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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

Flemish Masterpieces in Mumbai

A huge horse towers over you, and the rider stares down. The image is so realistic, you find yourself looking up at him, wondering who he was, and why he has such a supercilious look on his face. It is easy to forget you are looking at a painting… it is not just any painting, though, but one of the works of Anthony Van Dyck – Portrait of a nobleman on his horse.

On another frame, Neptune rides the waves, his trident by his side, horses he created from the foam rearing up to go…. Behind him are ships he is protecting, from the fury of the skies. At first, all you can see in the skies are clouds. A second look shows you the chubby figures blowing the wind with their rounded cheeks, one carrying lightning. A little beyond, a dark cloud seems to be letting out tentacles, waiting to grasp the ships, but Neptune’s outstretched arm seems to be warning them away. Time seems to have stood still, in this depiction of Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘Neptune abates the storming waters’.

Another wall is covered with prints – of copper engravings. One of them shows an old woman with a lit candle; and her grandson smiles up at her, as he tries to light his own candle from hers. The smile on their faces stands out in the candle light, every wrinkle on the grandmother’s face and clothes clearly visible, as is the glint in the grandson’s eye. Above all, it is the play of light which stands out, which is only affirmed by the caption at the bottom – a quote by Pliny to the effect that artists who could depict candle light or torch light were highly respected. That the artist was a master, is not something we need that quote to tell us, but the addition of the quote tells us so much of the artist himself – once again, Peter Paul Rubens, this time, with Paulus Pontius. Looking at these engravings, you are sure to wonder if engraving isn’t a greater art than painting itself!

Then you move to another wall, and all your respect for painters comes surging back, as you stand in front of a huge landscape. The sea is in the distance, and you seem to be standing atop a hill. Closest to you is a thick forest, and every tree shows incredible details. Ahead are the plains, with lush green fields stretching ahead, and then, the sea itself. The prominent colours are blue and green, and little else is visible at first. It takes second, and even third looks, to notice that there are villages depicted too – a cluster of houses here, a church there, windmills in the distance, a herd of cattle, a mountain stream, a lake, and even canals amidst the fields! Over the sea are clear, white clouds, while elsewhere are black clouds, a closer look shows us that it is raining over the fields, and yes, there is a rainbow too!! Simply titled ‘Landscape with a rainbow’ by Lucas Van Uden, this painting serves to remind us that photography can never match up to the art of painting!

And then, there are the genre paintings, which show so much detail, that you can just stand there and notice the little things for a long, long time. ‘The old ox market in Antwerp’ by Peeter Van Bredael shows not just a whole lot of cattle, but also manages to show us the people and the city of Antwerp of that era. Amidst those are small things, like a pickpocket at work, and children playing games on the street. These are not paintings meant for a glance, but to return to, and discover new things, again and again!

Normally, you would need to make a trip to Belgium, or specifically, to Antwerp, to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum, to see these masterpieces. However, you now have a chance to see them, in Mumbai itself. The Royal Museum is under renovation, and the paintings are touring the world. Thanks to the efforts of our very own Mumbai Museum, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, these masterpieces are on display at the Museum, and will be here till the 9th of February, 2014.

What I have described above are just few of the many, many, beautiful works of art which have come all the way from Antwerp to Mumbai. I have chosen to show you, through my description, one from every genre on display – religious themes, portraits, genre paintings, landscapes, and prints from copper engravings. It is my hope that my description encourages you to go see these masterpieces for yourselves, and discover more on your own. I can only assure you that it will be an experience you will treasure!

  • There is no separate entry fee to view the gallery. The Museum ticket covers this.
  • The museum will remain open on all days, from 10:15 AM to 6:00 PM (entry till 5:45 PM), except 26th Jan, when the museum will remain closed for Republic Day.
  • Please do not worry about not being well informed about the arts, because each of the paintings have detailed explanations. A handbook is also available to give you more information. Besides, art students from various colleges are around, from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM, to give you a free guided tour.
  • There is lots for the kids too. It is amazing to see the details you miss and kids notice. So, please take your kids along. Besides, there is an activity area for the children, where they can keep themselves occupied while you immerse yourself in the paintings. Here, they (and even you) can try on clothes like those used in 17th century Europe, and even get your photographs taken.
  • Photography, incidentally, is prohibited here.  

The paintings are on display at the Museum for almost 2 months more, so, if you are in Mumbai, do not miss this opportunity!! 


  1. Great Info, I am big fan of such paintings and was planning a trip to Bombay for early next year. Now I can time the visit with it.


    1. So good to hear this, Empty Rucksack ! I certainly hope your plans work out and you get to see these in Mumbai!


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