Hubby and I visited Elephanta Caves on 31st December 2013. Elephanta Caves are a network of sculpted caves located on the two hills of Elephanta Island or Gharapuri in Mumbai Harbor. The island is located on an arm of Arabian Sea, and consists of two groups of caves. The first group of five Hindu caves is located on the western hill of the island, and the second group of two Buddhist caves is on the eastern hill. The Hindu caves contain rock-cut stone sculptures dedicated to Shiva. Although the origin of Elephanta Caves is still a subject of debate, the rock-cut architectural style of the caves and the sculptures has been dated to between the 5th and 8th centuries. In fact, these caves are considered to be one of the oldest rock-cut structures in India, and are a unique testimony to a bygone civilization. The island on which these caves are built was originally known as Gharapuri until the Portuguese rule began in 1534. The Portuguese renamed the island as Elephanta Island when they discovered a gigantic stone statue of an elephant near the boat landing area of the island. Elephanta Caves were renovated in 1970s after years of neglect, and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. This site is a popular tourist spot nowadays.
As described in the previous paragraph, there are five Hindu caves located on the western hill of Elephanta Island, and covers an area of about 5600 square meters. The primary Hindu cave is named ‘cave number 1’ or the ‘main cave’, and consists of a main hall, two lateral chambers, courtyards, and subsidiary shrines. On the eastern hill, there are two Buddhist caves, one of which is incomplete and the other has a Stupa made of brick. The Buddhist caves are less frequented by visitors. All these rock-cut caves were hewn from solid basalt rock, and there is a mass of natural rock above all the caves. In fact, the caves were created by carving out rocks, and creating the columns, the internal spaces, and the images. The entire cave is akin to a huge sculpture, through whose corridors and chambers one can walk. The entire complex was created through a process of rock removal. Some of the rock surfaces are highly finished while some are untreated bare rock.
On the morning of 31st December, hubby and I hired a taxi from Hilton Hotel where we stayed during our trip to Mumbai, and reached the Gateway of India after about 1 hour of taxi ride. Elephanta Island is located about 11 kilometers east of the Gateway of India, and a daily ferry service is operated between the gateway and Elephanta Island every 15 minutes from 9 am to 5 pm. For the ferry ride, we bought tickets worth 150 Rupees per person that included the return journey fare also from a ticket counter located at the entrance area of the gateway. We enjoyed viewing the gateway for some time and then took the ferry at about 11 am. The ferry ride was quite enjoyable, and after about one hour of traveling by sea, we reached Elephanta Island. At the dockside of the island, we hopped into a fancy looking Mini Train that took us to the base of the hill where Elephanta Caves are located. While we could have easily walked from the dockside to the footsteps of the hill, we wanted to experience the train ride which was just for two minutes but was really fun. From the base of the hill, we climbed up 120 steep steps to reach the entrance area of Elephanta Caves. It was very tiring experience in such a hot sunny day. While climbing up the steps, we saw that many stalls and shops line both sides of the steps. These shops and stalls sell souvenir items, local products, books, and many other gift items. We also saw a few food stalls and restaurants at the top of the steps.
Gateway of India
Gateway and Taj Mahal Palace Hotel as viewed from the ferry
A few ferries similar to the one we rode
I am sitting inside the ferry
I am standing next to a board welcoming tourists to Elephanta Island. This board is located near the dockside of the island.
The two hills of Elephanta Island as viewed while riding the Mini Train
I am standing next to a souvenir stall lining the side of the steep steps that lead to the Elephanta Caves
After reaching the top of the steps on the hill, we walked along a dirt pathway for a couple of minutes and then saw a ticket counter where we purchased two tickets as admission fee to enter the caves. I paid just 10 Rupees, while hubby being a foreigner, had to pay 250 Rupees as admission fee. After walking for a few minutes, we reached the first Hindu cave which is the primary and the most important cave. It is also known as ‘cave number 1’ or the ‘main cave’. This cave has three entrances, towards north (main) side, east side, and west side. We took a few photos in front of the north entrance of the cave.
