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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 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 6th 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 Elephanta Island.

Let us start our journey to Elephanta island at the beginning – on the Jetty at the Gateway of India, Mumbai. As the boat pulls away from the shore, and ships come into better view, we realize that the journey is taking us on a route parallel to the way we came – along the Eastern Freeway. 


The skyline
is still uniquely Mumbai, but the high rises of South Mumbai are now replaced by those of Sewri and Wadala. Ships dot the sea, amidst oil rigs and in the distance are the big oil corporations of BPCL and HPCL. As we approach the island, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre seems closer than ever, and the two huge nuclear reactors are clearly visible (this is probably the best view a layman can ever get of them, though only a few actually recognize them for what they are!) On the other side of the island is the JNPT(Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust), a busy hub of activity.

Surrounded by this hustle and bustle of maritime and industrial activity, is the lush green island of Elephanta, or Gharapuri. The local name for the island, Gharapuri, comes from the local names for the caves as well as the fort atop the hill. However, it is believed that this is the city of Agraharapuri, of the Konkan Mauryas. This is also believed to be Puri or Sripuri, mentioned in the Aihole inscription as the “fortune of the western sea”.

The history of the island goes way back, with numerous remains of habitation from the 2nd/1st century BCE. These include potsherds, coins, remains of a structural brick stupa, water tanks as well as Buddhist caves. The main attraction of the island however, are the Shaiva caves, among which Cave 1 is the most impressive, with some of the most stunning sculptures of different forms of Lord Shiva. These caves are believed to have been created by the Kalachuri Dynasty, in the mid-6th century CE. There are also later structures on the island, including the fort atop the hill and the canons which are a popular tourist attraction.

While the island has been occupied, and known, since the early days of the common era, we know of it mostly because of the Portuguese, who arrived in the 15th century, to find the caves abandoned. They gave the island the name we know it by today, because of a stone elephant they found at the landing point. This elephant, once destroyed, has been put together, and stands sentinel today at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum at Byculla.

The caves, even today, are well hidden by the dense foliage of the island. A rather long walk leads from the landing dock to the base of the hill followed by 120 steps to the caves. A toy train is a major attraction to reach the base of the hill, and a few chairs are available to carry those who cannot walk up the ancient steps to the caves.

There are a number of caves scattered over the hill, but the main cave, Cave 1 is the only one with sculptures that make it stand out. This cave has three sections, a central section, flanked by two wings, on the east and west. The entrance to this cave today is from the north, though the plan of the cave suggests that the original entry might have been from the east.

There are nine sculptural panels in the central section of the main cave, among which eight depict Leela-murtis, or different forms of Lord Shiva showing his various sports. The ninth image is the spectacular bust of the three-faced Lord Shiva as Sadashiva or Maheshamurti, who was earlier erroneously described as Trimurti. Slightly off-center is a sarvatobhadra shrine (open in all four directions) with a Shiva Lingam.

Local guides love telling stories of how the sculptures were used for target practice by the Portuguese to explain their mutilated condition. However, according to scholars, while much of the destruction might have been deliberate, a lot of it can also be attributed to water damage and sheer neglect, and use of the caves for purposes other than they were built for. Nevertheless, despite their mutilated condition, the sculptures retain enough details to stand out and impress visitors, centuries after they were carved.

Let us begin our tour of the cave from the east entrance. To our left is the panel of Shiva and Parvati playing dice, and on the right is Ravana lifting Kailas. While the two stories are very different, artistically, the two panels are very similar. Both panels have Shiva and Parvati seated. In the Ravana panel, they are seated on Mount Kailas, with the demon king shown below trying to lift it. In the other panel, they seem to be seated on a raised panel, which could well be their mountain home, and below is seen Nandi, their vehicle. In both panels, they are seen surrounded by their attendants, rishis and other deities. However, both panels are too mutilated to see many of the details. The themes of the panels are very different, despite their apparent artistic similarity. The Ravana panel, depicting the story of Ravana’s ego being crushed by the Lord (click here to read the story), highlights the humility required for a true devotee. The other panel shows Parvati turning away from her Lord in anger, having lost the game of dice, where she has realized that the Lord has been cheating. This panel shows the interaction between Shiva and Shakti, who, in the next panel are shown as one.

