Caves always tickle one’s imagination, fear and fascination, but not many caves come close to the mystical appeal of Mumbai caves. These ancient caves were hand-carved cave-shrines from solid stone, depicting images and reliefs of Hindu deities, most particularly of the Lord Shiva. They were hewn by a lost civilization that used to occupy the Elephanta Island. The caves, believed to date back all the way to 600 AD, are also popularly known as Elephanta Caves. Not much is known about their history and about the people who built them, but these staggeringly eerie caves resonate perfectly with the spiritual energy of India. They represent not only India’s religiosity, but also of the country’s long lost cave culture. Indian rock-cut architecture is known for its perfect symmetry and that is clearly evident in Elephanta.
The island was named by Portuguese explorers. They were surprised to see a huge elephant image standing proudly in a deserted island of the coast of Mumbai (then called Bombay). Not surprisingly, they called the island Elephanta, especially after also seeing the many images of Lord Shiva, who is a half-man half-elephant deity. The Portuguese attempted to bring home the image but they failed and the gigantic stone elephant fell into the sea. It stayed there for years until the British successfully retrieved it and brought it to Mumbai. It is now displayed inside the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Portuguese did much more to the island than name it. They also did target practice on several stone images. Signs of the irresponsible destruction are still evident today, and yet miraculously almost all of the images and reliefs have maintained their calm spirituality and presence.
Elephanta Caves have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The hand-carved caves include shrines, inner chambers, courtyards, grand halls and porticos with a number of stone sculptures and reliefs of Hindu gods and goddesses that were obviously painstakingly etched by their ancient makers. There are seven caves in all, and the largest and most exquisite one is the main cave. Its façade doesn’t look like a cave entrance at all; instead it resembles a European structure with pillars, columns and a staircase. Inside the main cave are different images of the Lord Shiva in different forms and acts. Some of the reliefs show the Hindu deity receiving the waters of the mighty Ganges River, defeating the Devil, and getting married. At the entrance of the main gate is the most prominent statue of all – an image of a three-headed god representing the Trimurti (Hindu Trinity).
Anyone visiting Mumbai must take that hour ferry ride to Elephanta Island. Several boats make their way to the island from the Gateway of India in Mumbai harbor. The island is also called Gharapuri Island, but known to many by what the Portuguese called it. Mumbai Caves are the most enigmatic landmarks in the city. It is generating intrigue and attention to the already thriving tourism industry of India’s most important metropolis. Mumbai is the capital of India’s Maharashtra state and is clearly the richest city in the country.