Elephanta Island : The City of Caves

Entrance to the Great cave, Elephanta
Entrance to the Great cave, Elephanta

Elephanta : An Introduction

Man is a peculiar animal. On the one hand, he is the epitome of development in the animal world with his intellect dictating him to go for searching the truth & beauties of both the external as well as the internal worlds, on the other hand the dark & mean side of his nature urges him to destroy what his other part has achieved. This is true for all the ages. For this reason, we see insane & barbaric destruction by the conquering forces as they destroy the subjugated nation’s creations. There are so many examples extending up to the present day, that it seems a rule rather than en exception.

One example of such brutality is the destruction of priceless Hindu architecture in the cave shrines of Elephanta Island by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Here I’ll tell you the story of Elephanta, a mute witness to a sad chapter of Indian history.

Geography

Elephanta island (Ilha do Elephante) is the name given to it by the Portuguese when they occupy it in 1534 AD after seeing a monolithic Basalt Elephant which stood near its entrance. Previously, the island was known as Gharapuri, meaning “The City of Caves”.

The island is situated about 10 km from the city of Mumbai, India in the Arabian Sea. The island has two prominent hills, the eastern & the western hills, both nearly 500 feet from MSL. The eastern hill is slightly taller, & is called the Stupa Hill. The sea-beach is covered with mangrove plants.

The western hill has 5 rock cut caves containing Hindu sculptures, while the eastern hill has 2 caves which are Buddhist in nature containing a Stupa (which represents Lord Buddha in the Heenayana sect of Buddhism).

History

The history of this island is shrouded in mystery as there is no written or inscribed description of anything about the builders of these beautiful cave structures.

Folklore associates this with Banasura (a demon King who was a strong devotee of Lord Shiva) & the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame.

Different historians relate these caves to different dynasties like the Mauryan rulers of Konkan, the Badami Chalukyas, the Kalchuries & the Rastrakutas.

However, it is agreed that these belong architecturally to Chalukyas & Guptas & the date of construction is between 5th & 8th century AD.

In modern times, the island was captured by the Portuguese from the Muslim rulers of Gujarat in 1534. The Portuguese did one unpardonable thing – they systematically tried to destroy all the ancient rock sculptures. They were not completely successful by an unexpected turn of fate. In 1661, they went away by handing the island over to the British as per a marriage treaty when the English King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza, daughter of Portuguese king John IV. The British did no further destruction & whatever was there were saved.

Restoration of the caves started in the 1970-s, though it is not complete till now.

UNESCO has granted World Heritage status to Elephanta in 1987.

The Caves

Of the caves of Elephanta, only the great cave (the Shiva cave or cave No,1) in the western hill is in good shape now, the rest are just caves with signs of destruction.

Cave 1
Cave 1
Cave 2
Cave 2
Cave 3
Cave 3
Cave 4
Cave 4
Cave 5
Cave 5
Elephanta island, as seen from the sea
Elephanta island, as seen from the sea
The Eastern Hill, Elephanta
The Eastern Hill, Elephanta
Mangroves in the beach, elephanta
Mangroves in the beach, elephanta

Cave 1 (The Great cave or the Shiva Cave)

What we see in Elephanta today is in this cave.

The cave is a very big one, with a central chamber with two (east & west) extensions, of which the western extension is smaller & only partially restored. The eastern extension has a grand entrance (better than the main chamber) & was probably the site for ceremonial entrance. The orientation of this cave is North –South which is rather unusual for a Shiva temple, in which it is always East-West.

The Central Chamber

The huge hall is subdivided by rows of decorated pillars. On entering, in the veranda, there are two notable sculptures, on the left Shiva as YOGISWARA & on the right Shiva as NATARAJA. Then on the right central portion is a shrine with big sculptures of Dwarapalas guarding the doors . The shrine houses a big Shivalingam.

Facing this shrine, on the northern wall, is a big relief of a scene where Lord Shiva is defeating Andhakasura, a demon.

On the Southern wall of the central chamber, there are a number of important sculptures. At the centre, there is the world famous TRIMURTI sculpture, showing 3 faces of Lord Shiva – the face to the west is that of a young boy with pouting lips named VAMADEVA; the face to the east shows an adult whiskered man with prominent angry features named AGHORA & the central calm face is called TATPURUSHA. These three faces of Shiva represent Creation (Vamadeva), Preservation (Tatpurusha) & Destruction (Aghora).

On the west of this Trimurti, there is the relief of a scene showing Lord Shiva is holding the river Ganga in His locks (Jataa), the scene is called GANGADHARA. Further west, a panel depicts the marriage scene of Lord Shiva with Goddess Parvati (this panel is called KALYANASUNDARA)

On the east of Trimurti is a panel depicting Lord Shiva as ARDHANARISWARA, a figure of which the right half represents the MALE (Shiva) & the left half FEMALE (Parvati). The Ardhanariswara aspect of Lord Shiva signifies the Oneness of the Positive & Negative energies of the Universe.

On the east in the main hall there is a panel depicting a scene where Lord Shiva & Goddess Parvati are sitting in their abode in Kailasha. The scene shows Parvati with her face turned away as she is angry with Shiva who cheated her in a play of dice.

Opposite to this Kailasha scene in the north wall of the main hall there is a panel called RAVANANUGRAHA where it is shown the demon King Ravana shaking the Kailasha mountain.

The Western Extension

This is heavily damaged, & nothing special is here to see.

The eastern Extension

This is comparatively well preserved. The entrance of this wing is a big one. Inside, there is a stone figure of a Leogriff (an imaginary animal, a lion with wings). There are some other sculptures here. The western wall contains reliefs of Lord Ganesha, Lord Katikeya & the ASHTAMATRIKA-s (The Eight Celestial Mothers).

Except the Trimurti, all other panels are damaged to various extent, & every visitor is bound to think the psychology behind the destruction of these beautiful sculptures by the Portuguese.

Entrance to Cave 1
Entrance to Cave 1
Decorated pillar, Cave 1
Decorated pillar, Cave 1
Nataraja
Nataraja
Yogiswara
Yogiswara
The Shiva Shrine in the main hall
The Shiva Shrine in the main hall
The Shiva Lingam in the Shrine in the main hall
The Shiva Lingam in the Shrine in the main hall
TRIMURTI
TRIMURTI
Ardhanariswara
Ardhanariswara
Gangadhara
Gangadhara
Kalyanasundara
Kalyanasundara
The Kailasha scene
The Kailasha scene
Ravananugraha
Ravananugraha
Leogriff in the eastern extension of cave 1
Leogriff in the eastern extension of cave 1

How to go

Elephanta is connected to Mumbai Harbour by motor boats & launches. These run from the point just behind the Gateway of India, a landmark of the city of Mumbai. It takes about one hour to reach the island jetty. From the jetty, the caves are about one & half kilometer. There is a toy train service from the jetty to the base of the hill. From there, it is a climb of 1000 steps to the caves.

Mumbai from where the boats to Elephanta start
Mumbai from where the boats to Elephanta start
Boat to Elephanta
Boat to Elephanta
Jetty, Elephanta
Jetty, Elephanta
The Toy Train at Elephanta
The Toy Train at Elephanta

Conclusion

The rock cut structures of Elephanta belong to the human race as a whole. The Portuguese tried to destroy it, but fortunately for the mankind, they were not completely successful . Now, standing at the feet of the massive Trimurti sculpture, one can smile at their follies – where are they now? The merciless time has vanquished them all, but the caves are here, the sculptures are here, & Trimurti is still here observing everything .

This is the justice of Time.

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