Hubby standing next to the ‘Elephanta Caves’ board located at the top of the steps near the entrance area of the caves
I am standing near the ticket counter and the entrance area of the Elephanta Caves complex
I am standing at the north entrance area of cave number 1 or the main cave
Hubby standing at the north entrance area of the main cave
Enlarged view of the north entrance area of the main cave
We entered the main cave and felt as if we were transported to a different world altogether. Initially we entered the main hall of the main cave, which faces the north. The hall is unusually tall, massive, spacious, and has rows of smartly finished large stone pillars supporting the roof. This hall opens to three porches at east, west, and north. The main entrance of the cave is aligned with the north-south axis of the hall. A square shrine cell with four entrances containing the Shiva Linga is located towards the western side of the hall, and is aligned with the east-west axis of the hall. Each wall of this hall has several monumental niche panels with carvings of Shiva. We were awestruck by the vividness and lively appeal of these sculptures. Below are the details of these panels, starting with the right panel at the entrance and going counterclockwise around the main hall.
Inside the main hall of the main cave as viewed from the north
View of the main hall to our right side
View of the main hall to our left side
The hall as viewed from its southeast corner
The hall as viewed from its southwest corner
The first panel we saw is situated to the right side near the north-side main entrance of the main cave. The niche panel is 4 meters wide and 3.4 meters high. The principal figure is of Shiva as Nataraja performing the cosmic dance. The statue of Shiva is 3.3 meters in height and wears a well-decorated headgear. Shiva is shown with eight arms but many portions are missing. The first right arm is passed across the body and the missing portion beyond the elbow probably came to the left side above the waist. The second right arm has an out-flaying pose but it is now broken beyond the elbow. The third arm is damaged at the elbow, and the fourth is also broken but inferred to have held a Khatvanga skull-club. The first two arms on the left side were probably hanging down, though they are now broken off near the wrists, the third arm is bend upwards but is similarly damaged, and the fourth arm which is extend above the shoulder seems to hold up a portion of the robe. The right thigh is bend outwards but broken off near the knee, and the left leg is entirely gone. The elaborate armlets of Shiva are well-preserved and a skirt round the waist is tied by a ribbon. A tall figurine of Parvati stands to the left of Shiva, which is also partly broken. An airborne female figure is seen behind Parvati. Other figures seen in the relief are of Vishnu riding a Garuda, Indra riding his elephant, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Bhringi, sages and attendants. We loved viewing this panel.
A panel with Nataraja as the principle statue is seen. A random visitor took a long time to pose, so we just clicked the photo of Nataraja along with him.
Enlarged view of the Nataraja
Next we saw the central shrine named Shiva Linga Shrine located towards the western side of the main hall. It is a plain cubical cell that allows entrance from all four sides. Each door of the cell is flanked by two majestic Dvarapala gatekeepers. The height of the eight Dvarapala varies from 4.52 to 4.62 meters. Some of them also have a dwarf attendant. Unfortunately most of these Dvarapala are in a damaged condition. The headdress of the gatekeepers is made up of twists of matted hair in the form of a tall cap called Jatamukuta. Each gatekeeper wears a necklace of beads, earrings, plain twisted armlets, and thick wristlets. The platform of the shrine cell is raised about one meter above the floor of the cave. Six stone steps on all the four sides of the shrine lead to sanctum sanctorum cell, which is plain on the inside. In the middle of the cell stands a pedestal. In the center of the pedestal, a Linga cut from a stone of a harder and closer grain than that of the caves has been fitted. The Linga is the symbol of Shiva and represents the energy or the generative power in nature.
Shiva Linga Shrine cell located towards the west side of the main hall
Hubby looking at two of the gigantic Dvarapala located towards the east side of the cubical cell
A Dvarapala on the east side of the cell
Another Dvarapala on the east side of the cell
A Dvarapala along with a dwarf attendant on the north side of the cell
Two Dvarapala on the west side of the cell (left side of the photo)
Hubby standing next to a Dvarapala on the west side of the cell
I am standing next to a Dvarapala on the south side of the cell
Shiva Linga inside the shrine as viewed from the west side entrance of the cell
A few paces north from the north-entrance of the Shiva Linga Shrine took us to the next panel named Andhakasuravadha Murti. This panel is located on the northern wall towards the west end of the main hall. The engraved panel is a unique sculpture of Bhairava or Virabhadra, which is a frightful form of Shiva. The panel represents Bhairava as the killer of a demon named Andhaka. A smaller broken image of Andhaka is present below Bhairava's image. It is one of the finest sculptures in the cave. The principal figure of Bhairava is 3.5 meters in height and is much ruined below the waist. His headdress is high and profusely carved showing a skull, a cobra, and a crescent over the forehead. The expression on his face is fierce and passionate. The jaws are set and the tusks project downwards from the corners of the mouth. The eyes are large and swollen with rage. Both the legs and five of the eight arms are now mutilated. All the remaining arms have ornamental armlets and wrist bracelets. The second right arm wields a long sword ready to strike, the third holds some indistinct object, and the fourth is broken above the elbow. The second left arm depicts a snake coiled round it and holds a bowl under the victim Andhaka, the third arm holds a bell, and the fourth is now broken but is believed to have held an elephant’s hide. We loved this unique sculpture.
