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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 Nagaraja Temple, Nagercoil

It was cloudy when we set out from Kanyakumari for Nagercoil, but in the short time it took us to reach, the rain gods decided to come down with a vengeance! It was pouring cats and dogs at Nagercoil, and the roads were flooded. We were all set to give up, but our auto driver was a resourceful man. “There are many roads to the temple” he said, and though we knew he meant it literally, we wondered at the philosophical phrasing.

He wove his way in and out of traffic, sometimes through what appeared to be knee deep water, and came to a screeching halt outside a simple looking archway. Thanking him, we stepped out, opening our umbrellas. By now, we weren’t even thinking of the temple we were going to see. The only thing on our mind was “It is supposed to be summer. It is supposed to be hot. And it feels like Mumbai in the monsoons!” We stepped into the temple complex, holding on to the umbrellas, and stopped short.

Trees with idols of snakes at their base are a common sight in the south. Yet, the sheer number here was unexpected. “I should have remembered. This is after all, a temple to the Lord of the snakes.” I thought, but I continued to be fascinated by the variety of snakes carved into the stones.

The most common motif was Krishna, not surprising, considering his triumph over Kalia.

Here and there, were motifs of lingas. Shiva, after all, wears snakes as his ornaments!

Naga Linga flowers drooped from the tree, over the snake figures, as if eager to offer themselves. Interestingly, the Cannonball tree is a familiar sight in many Shiva temples, though the tree itself is native to Central and South America!

Pulling ourselves away from these Naga figures, we headed towards the main shrine.

The sanctum houses what is believed to be a swayambhu idol of Nagaraja – the king of the snakes, in his 5 hooded form. 

Outside, are two huge Nagas, the guardians of the shrine.

The temple is a simple one, and the main sanctum is still said to have a sand floor, and thatched roof, since it is believed that snakes still visit the shrine. It was, however, raining so heavily by now, that we thought it prudent to leave before the entire town flooded and we got stranded here.

The temple was fascinating on many levels.

I have seen plenty of snake figures outside temples, offerings of devotees, usually wishing for a child. However, this was the first temple to Nagaraja I have visited, and this is the only one in Tamilnadu. Besides, the sheer variety of Naga figures was stupendous.

The temple itself, on the other hand, is simple, built in the Kerala style of architecture. This isn’t surprising, since the town is closer to Kerala, but the style is a sharp contrast to the elaborate architecture of the temples in Tamilnadu.

It is interesting to think of the origin of this temple. This area, even today, despite rapid urbanization, is mountainous and thickly forested. Heavy, unseasonal rains showed us the lush greenery all around. Snakes must be a common feature in this landscape. The shedding of their skins associates them with immortality, and they are also associated with fertility. However, to cross them, in the days before anti-venom, meant certain death. No wonder they are so feared, and also worshipped.

However, most interesting is how this tradition has stayed strong despite the passage of centuries – from ancient times, when this must have been a forest shrine, through various periods of rule by kings with varied religious beliefs, through British occupation, to the present day.

As we turned back towards Kanyakumari, I thought about our driver’s words “There are many roads to the temple”. Yes, there indeed are many roads, of faith. And this temple embodies just one of them.  It is up to us to find one that suits us. The ultimate destination, however, is the same!

  • Location: The Nagaraja Temple is located in Nagercoil Town, about 20 Km from Kanyakumari.
  • How to Reach: Nagercoil is well connected to all parts of the country by Train. The nearest airport is at Trivandrum, around 65 Km away.
  • Where to stay: There are plenty of hotels and lodges at Nagercoil, as well as resorts nearby. You can also stay at Kanyakumari and visit the temple.
  • Timings: The temple is open from 4:00 AM to 11:30 AM, and from 5:00 PM to 8:30 PM.

This post is part of my series on my #summertrip 2015, and I hope to take you along with me as I recount stories from my month long trip, which took me across the country. To get an idea of all the places I visited, and what you can hope to read about, click here

Related Posts:
  • Kanyakumari


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