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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

Rabdentse Palace - home of the Sikkim Kings

Three stone structures stand at the edge of the mountain. Behind them is the valley, and beyond it, the mountains stretch as far as our eyes can see. It is an impressive sight, and I can finally understand why the erstwhile rulers of Sikkim chose this as the location of their palace. We are at Rabdentse, the second capital of the Sikkim kings, and the three structures are chortens, where the royal family offered prayers and incense to their deities.

Earlier, our driver had stopped on the highway, and pointed to a simple entry arch. “Follow the path and you will reach the palace” he had said. And so, we had followed the path. There wasn’t a soul around, and the thick foliage was our only company. A few boards assured us that the path did indeed lead somewhere, and eventually, the forest made way for a clearing, where a few ruined structures were visible. We had wondered why this place, which would once been surrounded by a dense forest, had been chosen for the palace. Now, looking over the magnificent view, we knew. The terrain offered protection from the enemy, and the view inspired faith in the Lord who would look over, and bless them. It was, truly, the perfect location!

A bird's eye view of the ruins, as seen from the Pemayangtse Monastery

The first capital of Sikkim was at Yuksom, set up by Phunstok Namgyal, the first consecrated ruler, or Chogyal. His son, Tensung Namgyal was the one who shifted the capital to Rabdentse in 1680. The capital survived almost a century, in spite of palace intrigues, and attacks by Nepal and Bhutan. Eventually, its nearness to Nepal, and repeated attacks forced the capital to be shifted in 1793 to Tumlong, and Rabdentse was abandoned.

The structure which survives today is a small one by any standards. Only a part of the fortifications remain, suggesting a separate section for the commoners and the royals, though only a portion of the palace stands now. The main residential area of the palace is believed to have been a double storeyed structure, but only the base remains, with a few of the walls. On the southern side is what is believed to be the religious complex, with a superb view of the snow clad mountains. It is clearly evident that the Namgyals placed great emphasis on prayers, for the best sites are reserved for the chortens and stupas.

The main prayer area of the palace. The white marble slab is said to have been carried by a single person from the river, miles below! Not much remains, but the faith endures, and even today people come and offer prayers here.

We spot a board announcing the presence of a museum, and head excitedly towards it, hoping for some more insight into the palace and its heritage. Unfortunately for us, the only staff member manning the site refuses to open it for us. Why? We have absolutely no idea, and neither does he, for he simply shakes his head as we talk, and finally walks off. I wonder if he doesn’t know Hindi/English, but sadly, I do not know any of the local languages either!

As we walk back to the car through the dense forest, I have many questions - about the discovery of these ruins, if they were actually abandoned completely, or if people had turned up to offer prayers long after the kings had gone. There is no one to answer me, and that is the saddest thought I have. That, though the forest has been preserved, and the ruins too, there is no one to preserve the memory of those who built these structures. The boards but tell us their history. There is no one to tell us their story. 

  • Location: Rabdentse Palace is in West Sikkim, and the nearest city is Pelling. Pelling is 133 Km from Siliguri and 125 Km from Gangtok.
  • How to Reach: There are jeeps to Pelling from Gangtok (125 Km) and Jorethang (48 Km). There are also buses from Gangtok and Siliguri. To visit Rabdentse, you will have to either hire a vehicle or share one of the jeeps which ferry people across the state.
  • Where to Stay: There are plenty of options to stay at Pelling as well as Gangtok. There are even hotels in Jorethang. We stayed at the Club Mahindra resort at Baiguney in West Sikkim, and made a day’s trip to Pelling and places around it. 
  • Tips:
    • Hire a vehicle and combine a visit to Rabdentse with the Pemayangtse Monastery, the Khecheopalri Lake and Kanchenjunga waterfalls.


  1. I have been to Sikkim but not this part. Thanks for taking me there virtually. :-)

    1. you are welcome, Nisha! we too visited only a small part. there is so much more to see ! hope i can go again sometime!

  2. Wonderful read. Glad to know about this.

  3. Looks like a nice place!! Not heard of it before.

    1. I hadnt either, Aravind, till I began searching for places to visit in Sikkim. even then, it didnt look all that interesting till I actually went there!

  4. What is it with on-site museums and staff refusing to open them - I can never understand this funny attitude of theirs. Don't you feel that royal structures always had the best locations.

    Enjoying the Sikkim series, Anu.

    1. yeah... i dont know what the ASI have in mind, when they construct the museums! hmm about the locations, i guess the rulers liked to look over the entire city and around, not just for protection, but also to reassure themselves of their greatness :D but this view was especially spectacular!

  5. Such nice pictures. Even the weather 'looks' so good in these images :)

  6. Dear Anu,

    Just like you realized why the rulers chose this solace to erect their sanctum, I had my own sting of realization that beauty and holiness when brought to meet yield the supreme experience of joy and reverence to the Almighty. You followed a path that had enlightened you.

  7. Hi Ma’am, Am doing some amature research on Sikkim. Will probably end up writing a fiction on Sikkim. This place played a very important role in the politics of Sikkim at those times. Thanks for the virtual tour. Will probably visit it soon to get some inspiration.


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