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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

The Cave Temples of Badami

The main attractions at Badami are the rock cut cave temples. Carved out of the sandstone cliffs in the late 6th and 7th centuries, these caves have a verandah at the entrance with pillars cut into the stone. This leads to a pillared hall or mandapa, which in turn leads to a small sanctum. There are 4 such caves – the first one is dedicated to lord Shiva, the second and third are dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the fourth one is a Jain cave.

Come along with me for a photo-tour of the caves. Please excuse the quality of the photographs. I have tried to capture the beauty I saw all around me, but, there are many which do not do justice to the beauty of the originals. It was evening when we visited the caves, so the light wasn’t too helpful. Besides, the caves were so filled with school children who had come on a picnic, that just getting a shot without them in the frame was a challenge!

When I started, I intended to write about these caves in a single post, but it just went on and on and finally, I decided to cut it down into parts – one for each cave! So here goes part 1!

Badami caves – Part 1

We begin with the first one, at the lowest level – the only cave here dedicated to Shiva.

The sight which greets us here is probably the signature sculpture of Badami – the dancing Lord – Nataraja.

This is a unique depiction of Nataraja, since he is depicted with 18 arms. The 9 arms on the left and the 9 on the right together depict the 81 postures of Bharatanatyam – the divine dance. This cave dates back to 550 AD, but the beauty of the Nataraja remains unblemished, despite the wear and tear! On one side we can see Ganesha dancing along as one of the Ganas plays the drums! On the other side is Nandi, bowing his head, or with a slight stretch of imagination, nodding his head in tune with the music!

Also in this cave are Karthikeya….

And Ganesha……. 

If you observe closely, you can see that this Ganesha does not have a potbelly. I was told that this depicts the famous ‘Vatapi Ganapathy’. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, a short explanation – Vatapi was the original name of Badami, and it is believed that there was a special idol of Ganesha here which was taken by the Pallavas and installed in a temple at Thiruchengattangudi near Thanjavur. The Ganesha there is still called Vatapi Ganapathy and there even is a famous song in Carnatic music dedicated to Him.

Then comes the female counterpart of Shiva – Shakti or Parvati – here depicted as Mahishasura Mardini (slayer of the demon Mahisha)..

One of the most beautiful sculptures here is that of Shiva and Parvati depicted as one – Ardhanareeshwara.To read the story of Ardhanareeshwara, click here.

On Shiva’s side is depicted the sage Brighu – the one responsible for this form! On Parvati’s side is one of her friends. Here is a closer look…

The sage’s ribs are visible, as well as the differences in the two halves of the figure – on your left, you can see the masculine portion which is so clearly different from the feminine portion on the right….. If, at this moment, you are awed, just imagine how we would have felt, standing in front of such a magnificent piece of work!

Next is Harihara – a fusion of Shiva and Vishnu – the coming together of two sects – the Shaivites and the Vaishnavites.

Again, a closer look shows the wealth of detail here. On the left is Shiva, accompanied by Nandi and Parvati, while on the right is Vishnu, with Garuda and Lakshmi by his side. Shiva has his matted hair piled up atop his head, a snake holding it together, a moon decorating it, while Vishnu has a jeweled crown. Shiva has snakes as ornaments while Vishnu has jewels galore. They hold their signature weapons, such as the noose and the conch. Every aspect of the two gods has been depicted so beautifully that one can just stand on and on staring at it!

There are other, smaller sculptures which adorn the caves, such as this one showing Shiva and Parvati on the Rishabha – the bull. See how Parvati has been depicted sitting side saddle!

Outside are two dwarapalakas – door guardians. It is believed that these are also forms of Shiva, since they are depicted with Shiva’s weapon, the trident.

There are a couple of interesting carvings here, both on the pillars, and easily missed. Here is the first. Unfortunately, the bottom part has been lost, but what can you see?

At first glance, you can see two children, can’t you? One down and one up. The lower one is crawling and the upper one is lying down. Now look closer and see how the children have been carved. Can you see two more children? One on the left is doing some kind of gymnastics and the one on the right is standing. It is believed to depict the four stages of childhood – first when the child is sleeping all the time, then, he begins crawling, then he stands, and finally, he does all sorts of gymnastics!

The second one is simpler, but no less beautiful –

This is quite a well known depiction, showing the elephant and the bull. Can you see them clearly, though sharing a head apparently?

These carvings are believed to be the work of the master sculptors, a sort of signature, showing their skill and intelligence! We don’t know the names of the talented artists who created these marvels. They lived and died unknown. However, every time a visitor sees these beautiful works of art and appreciates it, or spends a moment applauding the skill of the creator, they surely smile, wherever they are! 