Hubby standing in front of the sculpture Andhakasuravadha Murti
Enlarged view of the sculpture
Fierce facial expression of Bhairava
The next niche panel we saw is named Kalayanasundara Murti, which is carved on the southern wall towards the western end of the main hall. The panel is beautifully carved but damaged substantially. The panel is an ensemble of divinities assembled around the central figures of Shiva and Parvati shown getting married. The figure of Shiva is 3.3 meters high, and is depicted with four arms. Shiva has an oval nimbus behind the head and wears a high Jatamukuta headdress. He has put on a girdle and a robe that comes over his right hip and is knotted at the left side. His front left hand rests on the knot of the robe, the ends of which hangs loosely. His Yajnopavita sacred thread hangs from his left shoulder and passes to the right thigh. His front right arm is stretched to receive in marriage the hand of Parvati, which is broken. His right leg is completely missing and his face is smiling. To the right of Shiva we see the graceful figure of the Parvati measuring 2.6 meters in height. She radiates in her prime youth. Excepting her legs and arms which are badly mutilated, the figure is fairly preserved. The hair of Parvati is shown as escaping in small curls from under the broad jeweled fillet. She wears heavy ear-rings and necklaces, from one of which a string hangs down on her bosom. She is seen with a coy expression and is led by her father Himavat who has his right hand on her shoulder. To the left of Shiva is a much defaced figure of Brahma, seeming to officiate as the chief priest in the marriage ceremony. Behind him stand Vishnu as the witness of the marriage. Parvati’s mother Mena (Minavati) and moon-god Chandra are also seen. Just above the main images, many divinities, bearded sages, Apsara nymphs, Vidyadhara, Yakshi, Gandharva, Bhringi, and other male and female attendants are seen as witness to the marriage ceremony showering flowers on the divine couple. We loved this interesting panel.
Panel showing Kalayanasundara Murti
Enlarged view of Shiva (right side) and Parvati (left side)
Next we saw three wonderful colossal niche panels located at the central part of the southern wall of the main hall. In the center is a panel named Trimurti or Mahesh Murti. Panels named Gangadhara Shiva and Ardhanarishwara are located on the western and eastern side of the central Mahesh Murti, respectively. In the next several paragraphs, I will write about each of these panels.
I am standing near the central part of the southern wall of the main hall. Trimurti panel is seen in the center. Ardhanarishwara (left side) and Gangadhara Shiva (right side) panels are also partly seen.
The niche panel of Gangadhara Shiva is located on the southern wall of the main hall, west of the central Trimurti. Gangadhara panel carving is 4 meters wide and 5.2 meters high. It is an ensemble of divinities assembled around the central figures of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva is bearing River Ganga as she descends from the heaven. The story of Ganga’s descent to earth can be found here. The images are damaged but wonderful. The image of Shiva is 4.9 meters high. Above the crown of Shiva, a cup with a triple-headed female figure (with broken arms), representing Triveni or the confluence of three sacred rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati, is depicted. Some historians are of the opinion that River Ganga herself is represented as triple-headed figure. Shiva is bedecked with ornaments. He wears a necklace, open armlets, heavy bracelets, and ear-rings. Around his waist passes an ornamented girdle from under which his garment hangs down and is tied up in a knot on the left thigh. Over his left shoulder hangs the Yajnopavita sacred thread which passes on to the right side. Shiva has four arms. His front right arm is in Abhayamudra pose while the back right arm holds a tress of his hair. Both his left side arms are broken. But it appears that his front left arm was touching the chin of Parvati who stands on his left side. There is a small coiling serpent on the upper part of the back left arm, and the serpent’s hood is seen above his left shoulder. The figure of Parvati is about 3.8 meters high. She is fully draped, has a coiffured hair dress, and is bedecked with ornaments and jewelry. Though the face of Parvati bears a charming countenance however Shiva touching her chin probably reflects the jealousy of her as Ganga is descending into the locks of Shiva and will reside there as her rival in love. Near Parvati’s left shoulder is the image of Vishnu while near Shiva’s right shoulder sits Brahma on his lotus seat. There are many divinities and attendant females at the back shown showering flowers on the deities. We loved the sculpture very much but missed taking a proper photo of triple-headed figure located above the crown of Shiva.
