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Elephanta Caves

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The Island Abode of Lord Shiva Tucked into a rocky shelf of Elephanta Island, a one hour 15 minute boat ride from South Mumbai, are six rock-cut cave temples that were excavated around 450-750 AD. Contemporary to Ajanta and Ellora, these caves are now a UNESCO World Heritage.

The 10-km journey to the island starts at the Gateway of India in South Mumbai. A steady stream of canopied boats cruise past large cargo ships waiting to dock at the city’s busy harbor. Passengers disembark at the island jetty and must walk ½ km or ride a toy train to the foot of the hill where the caves are located. Souvenir and food stalls line the flight of uneven steps that lead up a gentle incline to the famous rock-cut cave temple. Palanquin bearers will carry the old, handicapped and weary up in a chair for a price.

Of the six caves, Cave 1 is by far the most important and contains a wealth of artistic treasures. The other five pale in comparison but are worth visiting nevertheless. Flanking the main entrance of Cave 1 are two more entrances. Columns divide the area inside the cave into a series of equal rows and aisles. Dominating the central wall of the cave is a striking three-headed bust of the Hindu trinity: Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer)

The surrounding panels portray Shiva, the presiding deity of the temple, in his many avtaars or forms. One fresco shows him seated with Parvati, his consort, atop a mountain gambling. Another has the two on mount Kailasa even as the demon Ravan attempts to shake and topple this mighty Himalayan peak. Images of Shiva the ascetic or yogi; dancing Shiva; Shiva slaying the demon Andhaka; the three-faced Eternal Shiva; Shiva with the river goddess and a scene from his marriage to Parvati are some of the other images that adorn the walls of the cave. The most intriguing, however, is the half-male-half-female portrait of Shiva. Etched in each image is a story from ancient religious mythology. In the story of his marriage to Parvati, Shiva came to her in disguise and only after she passed the tests he put her through did they eventually wed. Ravana shaking Mt Kailasa tells the tale of the demon king who was offended by the fact that Shiva and Parvati were making love on the sacred mountain. In a fit of rage he lifted the mountain, but Shiva pinned him down with his toe. When Ravana eventually escaped, he became a devotee of Shiva and worshiped him for a thousand years. Shiva and Parvati gambling portrays man as a prisoner of fate and at the mercy of the whims of the gods.

Shiva as half-male-half-female goes back to the origins of life itself. Brahma, the creator, after many unsuccessful attempts to create life turned to Shiva for help. And help he did by splitting his body and transforming himself into an androgyny. The two forms separated, creating what we know today as the male and female aspects of creation.

Linga worship has its roots in the tale of Shiva disguising himself as a beggar and dancing in the nude. Enraged by this, his audience castrated him. His phallus fell to the ground and took root in the earth. Seeing this, the people saw what they had done. They begged for forgiveness, and he forgave them but only on the condition that they worship his phallus or linga forever.

Centuries later the Portuguese, who knew no better, scarred the images when passing ships used them as targets in their cannon drills. Sadly the subsequent restoration work at these caves was in reinforced concrete, a material that would have been very alien to the artists who worked in stone.

A year-round picnic spot, the island is also the exotic setting for the annual two-day Elephanta Festival of classical Indian music and dance held in February each year.

Fact File Mumbai has the closest airport and railway station. CST and Churchgate are equidistant from the Gateway of India from where one takes a ferry (around 1 hour 15 minutes) to Elephanta Island. A number of Colaba-bound BEST buses stop some 50 yards from this famous city landmark.

Return journey ferry tickets may be purchased at the Gateway from the Elephanta Launch Owners Association counters by the waterfront. The ticket is good on any of the associations 70+ launches which set sail at regular intervals. One does not have to return by the same launch in which one went to Elephanta.