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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 9: Lamayuru

Lamayuru is one of the most ancient monasteries in Ladakh, the oldest surviving structure dating to the 11th century CE. What makes this monastery particularly fascinating, is its location, amidst what is today called the “moonscape”, for the spectacular natural rock formations, which truly are “out of the world”!

As per legend, there once existed a huge lake in this area, populated only by the Nagas (serpents). It was prophesized that there would be a great monastery built here. This prophecy came true when the great acharya Naropa (756-1041 CE) arrived. He emptied the lake, meditated for many years inside a cave, and built the first monastery here. The present structure is a new one, built around the cave where Acharya Naropa is said to have meditated. This legend seems to fit well with the geological formations seen in the area, which suggest this was a paleo-lake, which disappeared around 1000 years ago.

Lamayuru is about 130 km from Leh, and the Indus River flows along the road for quite some distance. The river is a beautiful sight, and easily approachable at many points along this route. 

However, the landscape, even before the “moonscapes” is just as beautiful. The natural rock formations make one stop and look again, wondering if these are natural indeed, or something carved by man.

The so-called moonscapes however, are quite something else. The colours of the rock change, as do the contours of the land. It is, for lack of a better word, other-worldly! 

In the midst of these spectacular rock formations, is a patch of green, the village of Lamayuru, and above it, nestled in the mountains, like most of the monasteries of Ladakh, is the monastery of Lamayuru.

At the entrance of the monastery are paintings of the guardians of the four directions. 

Guardians of the directions

The assembly hall has images of the Sakyamuni Buddha with his two disciples, as well as images of acharyas and deities. 

Sakyamuni Buddha with his 2 disciples

An alcove in this assembly hall contains the cave where Acharya Naropa is said to have meditated. Within this cave are 3 stucco figurines representing the three great acharyas – Naropa, his student Marpa, and Marpa’s student Milarepa. An antechamber has images of Mahakala and other protector deities, and a shrine above has more images of Sakyamuni Buddha and Acharya Naropa, among others.

The cave where Acharya Naropa is said to have meditated

A closer look at the three figures

One of the things that struck me about the monasteries of Ladakh were the colours. Every inch of the walls and ceiling are painted, and the floors carpeted, with vibrant colours. 

Decorations on the ceiling

It struck me that these colours may be a response to the stark landscape. Entering a monastery is like entering a different world, a bright and warm one, but also one which overwhelms the senses. The iconography here is very different from what we see in Buddhist sites in the rest of the country. While we begin identifying a few figures by sheer repetition, there are such a wide variety of deities and teachers represented in art, that unless one is a student of this form of Buddhism, it is almost impossible to identify each and every one of them. A basic understanding of the religion helps us see and appreciate the beauty of the monastery. However, without a deeper understanding of the tradition, it is impossible to experience the site as it is meant to be. I felt this lack very keenly, by the time we visited Lamayuru. We had visited many monasteries on this trip, and I had begun to see how the monastery was built, the basic idea of the different sections. Yet, as I looked at the paintings which covered the walls, I wished I knew more about each figure shown here. I wished I could see them the way they were meant to be seen – as deities, not as paintings. 


  1. Hi Anu,
    Great Post! Worth a read, It's so well written. Thanks for sharing these beautiful photographs. Looking forward to reading more of these awesome travel blogs.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. It is quite beneficial to me.

  3. Thank you kindly for offering your story to us. It is very helpful to me.


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