If you have not visited Elephanta Island off the coast of Mumbai, you have not truly experienced the culture, historicity and beauty of India. The island is home to the mystical Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not difficult getting to the island from downtown Mumbai. Simply go to the Gateway of India to catch a ferry boat that leaves for the island every 30 minutes. The ferry ride takes one hour.
Located on the sea of Oman, this enchanting island is known by devotees as the glorious abode of Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity that takes the form of an elephant. There are seven carved caves on the island that reflect the Hindu cave culture of bygone years. The island is home to a number of decorated temples and carved images from Hindu mythology, remnants of the rich civilization that used to occupy the island but now has long disappeared.
There are seven caves in this mysterious island, and people are still not sure how old these carved wonders are. Probably beginning from the 6th century, the caves are divided into two groups — the Eastern caves are just two caves (one is unfinished) and several cisterns, and the Western caves are five rock-cut Hindu cave-shrines, including the main cave. The main cave is largely popular among worshippers because it has ancient carvings that depict the glory of the Lord Shiva.
Any first-time visitor to the main cave would not believe that this was carved by human hands. It resembles a modern building with false beams that have been carved in the cave’s roof. There are also pillars, columns, two large panels, an esplanade at the entrance and a steep flight of steps. Greeting all worshippers and visitors are images of Shiva Nataraja (King of Dance) and Shiva Yogisvara (Master of Yoga) in a style that is reminiscent of the Gupta period. To the right side of the entrance is the cylindrical lingam, which symbolizes the Supreme Being in Hinduism.
Inside the main cave is a chapel with four doors and four large images of the “dvarapala” guardians, who are supposed to keep out any unfaithful visitors. There are huge reliefs depicting Lord Shiva, about 5.7 meters tall. Found at the other side of the entrance, on the south wall, is the most imposing figure in the island: a bust of the Mahadeva, a three-headed figure of the Trimurti or Hindu Trinity. The three heads are those of Aghora (facing east), who symbolizes terror, Vamadeva (facing west), who is the creator of beauty and joy, and Tatpurusha (center), who is the preserver of the Trimurti’s existence and harmony.
There are other reliefs, carvings and images in the main cave, as well as in the other six caves, all exuding mystery and spirituality. Some of the images depict the other forms and acts of Shiva such as the deity’s marriage to Parvati, the act of killing the Devil, receiving the waters of the Ganges, and so on. These carvings not only reflect the island people’s faith in Shiva but also of their unique kind of artistry.
Elephanta Island is also known as Gharapuri Island, which means ‘City of Caves’. Situated about 10 km to the east of Mumbai’s harbor, the island has lush palm, mango, and tamarind trees, and a population of 1,200. The name Elephanta was given by the Portuguese in the 17th century after they were astonished to see a colossal elephant sculpture made from basalt. The gigantic elephant is now kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Mumbai.