Elephanta Island - Elephanta Caves

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Elephanta Island

Flag of India  , Mahārāshtra,
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Elephanta - Day trip to Elephanta Island and Caves

A visiting twelve year old niece [t'w'eenager according to her Dad], provided the impetus to re-visit the UNESCO heritage site of Elephanta, after close to forty years!

Brief description:
The Elephanta caves on Elephanta [Gharapuri] island house ancient carved Siva temples, dating from about 6th century though the exact origins are obscure. The main sculpture - Trimurthi is the official emblem of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation. There are also remnants of 2000 year old Buddhist stupas which have not been fully excavated. It is believed that the exquisite panels in the Siva temples were carved into rock cut caves during the reign of the Konkan Mauryas, as per the Aihole inscriptions of the Chalukyan King Pulakesin II. The monuments were wantonly defaced and mutilated by the Portuguese centuries later, with the result that no single panel or sculpture is intact. Shades of Bamiyan. Disgusting tourists also contribute to vandalism by carving their names on these priceless works of art. Nonetheless, the ethereal beauty shines through. The main Mahesamurthi sculpture possesses a mesmerizing aura, fascinating to both the casual tourist and archaeologist. The discovery of a medium size stone elephant of obscure origins gave rise to the name "Elephanta". This elephant now stands outside the Bhaudaji Lad Museum [formerly the V&A] at Bombay's Byculla zoo. The caves are closed Mondays.

More details from the Archaeological Survey of India at http://asi.nic.in/asi_monu_whs_elephanta.asp

MTDC's pdf brochure of the last Elephanta festival has useful information and images: http://www.maharashtratourism.gov.in/mtdc/html/maharashtratourism/MTDC_Festival/Images/Brochures/Elephanta_Festival.pdf Regrettably, the Festival is now discontinued.

High resolution Google Earth maps are at

The trip:
Aiming to beat Mumbai's infamous November heat, we arrived at the Gateway of India at 0745 only to find out that the first ferry to Elephanta would depart at 0830hrs. We bought our tickets [Rs 120 return], strolled around the pleasantly uncrowded Gateway area for a while before deciding to wait inside the boat. Contrary to information on the internet, passengers are not allowed in the upper deck, however as if to make up, the boat conductor encouraged us to occupy the front seats near the bow.

While we waited, a very fancy speedboat arrived alongside us disgorging its even fancier occupants, who had to walk through our boat to disembark at the steps in front of the Gateway. One would have had to be blind not to notice that the disembarking ladies were dressed to kill in figure hugging micro mini dresses and stiletto heels. Most intriguing.

The outward boat ride:
A few more Elephanta bound passengers arrived, about 40 in all, and we eventually set off. A hazy morning sun, fresh sea breeze and colourful launches in the harbour provided a perfect start to the trip. We got excellent views of sea gulls, the Naval dockyard and INS Viraat, followed by the peculiarly named Butcher Island and the Cross Island oil terminal in the middle of the harbour, before reaching Elephanta Island jetty exactly an hour later. Our boat was the first to arrive, alongside a chartered boat of about 20 European tourists.

The Elephanta express train:
A quaint toy train [Rs 10 return] - The Elephanta Express [my description] awaited us at the jetty for the few minutes 400m ride to the foothills. This cute train boasts a faux steam engine, with diesel generated 'steam'. We took a ride as a novelty, walking is actually faster! An entry tax [Rs 5] is collected just before the approach to the old British built stairway leading up to the caves.

The heritage stone staircase:
The 10 foot wide stairway is an attraction in itself, being made up of thick solid black stone bricks with beautifully rounded sidewalls about 1m high. It is in excellent condition. Both sides, the entire length, are lined with assorted handicraft and souvenir vendors. Cheap plastic sheeting constitutes a rough roof. I do not know why, as the entire route passes under dense tree canopy. Perhaps it is to keep the ubiquitous Elephanta monkeys away.

Tickets to the caves [Rs 10] must be purchased from the ASI booth at the upper end of the stairway, where the useful ASI publication "World Heritage Series - Elephanta" is also available @ Rs100. My cousin kindly presented me with a copy. My niece was promptly assigned the all important task of going through the guidebook for our collective benefit as we explored the caves! Guides - of the human variety, are also available at negotiable rates, at the entrance.

