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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

Ladakh Diaries Part 8: Pathar Sahib and Saspol Caves

Our final morning at Leh began with a rather long wait for a new driver, who had gotten lost within the maze-like roads that led to our homestay! Why a new driver? Because most drivers in Ladakh don’t like to drive into Srinagar! Besides, we would be driving through Kargil and entering Srinagar on the 15th of August, Independence Day. The date wasn’t intentional, and had we known, we would have altered our plans, but apparently tensions run high around the date, even when situation was as normal as possible. More about that later. For now, there’s a lot more that I have to tell you about Ladakh and the places we visited. Because yes, despite our intention to take things easy, we planned to make a lot of stops on our last two  days in Ladakh!

Our first halt of the day was the very interesting site of Pathar Sahib. The Gurudwara here commemorates the visit of Guru Nanak to this region, on the way to Tibet, in the 16th century. As per the legend, during Guru Nanak’s visit here, a demon tried to kill him by pushing a huge boulder towards him. Instead of crushing him, the boulder instead softened, and formed a mould around him. It then hardened again, leaving his imprint on the stone. This stone is enshrined within the gurudwara, the imprint intact. The legend is part of the stories of Guru Nanak, and the stone must have been in worship at some point in time. However, it was rediscovered in the 1970s while a road was being laid, and the gurudwara built around it.

What makes this site and the stone fascinating, is that the same story narrated for Guru Padmasambhava, who is the one credited with bringing Buddhism to Ladakh. Such similar stories for different sects is not unusual in India. Our mythologies consistently overlap. While reading more about this connection, I came across two varied points of views. One took the view that Guru Nanak was an incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava. The other suggested that this was originally a site dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, but, with the arrival of Sikhism in the region much later, probably coinciding with a period of the decline of Buddhism, the site got associated with Guru Nanak.

Whatever the reason, it is yet one more instance of the overlap of faiths, that we are so inherently comfortable with!

Our next halt was the mandatory one on the so-called Magnetic Hill, where vehicles move forward on their own, drawn by the strong magnetic field. While the idea is interesting, it wasn’t enough to keep us there for long!

A little further along the road, we came across the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar. The difference between the two rivers is very clear, the Indus being filled with silt, while the Zanskar is clear. It was tempting to go down and spend some time at the confluence, but we were already delayed, thanks to our late start, and my enthusiasm for Pathar Sahib. Hence, we chose to move on, satisfying ourselves with a glimpse of the confluence. We did stop a little further down the road, where the Indus was calmer, and collected some water to take back home.

Along this route, we passed Basgo, and again, were tempted to halt. Once again, I found myself hoping I’d visit Ladakh again, and see all these interesting sites that I had missed. 

This feeling
only increased when we reached Alchi, to find out that the monastery was closed, in preparation of a visit by the chief Lama. I was disappointed, but we had no choice. We decided to visit the Saspol Caves instead.

Can you spot the caves? On the right is a citadel, a later structure.
The caves are on the left, painted in white and red.

The Saspol Caves
are located across the river Indus from Alchi. There are 5 caves, among which cave 3 is most impressive. Every inch of the cave is painted, and the paintings have been dated to between the 13th and 15th centuries.

I had heard about Saspol first from Shubra (@historywali), and then had seen Kevin Standage’s photos and if we couldn’t see the famed paintings of Alchi, then I wanted to see something else just as impressive! What I hadn’t realized, and wasn’t prepared for, was the narrow path of mud and stones on the hill that led to the caves. I am not sure-footed at the best of times, and though this path took us just about 15 minutes (at a snail’s pace, so to speak) it was probably the most scary 15 minutes of my life! I remember taking the name of every god I could think of, with every step I took! And after that experience, I decided not even to try climbing to all the caves, and contented myself with just one – the biggest of course.

To describe my experience of the cave, let me share verbatim from my diary -

This one cave we visited took my breath away! Such vibrant colours and such amazing details! Wow! I have no words to describe them. What I found most interesting was that we did not need a flashlight to see the paintings. Once our eyes acclimatized to the darkness within, the light from the single entrance was more than enough to see every single painting in detail, and click photographs too! 
Sakyamuni Buddha

The central painting in the cave was of the Sakyamuni Buddha. Painted around him, in neat registers, were a number of acharyas, protector deities and Bodhisattvas. The cave was small, and the presence of the altar suggested this was the main place of worship for the monks who lived in these caves. It was fascinating to think about monks living here, at least 6 centuries ago, painting the caves with images, which remain long after they are gone.

The two sites of Pathar Sahib and Saspol Caves couldn’t be more different. One is a modern place of worship built over an ancient site, the other is an ancient site maintained as it is. Both take great pains in preserving what is at their core – the stone at Pathar Sahib, and the paintings at Saspol. Even the very nature of the object of worship is different. Yet, the objective of both is the same  - to inspire faith. 

Earlier posts in series -

Coming up -

  • Ladakh Diaries Part 9: Lamayuru


  1. Excellent and informative article. I wanted this. Thanks for sharing. Keep it up.

  2. Nice Post.. keep writing more and more..
    Praveen P
    Painting Contractors in Chennai


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