Shiva and Parvati playing dice


The next panel is that of Ardhanareeshwara, where Shiva and Parvati are seen as one, Shiva on the right side and Parvati on the left. This is an exquisite sculpture, despite the lower half being destroyed. Shiva on the right leans against Nandi, one hand resting lightly on its flank, while his other hand holds a snake. He has long ears, and wears his hair in a jata. Parvati on the left, has a mirror in one hand, and the other probably holds her lower garment. They are surrounded by their attendants as well as numerous deities, including Vishnu on Garuda, Brahma on a swan, Indra on Airavata and Kartikeya holding a spear.

Ardhanareeshwara


The next panel is the most imposing among all the sculptures at Elephanta – Sadashiva or Maheshamurti. 

Sadashiva / Maheshamurti


This colossal, three headed bust of Lord Shiva is one of the primary points of focus in the cave. It represents three different aspects of Lord Shiva. In the Pasupata Shaivism system of philosophy, Sadashiva is the cosmic form of Lord Shiva, where he has five heads – Tatpurusha, Aghora, Sadyojata, Vamadeva and Ishana. The first four heads face the four cardinal directions, and Ishana faces upwards. They represent different aspects of the Lord. Tatpurusha is the central face, the main aspect of Shiva. Here, he is shown as calm and peaceful, a serene expression on his face. He wears a jata-makuta (hair tied up in a jata), with a crest in front, and wears jewelled necklaces, and makara-kundala. He holds a fruit in one of his hands, and the other hand is broken. The right face represents Aghora or the fierce aspect of Lord Shiva, sometimes called Bhairava. This fierce and gruesome aspect is marked by fleshy lips, curled moustache and beard. This aspect is further highlighted by the skull in his headdress and the serpent in his hand. The left head, in sharp contrast, is blissful and handsome. This is the Vamadeva aspect of Lord Shiva, also sometimes linked to the feminine aspect, or Uma. This face is the least destroyed among the three and also appears to be the most beautiful. This head wears a bejeweled headdress which is very elaborate, and also heavy ornaments. The left hand also holds a lotus, emphasizing this benign aspect. While only three heads are carved into the rock, the fourth head, or Sadyojata, can be imagined to be present, at the back. Similarly, the fifth head, Ishana, is also not shown since he faces upwards.

That this sculpture is not merely a panel, but an important focus in the cave is evident from the way it is carved in a recess on the back wall, flanked by pilasters which hold Dwarapalas or guardians. Both dwarapalas have their hair in a jata, with crests, their hands resting on dwarves.

Moving on from Sadashiva, the next panel we encounter is that of Gangadhara Shiva, narrating the story of the descent of the Ganga. Shiva and Parvati both stand in the Tribhanga posture, their bodies curved thrice. However, Parvati’s posture shows her bent away from Shiva, as if she’s moving away from him. It is believed that this is intentional, due to the presence of the other woman – Ganga, in Shiva’s locks. Ganga is seen atop Shiva’s head, with three heads, representing the three streams flowing through the heavens, earth and the underworld. Between Shiva and Parvati is seen a gana, one of Shiva’s attendants. Near Shiva’s right foot is seen a seated figure who might be Bhagiratha, praying for Ganga’s descent on earth. Around them are deities, including Brahma and Vishnu.

Gangadhara Shiva

Close up of Gangadhara with 3-headed Ganga


The next panel is that of Kalyanasundara-murti, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva faces in front, holding Parvati’s hand, and she faces him, looking down shyly. Brahma is seen seated to the left of Shiva, officiating at the marriage, and behind Parvati, holding her elbow, is a male figure, probably her father, Himavan, the lord of the mountains, giving her away in marriage. They are surrounded by divinities and flying celestials.

Kalyanasundara-murti


Opposite the Kalyanasundara-murti panel is that of Andhakasura-vadha-murti, Shiva slaying the demon, Andhaka. The huge central figure of Shiva is fierce, shown with bulging eyes, partly open mouth with projecting teeth. He wears a jata-makuta with a skull in the headdress. The diagonal thrust of the body emphasizes movement. In one hand he holds a sword, in another, the skin of the elephant he has killed, stretched above. Another hand holds a trishul, which is thrust into the demon, while yet another hand holds a bowl for collecting the blood dripping from him. Had this sculpture been intact, it would have been spectacular, but even in its mutilated state, it retains enough to highlight the gruesomeness of the scene in a most aesthetic manner.

Andhakasura-vadha-murti


The next panel is that of the dancing Shiva, Nataraja, on the right side of the northern entrance to the cave. The lower half of Lord Shiva is completely destroyed, but the upper part shows him in a Tribhanga posture, dancing. He has eight hands, almost all of them broken. He is surrounded by attendants, ascetics and deities. His sons Ganesha and Kartikeya are clearly visible, as is Brahma.