Coming Up: Badami Caves 2, 3, and 4.

Badami Factfile
  • Location: Badami is located in Karnataka, 30 Kms from Bagalkot and 589 Km from Bangalore
  • Nearest Airport: Belgaum, 190 Km
  • Nearest Railway station: Hubli, 100 Km
  • Accomodation: There are plenty of options for staying in Badami, but most of them are lodges and low to medium end hotels. The best is certainly the Karnataka Tourism hotel Maurya Chalukya
  • Around Badami: 
    • Bijapur – 125 Km
    • Aihole – 46 Km
    • Pattadakkal – 29 Km
    • Hospet – 190 Km


  1. Nice post. Did you visit pattadakkal and aihole also?

  2. Wow, It never ceases to amaze me- the amount of talent that existed back in the day and the creativity they had...  Badami is on my "to visit" list...

  3. The bas-relief created in those days, most of them are still intact. Good captures. Loved little Ganesha dancing along with Nataraja.

  4. Hi there!!! Visiting your blog.  Visit back.  Have a nice weekend!!!

  5. Thanks Mridula!!! was the best i could do with the camera, and looking back, wished i had a better camera then!

  6. Absolutely, Aarti! they were amazing! u must really go sometime!

  7. Yes, Chitra... most of it is intact in spite of being out there in the open! and we loved that ganesha too!

  8. Superb! Even the photographs are quite good. The Nataraja is a feast to the eyes. I am thrilled to find that instead simply viewing the sculptures, you have described their purpose. Hata off!

  9. Hey thats beautiful. You should visit Ellora Caves Aurangabad. Capture the monoliths there, sometime, and do send them to me! 

  10. Lovely pictures and the narration for the each pic... Thanks for the virtual tour, Anu

  11. Superb Photo journey ....... these caves are just awesome .

  12. Thanks so much! Its a pleasure to share my experiences with all of you!

  13. Thanks Viyoma! I have visited ellora too and taken loads of pics.. am lagging behind terribly with my posts, which is why they havent been put up yet!

  14. I wish I was there again!

  15. Yes Indrani! me too! i really loved the place... and there is still so much more I want to see there..

  16. What a beautiful round up of the caves! If you promise not to think of me as an ignoramus, I will ask you a question. On second thoughts I will go ahead and ask you anyway :) Are these temples and the Pallava temples of Tamil Nadu and Andhra similar? (Are you laughing?)

  17. Thanks Zephyr, and no, not laughing at all.... abt ur question, quite a valid one, actually! i was just reading an article while checking up some stuff for this blog post, where the author wondered about the artisans who made these caves... considering the age of these caves, he was wondering if originally, the ellora caves had been created by artisans under the rashtrakuta kings. then, the chalukyas attacked the rashtrakutas, so they probably captured the artisans who then carved these at badami and around... later, the pallavas attacked the chalukyas so probably the same artisans, or at least their descendants might have made the caves in mahabalipuram and around! see, national integration even then!

  18. My name comes from this place, Badami-kar!! :)
    The caves are wonderful!

  19. The place looks so inviting..! Well covered Anu..!

  20. wow! what a connection! so u are originally from here??? maybe ur ancestors were! 

  21. Thanks Sridharan! u shd go sometime too!

  22. very informative post

  23. Interesting post.  I live in Florida and have never seen anything like this.  For some reason I am fascinated by this image.  Thanks for sharing.

  24. THanks a lot! great to hear that you liked it! hope to see u here regularly now!

  25. These caves are amazing. You really have great pictures.

  26. Beautiful, Anuradha! I started from your Hampi travelogue and read all the way till here through Aihole, Pattadakal and Mahakuta. it brought back very pleasant memories. I had done this Heritage Karnataka trip last December and was equally awed at all those marvellous architecture. Thanks to you for taking all the strain to put every bit of it together. i understand the effort behind it and these marvels deserve every amount of it.
    Happy travelling to you! Trip On

    1. THanks so much, Trip on! Its such a pleasure to read such comments. I would love to read your description of these places too... heading straight over..

    2. Hi Anuradha,

      Wonderful travelogue and photos.

      I have recently done the Aihole, Pattadakal, Badami and Hampi route. I will be taking your blog’s help in identifying the sculptures for my posts. Please visit my first post on Aihole:

      Thanks for sharing these wonderful posts.

      Nirdesh Singh

  27. Anu, Really great information, I appreciate the effort and also Thanks for Sharing this information with us. And on my journey to Badami I stayed at ClarksInn Hotels in Badami and it was nice pleasure, All staffs at hotel are very cooperative and hotel is near to bus stand.


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