The most awe-inspiring caves in Mumbai, Elephanta caves feel magical. History enthusiast or not, take one look at them and it is impossible to look away!
The caves are famous for larger than life sculptures with intricate details. They remain a popular one-day holiday location, the toy train ride adding to the charm.
They are a collection of Hindu and Buddhist caves on the island of Gharapuri (meaning “city of caves”), and are believed to have been carved between 5th and 8th centuries AD. Incidentally, this period also saw decline of Buddhism and revival of Brahmanical traditions. The creators of the caves are debatable, and are most likely considered to be Mauryas of Konkan or Chalukyas of Badami dynasty.
Even before caves dedicated to Lord Shiva were excavated, the island was a Buddhist center. The remains of stupa in some caves are believed to belong to the early phase of Buddhism dating back to 2nd century BC.
The caves were a place of worship and have faced cruelty and abandonment at the hands of various rulers.
In the 16th century, the group of islands that form modern day Mumbai came under Portuguese reign. The caves witnessed massive vandalism at the hands of Portuguese soldiers, who used the sculptured panels for shooting practices. In 1970s, the government of India restored the main cave and in 1987 the caves earned the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
(In picture: Cave number 3)
The island got its name from an elephant sculpture that the Portuguese found at the island’s entry. Mammoth efforts were made to relocate the statue to England, which resulted in its damage. It was moved to Victoria Gardens in 1864, reassembled in the year 1914 and now sits outside Bhau Daji Lad museum in Jijamata Udyaan/Byculla zoo.
The world famous rock cut sculptures show some stories on Lord Shiva with dizzying attention to details. All of them are carved in Cave number 1. Some of them are –
The most striking sculpture in the cave is the colossal figure of three faced Lord Shiva. The three faces correspond to the three roles associated with Lord Shiva – creation, protection and destruction of the universe. The iconic sculpture is also on the logo of Maharashtra tourism.
(In picture: Mahesh Murti/Trimurti – Shiva the destroyer, Shiva the creator, Shiva the preserver (L-R))
Andhakasura Vadh (Killing of demon)
This is the most realistic sculpture, showing Lord Shiva with a fierce expression. It depicts the killing of Andhaka, king of demons, by Lord Shiva after he intended to attack Kailasa (Shiva’s abode). Each time he struck the demon with the sword (seen in second arm on the left), blood from the wounds upon falling on Earth created another Andhaka. Hence the Lord carries a bowl (seen in second arm on right) under the demon while killing the demon.
(In picture: Andhakasura Vadh)
Kalyansundar murti (Marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati)
On the stunning Kalyansundar Murti, through the multiple damages, one can figure out the large jatamukuta or headgear on Lord Shiva and ornate jewellery on Goddess Parvati. Something I found beautiful was how bashful the bride looks and the smile on groom’s face, pouring life in stone carvings.
(In picture: Kalyansundar Murti)
Natraja (King of Dancers)
The remains of dancing Lord Shiva sculpture seems to have had eight hands, with the third forearm appearing to hold the axe with cobra. On the right side of Lord Shiva is a sculpture of Lord Ganesha and above him Lord Brahma, carried by swans. To his left side are Goddess Parvati, Lord Vishnu on Garuda and Lord Indra riding his elephant Airavata.
(In picture: Natraja)
Ardhanarishwara (half Shiva half Parvati)
Ardhanarishwara represents the formation of masculine and feminine energies of the universe, associating Goddess Parvati as Shakti. This is beautifully shown in the sculpture, with right side being Lord Shiva, resting his hand on Nandi, and left side is Goddess Parvati, shown with bangles and earrings.
(In picture: Ardhanarishwara)
There is an ancient Shiva shrine towards the right side of the cave. It is guarded by 8 life sized Dwarpalas, who are visible from every corner of the cave.
(In picture: Dwarapalas outside the shrine)
Other prominent sculptures are Gangadhara Shiva (Lord Shiva carrying river Ganges), Ravananugraha Murti (Ravana crushed under Kailasa), Yogishwara Shiva (Lord Shiva in meditation) and Uma Maheshwara (Goddess Parvati playing dice with Lord Shiva).
Do not miss!
The local vendors suggested us to visit the Cannon hill. It derives its name from the two massive cannons that were left behind by the Portuguese and now sit atop a hill. The cannons are placed on diases that can rotate a full circle and hence provided 360 degree field for attack. The unhindered view of sea from the hill is worth the short hike!
On the other side of Cave number 1, there are incomplete sculptures and a shrine in Cave numbers 3 and 4.
(In picture: One of the cannons on Cannon hill, view of sea from Cannon hill, Cave number 4)
Timings and cost
Timings: 9.30 am to 5.30 pm
Entry cost: INR 205 per person (Ferry) + INR 45 per person (Cave entry)
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(All pictures are taken by me unless mentioned)