Nataraja


The final sculpture, on the left side of the northern entrance is sometimes called Yogishwara Shiva, since it seems to depict a figure in meditation. However, comparison with similar sculptures at Ellora have led scholars to conclude that this figure is that of Lakulisha, the founder of the Pasupata sect of Shaivism. He is seated on a lotus, whose stalk is held by two Naga figures. He would have held a club in his hand, which seems to have been destroyed.

Lakulisha


The identification of this figure as Lakulisha ties up well with the Sadashiva figure to identify this as a cave belonging to the Pasupata sect. This also ties up well with epigraphic evidence which links the Kalachuris who are believed to have excavated these caves, to the Pasupata sect.

The final element in the main hall of the cave is the sarvatobhadra shrine, with the massive lingam. Each entrance to this shrine is flanked by colossal dwarapalas, making this a most impressive sight. Together, this shrine with the lingam and the Sadashiva image, represent the idea of Shiva in the Pasupata philosophy – the one with no form (lingam) and the cosmic one (Sadashiva). Shiva thus is everything, the one who requires no form, is formless, and yet pervades everything, in his cosmic form.



These two foci of attention – the shrine with the lingam, and the Maheshamurti / Sadashiva are what make this cave so interesting.  The east entrance has a low circular platform in the front, which is believed once held the Nandi, and thus appears to be the main entrance. Entering from here, one is guided by the rows of pillars straight to the shrine with the lingam. On the other hand, if we enter from the north entrance, the Maheshamurti / Sadashiva image is the primary focus of attention. It is fascinating to think of what must have prompted the patrons of the cave to make such a provision.

The western wing has a squarish shrine with a lingam, and two sculptures, of Nataraja and Lakulisha, both badly destroyed.

The eastern wing has a squarish sanctum with a hall in front. There are two huge dwarapalas, among which one is very badly mutilated. The other is relatively intact, and is seen with four arms, which is unusual, and is accompanied by a gana. A portico on the right has sculptural panels, of Ganesha, the Matrikas and Kartikeya.



There’s lots more to see at Elephanta. There are caves which are empty, ruins of a brick stupa, and two canons atop the hill. There’s a clearing converted into a garden for the tourists. There’s a small village too, most of whose residents make a living through the tourism industry. However, walking out of the main cave, I always feel overwhelmed, and disinclined to explore further. Maybe it’s simply the lack of stamina, but I prefer to think it’s the cave itself.

Carved into the mountain, the cave looks simple from the outside – just four pillars welcoming us inside. Once inside, however, its another story. The sheer size of the sculptures is one thing. Then there is the level of detail contained in the size. Even the dwarapalas, the guardians and the simplest among the sculptures, tower over us, making us remember just how small and insignificant we are. And then there are the lingam and Sadashiva. One is simple – just the rock hewn into a smooth shape, the other an elaborate, detailed carving of the lord in all his aspects. They could not be more different. Yet, they represent the same concept – the concept of the Lord who is formless, yet who takes every possible form.

Every time I visit Elephanta, I am consumed by an overwhelming feeling of awe. Awe at the concept of the aniconic and the cosmic. Awe for those who created these masterpieces. Awe at the thought that someone ideated these concepts and translated them to reality. If this is what I feel today, when the sculptures are badly mutilated, when the caves are filled with tourists who are more interested in having a picnic or clicking selfies, than admiring the sculptures or thinking of their significance, I can’t help but wonder what it would have felt like to visit when these caves were built, when the sculptures were not just whole, but probably also painted over, when the cave resounded with chants of the devout. This is what makes Elephanta so special, and draws me, over and over again.

 References and further reading

  1. Elephanta. The World Heritage Series, published by the Archaeological Survey of India
  2. Elephanta – The Cave of Shiva. Essays by Carmel Berkson, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty and George Michell.
  3. The Iconography and Ritual of Siva at Elephanta by Charles Dillard Collins.
  4. The Great Cave temple of Siva on the Island of Elephanta, by Stella Kramrisch, in “The Presence of Siva.” 

Information

·         Timing: 9 AM to 5 PM, Mondays closed.

·         How to get there: Ferries are available from the Gateway of India. The first ferry leaves at 8 AM from the Gateway and the last ferry from the island leaves at 5 PM.

·         A miniature train is available to the foot of the hill.

 



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