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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

Vaikuntha Vishnu at Masroor

I am back, after two whole weeks offline! It has been rather difficult to get back to writing, with so many thoughts churning inside my head, but, making a monumental effort, here I am, continuing with the last place I wrote about before I left – the Masroor Rock Cut Temples.

We saw this image at Masroor, and neither the guide, nor friends I asked after I returned, had any clue as to who it was. The figure looks male, but what about the side faces? Those were definitely not human! I had seen something similar in a Vishwaroopa figure of Vishnu, but that one had many more faces. Besides, who were those two at the bottom he had his hands on?

It turns out that I was partly right. This is indeed Vishnu, but known as Vaikuntha Vishnu, or Vaikuntha Chaturmurthi. The three heads we can see are – human, boar (varaha) and lion (narasimha); and the fourth, Kapila or demoniac head isn’t visible. Though there are many explanations of the significance of this icon, the one thing that stands out is the universality of Vishnu, the lord of all creatures – be it human, animal, semi-human, or even demoniac.

What about those two figures on the side? Those, it turns out, are anthropomorphic representations of his weapons – the Gada (mace) and Chakra (disc). On the left is Gada Devi (depicted as a woman), and on the right, Chakrapurusha (male). In his other two hands, he must have once held the lotus and Conch, but they are no longer visible. Also, the tiny indentation between his feet might have once represented Bhu Devi, or goddess earth.

Interestingly, this representation is most often seen in Kashmir, and earliest such icons are from the Gupta period (6th century CE). Masroor, being in Himachal, is close enough to Kashmir, to have been influenced by its traditions and iconography. Vaikuntha Vishnu worship was also prevalent in Central India (the Lakshman temple in Khajuraho for example) during the 10th century. The Masroor temples date back to the 7th and 8th centuries, fitting into this period. It would be interesting to trace the route sculptures and religions iconography travelled across the country, wouldn’t it?

This sculpture is sadly, too weathered and damaged to see and appreciate the details. Click here, and head to the website of the National Museum, Delhi, to see a beautiful representation of Vaikuntha Vishnu from the 9th Century AD. Hover on the image to see details.

You can also see this representation at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (or the Prince of Wales Museum) Mumbai, both, in the sculpture as well as Bronze Gallery.

So, why did I choose to begin my writing with this icon? The reason is a course I have recently joined – the PG Diploma in Indian Aesthetics at Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. The lectures I have attended so far have been remarkably thought provoking, and my Wandering Mind has found many more paths to wander on. The very first lecture I attended opened my eyes to this beautiful concept of Vaikuntha Vishnu, and it seemed only appropriate that I begin my post with it, before moving on to the next site we visited on my #summertrip.


  1. Ah, you too are attending this course - how lucky you are :-)

    1. Yes, Anuradha! I too have joined this... and am really enjoying it! next time you are here, you should attend one of the public lectures they have...

  2. Interesting information. Good luck on your course.

  3. So nice to see another post from you! I hope you continue to enjoy the course you are taking - it is certainly a perfect fit with the work you do for your blog.

    1. Thank you so much, Natalie!! One of the reasons I chose this course was because the content fit in with what I usually write.... though the first few lectures have brought up so many interesting thoughts, I dont know what to write about... plus, I want to revisit and rewrite all that I have written about earlier!!


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