and the Fierce (Aghora) on the right. Apart from the dominant shrine, narrative panels etched onto the cave walls throughout the ambulatory pathway makes for remarkable additions to the grandeur of the structure. Each scene draws from a key theme in the Linga Purana, an important Shaivite text.
The visuals inside the cave represent contrasting pairs of Shiva’s dual nature – male/female, fierce/tranquil, dancing/reposeful, creator/destroyer. One also sees depiction of Shiva and Parvati’s relationship on the panels, as well as key incidents in Hindu mythology such as the birth of the Ganga. The east-west path of the temple leads one to the sanctum, which is where the Shiv linga is found, and the north-south path ends in the gigantic Mahesamurti statue. At Elephanta, all of the sculptural panels and the iconography comes together as a whole and adds to the beauty of the caves. Architectural genius was combined with the iconography in planning the caves spread over the hillocks of Gharapuri.
While the first cave captivates the viewer with its impeccable beauty, a walk through the premises of the UNESCO site also provides glimpses of some of the Buddhist caves that are filled with exquisitely detailed narrative panels and scenes from the life of the Buddha. The calm and tranquil atmosphere at Gharapuri, coupled with the warmth radiating from the locals makes it a visit that is worth the journey. Little trinket shops all through the pathway leading up to the caves also make for great resting places to take a breath, glance at the colorful offerings at the shops and also indulge in splurging on pieces that remind one of the visit to the Island that is worthy of mention in the history books.