Onward to the caves:
The first thing that hits you is the sheer extent of defacement - ruthless, wanton, evil and mindless. It is unimaginable that anyone, no matter how bigoted or perverse, would want to destroy these priceless works of art. A very Talibanesque like, Bamiyan style destruction. Not a single panel or detail remains intact. Added to that, modern day vandalism of the "Bunty loves Pinky" variety. To make things worse, restoration work is downright slipshod. Instead of using original material, ordinary cheap cement plaster, along with what looks very much like POP has been utilised. The ASI or whoever was responsible, has certainly not done a proper job. I am surprised that the British who were otherwise so particular about preservation of heritage, did not attempt a scientific restoration of these monuments. A professional restoration project is urgently in order, before further deterioration sets in. According to a watchman at the caves, recent earthquake tremors led to further damage.

Despite the mutilation, the magnificence of what remains is overwhelming. It is not hard to imagine what it must have been like in its days of glory. Lord Siva as Sadasiva or Mahesamurthi / Trimurthi in the Main Cave is sublimely breathtaking. An aura of timeless tranquility pervades.

As not many visitors had arrived, we were fortunate to enjoy the entire panorama to ourselves for a reasonable period. A panel depicting Lord Siva as Ardanarisvara is on the left and a panel depicting Gangadhara is on the right as you face the colossus. The Trimurthi itself consists of Aghora as the left face, Tatpurusa as the centre and Vamandeva as the right face, again when facing the statue. [All tbis gleaned from my nieces perusal of the guidebook]. No words or camera can ever capture the timeless ethereal effect of this sculpture.

The remaining caves are a bit of a let down being either totally defaced or incomplete.

The pathway alongside the caves gives a good view of the emerald blue Elephanta check dam in the valley and the slightly higher hill on the other side. Better not to look over the cliff edge, as you will see mounds of assorted plastic rubbish, as though this is the designated Elephanta caves site garbage heap.

The cannons of Cannon Hill:
At the end of this pathway, we came across a handwritten sign pointing to Cannon Hill next to a barbed wire fence across a small trail. The soft drink vendor there invited us to partake of some fresh lime juice and told us to simply lift up the wire and go through!

A short trail through light evergreen forest with a few butterflies in attendance, brought us to the remnants of a stone fortification. We took a short cut uphill to surface at a remarkably well preserved black iron cannon on the top of the hill. Excellent views from this point of Gharapuri Village and the JNPT beyond. The cannon is on a metal platform which looks like it could still rotate. Staircases led down to a cluster of rooms, one of which led into a passageway through which we emerged some 40ft lower down the hillside. A short walk led us to the Lower Cannon and a view point facing the main Elephanta Jetty.

By now, the mid morning heat was getting uncomfortable, hats notwithstanding. Proceeding downhill, we came to a junction of sorts, where a vendor beseeched us to partake of some fresh lime juice. My cousin preferred a bottle of chilled water, but the elderly lady vendor begged us to have some lime juice as well as it was the only means of livelihood for them. I thought it was quite pathetic. A short conversation elicited the information that their village below had just three hours of generator provided electricity per day. Why cant Maharashtra Tourism follow the Kerala pattern to better living standards in tourist areas?

After our refreshment, we followed the 'official' Cannon Hill broad trail which emerged near the MTDC restaurant on the right side of the top of the heritage stairway. MTDC also has a couple of rooms available here for day use. Night halts are not permitted.

Hot and perspiring, we bought some cool cucumbers from a local vendor. Within seconds, a very menacing monkey appeared, only to be met by an equally aggressive snarl from my cousin who is used to dealing with simians. That put paid to Mr Monkey. We did however share the end bits of our cucumbers. Other than that one incident, the monkeys did not trouble us - contrary to internet information.

On our way down, we browsed the souvenir stalls picking up an Amar Chitra comic of Elephanta for my niece and a few other odds and ends. Surprisingly the prices are lower than in Mumbai, although bargaining is a must. Only one stall had a miniscule, badly made Trimurthi replica. Pity. If this were Tamil Nadu, there would have been vendors galore selling exquisitely sculpted papier mache and brass models of the Mahesamurthi in all sizes.

By this time, the crowds and the heat had increased considerably and we decided it was time to head home. Walking back to the jetty, we admired lush mangroves and colourful fishing boats. The Elephanta "Express" chugged along its bent track alongside the road, chock full of tourists waving to be photographed! Of course I obliged.

A pleasant 45 minute boat ride returned us to our starting point - the Gateway of India. Welcome back to Bombay.

Tip: Take the first boat at 0830 to avoid crowds and heat. Wear comfortable footwear and carry a hat. It is not necessary to carry food or water, as there is plenty of both, available cheaply, everywhere on the island. Binoculars will be much appreciated on the boat ride and from the top of Cannon Hill.

Video clip link from ASI website:

Interesting extract from a 1902 British encyclopaedia:

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