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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

From Memorial Stones to Guardian-Deities. A tale of many goddesses

Rows of cenotaphs filled the walled enclosure at the Devi Kund Sagar, Bikaner. Built of brown stone, and marble, these were the cenotaphs of the royal family. It was interesting to see that the memorials were different for men and women. The cenotaphs of the men had a standing stone with an image of Lakshmi Narayana carved on them, with detailed inscriptions giving their names, as well as family details, birth and death dates. In sharp contrast, those of women simply had footprints inscribed on stone.

Memorial stone in the cenotaph of a man, Devikund Sagar, Bikaner

Memorial Stone of a woman, Devikund Sagar, Bikaner

Noticing a crowd at one of the cenotaphs, I decided to give it a miss. But one of the women standing there called out “Go inside and take her blessings before you leave!” Curious, I stepped in, only to see a slightly different memorial stone here….

Sati stone, Devikund Sagar, Bikaner

Instead of the Lakshmi Narayana, or the footprint, here was a man riding a horse, with a woman standing on the side. It took me a while to realise, that this was a Sati shrine.

This was one of two Sati shrines in this complex, and both are in active worship.

The concept of a Sati is abhorrent to our modern minds. Yet, seen in the context of the period when the practice was common, it seems to be a great feat, the ultimate sacrifice, which takes a woman from being just a wife, to becoming a hero, and eventually, a folk goddess.

 A few days later, at Jaisalmer, I visited another group of royal cenotaphs, at Bada Bagh. Walking among the piles of crumbling stone, I noticed that the Lakshmi Narayana figures were completely missing. Instead, the men were depicted riding horses, while women were shown with their hands folded, holding a rosary.

Memorial Stone of a man, Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer

Memorial stone of a woman, Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer

More often than not, the women were depicted along with the horse rider in the same frame, similar to the Sati stone I had seen at Bikaner.

Sati Stone, Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer

Sati Stone, showing multiple wives who performed Sati, Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer

Then, there were panels with multiple women, standing beside the panel with the male horse rider – evidently his multiple wives, who probably committed Sati on his death.

Are these individual memorial stones or Sati stones? The number of women in one panel suggests they died together, which seems to point towards Sati once again

The profusion of Sati stones here was deeply disturbing. But it set off many trains of thought.

It took me back to the Karni Mata temple at Deshnok near Bikaner, where I had seen this image in one of the smaller shrines.

Seven Sister Goddesses at the Karni Mata Temple, Deshnok, Bikaner

The row of seven women had set off a different train of thought, where I wondered if the number 7 had any significance, and if it was, in any way, related to the Saptamatrikas of the Brahmanical tradition. Now, having seen this profusion of Sati stones at Jaisalmer, I wondered if there was any connection between the two.

Karni Mata was a local woman, born in a family of bards of the Charan caste, sometime in the 14th century. She rose to be a saint, and eventually was deified by the Rajput rulers of the region, who looked to her for protection as well as advice. A museum just outside the temple is filled with paintings depicting the stories of the miracles she is said to have performed, and even now, it is the royal family of the region which provides for the upkeep and the renovation of the temple.

Coming back to the panel of seven women depicted on the stone, the story of the temple talks of Karni Mata worshipping seven sister goddesses. The legend is an older one, dating to the 9th century. The seven sisters are said to have been born to a couple after they offered worship at the shrine of Hinglaj Mata, now on the other side of the border. The seven sisters and their single brother eventually became folk deities, and were considered to be aspects of Hinglaj Mata herself. The seven sister goddesses have shrines all over the region, and I have visited three of them – the first at Nabh Doongar, during my first trip to Suryagarh, and two more, Ghantiyali Mata and Tanot Mata, during this trip.

At Nabh Doongar, the goddess is seen riding a tiger, on a black stone, with some figures carved below her. It was here that I first heard of the multiple temples to the goddess in the region, and which evoked a desire to visit them.

Goddess at Nabh Doongar, Jaisalmer

The story of Ghantiyali Mata relates to a young man and his desire for revenge against those who had killed his father. The goddess appeared to him as a young girl, and told him the best way he could seek his revenge, and in return, asked him to build her a shrine. Today, a bright new idol of the goddess stands in the sanctum. The old idols were defaced during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, and stand in the corner as a stark reminder of the event. Most of them show the goddess as Durga, riding a tiger, shown with her weapons.

