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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

Gwalior Part 1: The Colossal Jinas

To say that we were awed by Gwalior, would be putting it mildly.

At first glance, it seemed like any other old city in central India, built around the fort, which loomed over the town from its strategic placement on the hillock. Ancient monuments, mansions and palaces dotted the city, remnants of its rich heritage. It looked like the ancient city it was, built over and over by the reigning kings, the earliest settlement believed to date back to the 8th century B.C. The Kushanas and Gurjara –Pratiharas once ruled this ancient land, followed by the Tomars and the Mughals. As my school textbooks once drilled into me, the city figured prominently in the 1857 uprising, and there was much to remind us of this connection, from the names of the roads and the many memorials. Then, as we wound our way on the hill, towards the fort, we were greeted by a sight which banished all other thoughts….

These are the colossal Jinas of Gwalior, carved into the rock face in the 15th century. There are said to be over 1500 images, and all of them are believed to have been carved within a period of about 30 years (between 1440 to 1473 A.D), during the reign of two kings of the Tomar dynasty – Dungar Singh and Kirti Singh.

The tallest, and certainly the most impressive statue here is that of Adinath or Rishabhnath, which is over 58 feet tall.

The 58 ft tall statue of Adinath...
It was quite a challenge to click this photo, with Samhith in the frame to give you an idea of the size! 

The face of the massive Adinath... what a serene smile! 

Standing at his feet, looking up at his face, the sense of awe I felt is impossible to describe. At that moment, I could completely understand the need we feel to build bigger and bigger statues of our gods. The only thing is, I prefer the old ones, and not those which keep cropping up today!

The other statues may not be as big... but they are just as impressive! Can you imagine how they must have carved all this out of the solid rock face? 

However, the feeling of awe wasn’t only linked to size. It lay in the sheer numbers, as well as their locations.

Two statues which look incomplete...
over another part of the rock imagine climbing up here to carve them!

We had iron and steel steps and handrails to help us reach them, and look at them without worrying about falling down the steep cliff. It was simply incredible to think of those who climbed up here to carve them!  For example, take a look at this panel of Jinas....

which was carved inside a cave way up on the rock face.. I couldn't climb up, but Samhith did. The pic was clicked by him... you can see the panel behind him in the pic below...

It is even more interesting to note that according to inscriptions, a Jain layman and poet, Raidhu, was at the centre of this massive project! The Tomar kings were his patrons, though most of these sculptures seem to have been sponsored by rich merchants of Gwalior. The Digambar monks at Gwalior were also patronized by the kings, and Raidhu seems to have been one of their followers.

As to why these Jinas were carved into the rock, the answers are many, and open to discussion. Some believe these were offerings, the sizes depending on the sponsor’s purse. However, it has also been suggested that these massive carvings also had a different purpose – to identify this sacred hill, then known as Gopagiri, when the time for dissolution of the world! Whatever the purpose, there is one truth that stands out – that the Kings, merchants, and monks, all supported a poet, to create these massive sculptures, which have lasted long after they passed, telling us stories of a time when religious diversity was a way of life here.

These colossal sculptures set the tone for our Gwalior trip, and our expectations were high as we headed towards the fort. Were they met or not? Wait to find out in my forthcoming posts! 

  • The Jinas carved into the rock face can be seen on the way to Gwalior fort. There are well cut paths, steps and railings to view most of them.

Note: Special thanks to R.Venkatesh (@heritage_sites) and Sudha (@sudhagee) for telling me about these beautiful sculptures! If it wasnt for Venkatesh's fantastic photos and Sudha bringing them to my notice, I probably would have missed seeing them!


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