The city of Mumbai on the west coast of India is called Mayanagri or the city of dreams. In this city, people are in a perpetual rush to turn their aspirations into their actuality. So, quietude and nostalgia are not usually part of the unabashedly glitzy and contemporary Mumbai experience. But, if you take a deep dive, you will see that Mumbai does relish its share of the glorious Indian past. And that is apparent at the Elephanta Caves located ten kilometers offshore of Mumbai, on the tranquil Gharapuri Island - Elephanta Island. The Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely warrant a spot on your Mumbai itinerary.
The Elephanta Caves are a group of seven rock-cut caves that are one of the most noteworthy instances of ancient Indian sculpture and cave art. But their exact history is not known! It is broadly believed by historians that the caves were built sometime between 500 CE and 800 CE. The Konkan Mauryas, who were the liegemen of the rulers of Chalukya dynasty, may have patronised the construction of the caves as earliest records show that the Gharapuri Island was their capital. But again, nothing is known for certain. The one thing that is properly recorded is the origin of the name ‘Elephanta’. The Portuguese invaded India in the 16th century, and at the Gharapuri Island, they chanced upon a huge rock-cut elephant sculpture that led them to name the island as the Elephanta Island. And that is how the caves came to be known as the Elephanta Caves.
The Elephanta Island is only ten kilometers away from Mumbai and yet seems like a completely different world. Far from the din of the concrete jungle, this hilly island is serene heaven with its own rhythm. And the caves are located atop two hillocks on this island – five Hindu caves dedicated to Lord Shiva stand tall on Gun Hill, and the two Buddhist caves are located on the adjacent Stupa Hill.
After reaching the island, you will have to climb 120 steps to reach the top of Gun Hill. Now, the huge, stone steps can pose an inconvenience to many. They can avail the toy train that will take them to the top of the hill. Cave 1 or Grand Cave, the first cave on Gun Hill, is the main highlight of this cave complex that covers an area of 60,000 sq ft. Cave 1 has a pillared pavilion, an aisle and open porticoes. Inside the cave, you will encounter dexterous carvings of ten different manifestations of Lord Shiva. The one that will fill you with awe is the Trimurti, a 22 foot-sculpture of a three-faced Lord Shiva, portraying three of his most significant personas - creator, protector and destroyer of the universe. Then, there is the Ardhanarishwara sculpture which is the manifestation of Shiva and his beloved Parvati as one, and the Gangadharamurti which is the depiction of Shiva as the vessel of river Ganga.
The other manifestations of Lord Shiva that have been masterfully captured on the walls of the cave are Nataraj, Andhakasuravadha, Yogishvara, Ravanaanugrahamurti and Kalyanasundaramurti. You should either hire a guide at the cave complex itself or book a guided tour of the caves in advance to understand the nuances of the art here. Cave 2 also has beautiful carvings of Shiva and Lord Kartikeya adorning the walls. Unfortunately, the caves 3-5 have been so far ravaged by the transgressions of both nature and man that not much remains to be seen in those. Caves 6 and 7 on Stupa Hill are erstwhile Buddhist shrines, and reaching them requires you to trek the hill which may take a good three to four hours. If you are not inclined to that, do not fret because you will not miss out on much. If you do trek your way to the top of the Stupa Hill, you will be presented with a stunning panoramic view of the verdant island and even a view of Mumbai itself!
A trip to the Elephanta Caves begins with a ferry ride across the Arabian Sea to the Elephanta Island. The first ferry leaves at 9 AM from the Gateway of India, and the last one departs the ferry point at 2 PM. There is a Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) ticket booth near the Gateway of India, and you can book your seat on the next ferry from here. The way to get back to Mumbai from the island is the same. The last ferry leaves Elephanta Island at 5:30 PM, and since no one is allowed to stay there overnight, you must keep track of time and avail the last ferry. The hour-long ferry ride across the turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea is an enjoyable experience with cool winds whizzing past you.
Mumbai has two airports - the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and the Santa Cruz Domestic Airport. You can avail a cab outside either of the airports to reach the gateway. Alternatively, you can board the famous Mumbai local train to get down at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or the Churchgate station and walk to the gateway from there.
Exploring the Elephanta Caves involves some amount of walking in hilly terrain. So, it is important that you wear shoes that suit the purpose. And it is also important that you stay hydrated during your visit. So, do not forget to carry water. You can buy a bottle of water from one of the shops that have come up around the stone steps leading to the Gun Hill. However, remember not to buy edibles from these shops as the monkeys of the Elephanta Island are infamous for snatching those away from the hands of the visitors. If you do feel hungry, you can always dine at the government-run restaurant near the caves. While coming down the hill, you can pick up knick-knacks from the shops to serve as memorabilia later. I will suggest you definitely get your hands on the local berries for their delectable taste. Also, try to avoid visiting the place during the monsoon months from June to August as the Arabian Sea gets turbulent at times and either affects the timings of the ferry or suspends it altogether.
Whenever we talk of ancient Indian cave art, Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves dominate the discourse. The Elephanta Caves are no less in their artistry, beauty and diverse heritage. So, when you visit Mumbai, make sure you explore this slice of Indian history, sequestered on a tranquil island, for an indelible experience.
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