One of the goddesses at Ghantiyali Mata Temple, Jaisalmer

Another figure of the goddess at the Ghantiyali Mata Temple, Jaisalmer

A row of mutilated idols outside the Ghantiyali Mata Temple, Jaisalmer

The Tanot Mata temple
is bigger, and seems to be more popular. Here, the goddess is considered to be the protector / guardian of the region, and the most popular legend of the temple talks of the goddess protecting the people here during the 1971 war, when none of the shells which fell in the vicinity exploded. The shells were, till recently, placed on display in the temple. They have now been removed, and only a couple of them have been placed in a display shelf. I wouldn’t be surprised if a museum comes up soon with the remaining shells and other memorabilia of the war.

However, the most interesting thing here is the shrine itself. The deity is new, but behind her, we can still see part of the ancient panel which depicts a row of women.

The deity in the sanctum of the Tanot Mata Temple, Jaisalmer. Notice the sindoor covered stone behind the goddess

Since only a part of the panel is visible, it is difficult to make out the number of figures, but the similarity to the panel of the seven sisters at the Karni Mata temple is striking, except that this is much bigger, and longer. I wish I could have seen the entire panel. It would be interesting to see what number and form the sisters take here!

As I have mentioned before, the seven sisters are related to Hinglaj Mata, whose temple across the border is considered to be one of the 52 Shakti Peethas. The Shakti Peethas are linked to the story of Shiva’s wife, Sati. Sati is believed to have self-immolated when her father Daksha insulted her husband, Shiva. Shiva, in his grief, danced with her corpse, which finally broke into pieces, and fell across the Indian Subcontinent. The sites where her body parts fell are sacred to the goddess, and constitute the 52 Shakti peethas.

It is pertinent to note here that the practice of Sati originates with the name of the goddess, who chose to enter the fire rather than bear the insult against her Lord.

Hinglaj Mata is also associated with the 64 Yoginis, and her figure stands in temples associated with them, as I learnt from Dr. Rashmi Poddar, during the Indian Aesthetics course at Jnanapravaha.

She is thus associated with various forms of the goddess, the Devi, and her association here seems to continue with the folk goddesses.

Putting all this together, you can imagine why I find these shrines, and these goddesses, so fascinating!

The Sati stones I began this post with, are memorials of the ultimate sacrifice a woman made, in those days, that of her own life. On the other hand, these goddess shrines are dedicated to a female folk hero, a guardian deity, someone who protected the village, and was thus deified. However, there is a connection, for a Sati is also believed to have been a protector. When a woman ascended the funeral pyre of her husband, she, by her sacrifice, is said to have protected the entire family. They are two different ideas, but both are ideas of heroism, and both depict the rise of a woman, from being just a girl, a wife, or a mother, to a guardian-deity and folk goddess. That these ideas endure, despite the passage of centuries, and the changing of mind-sets, is just as remarkable.

It would be interesting to explore further, the connection between the Sati and the Folk Goddesses, both of whom are revered in multiple forms across this region. I am even more intrigued by Hinglaj Mata and the seven sisters, and hope, someday, to see them all.

I visited Nabh Doongar during my first trip with Suryagarh, in August 2014, and the temples to Tanot Mata and Ghantiyali Mata during my recent visit in September 2016. The Bikaner trip was a personal one, which we combined with our trip to Jaisalmer this year. The curiosity about the seven sister goddesses which had been ignited during that first trip was only heightened by the multiple experiences at both, Bikaner as well as Jaisalmer, which is why I have chosen to write this post in this manner, combining all my experiences.

Disclaimer:  There are multiple versions of the stories I have mentioned in this post, as well as multiple temples these stories are associated with. This post is based on my own experiences, and the stories I heard at the various temples I visited. This is, by no means, an exhaustive post on the folk goddesses, but just a few of my thoughts put together. Please feel free to add your inputs and any further information or thoughts you may have on the subject. 


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