I am standing in front of Gangadhara Shiva panel
Enlarged view of Shiva (left side) and Parvati (right side)
An edited image of a photo from the hundreds we took, where the three-headed figure above the crown of Shiva is seen
Next we saw the colossal central panel of Mahesh Murti. It is also known as Sadashiva and Trimurti. It is the most important sculpture in the caves and is described as a masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art. It is situated in a recess, carved in relief at the back (southern wall) of the main hall facing the entrance, on the north-south axis. The sculpture rises from a 1 meter high base, and depicts a 6.1 meters high well proportioned three-headed bust of Shiva. Mahesh Murti represents the three essential aspects of Shiva, namely, creation, protection, and destruction. The face to our right side (west face) represents Shiva as the creator of the universe. This face shows him as a young person with sensuous lips, embodying life and vitality. The ears of this face appear to have been adorned with conch-like ornament. The hair escapes in very neatly curled ringlets from under the headdress with festoons and pearl pendants. In his hand he holds an object resembling a flower bud, depicting the promise of life and creativity. This face depicts the feminine side of Shiva, the creator of joy and beauty. The front or the central face shows Shiva as the preserver of the universe. The calm, benign, meditative, and dignified expression befits this aspect of the deity. The face appears to be in deep meditation praying for the preservation of humanity. The lower lip of this face is thick and the chest is adorned with many different necklaces. The head is adorned with a richly rough Jatamukuta headdress. The ears of this face are decorated with an ornament called the Makarakundala that is carved like a crocodile. The face to our left side (east face) represents Shiva as the destroyer of the universe. It is also known as Rudra Shiva or Bhairava, whose anger can engulf the entire world in flames, leaving only ashes behind. The face has a severe angry look, curling moustache and a beard. The headdress serves as an abode for several snakes seen wriggling through the matted hair. The ornaments include typical emblems of Shiva like a human skull and snakes. The right hand is raised in front of the chest, which holds a large cobra twisted around the wrist. This cobra is depicted with an expanded hood. There are Dvarapala gatekeepers on either side of the Trimurti. The right Dvarapala (west side) is 3.9 meters high and has a 2.1 meter high dwarf standing next to it. The left Dvarapala is 4.1 meters high and has a 1.8 meters high dwarf standing nearby. The arms and legs of the left Dvarapala are heavily damaged. We loved viewing this panel of Mahesh Murti very much and took several photos from various positions and angles.
The right Dvarapala and a portion of the Mahesh Murti as viewed from the northwest (right side)
Front view of the Mahesh Murti flanked by Dvarapala on either side
Shiva as the destroyer (left side), protector (middle), and creator (right side)
The left Dvarapala and a portion of the Mahesh Murti as viewed from the northeast (left side)
Next, we saw an interesting niche panel named Ardhanarishwara Murti, which is located on the southern wall of the main hall, east of the central Trimurti. The image of Ardhanarishwara represents Shiva with combined attributes of a male and a female. This four-armed carved image of Ardhanarishwara is 5.11 meters high, where the right half is of male and the left half is female. The right male half represents the active and the left female half represents the passive principle in nature. The headdress consists of a high tiara from which two heavy folds fall on the shoulder on the left or female side, and a crescent is shown on the right or male side. On the left side, the hair falls across the brow in series of small and neatly curved ringlets, while on the right side there is a line of knobs along the under-edge of the tiara. The right ear is drawn down and has only one ring, while the left has a jewel in the upper part and a large ring in the lobe. The girdle passing around the hips is tied at the left side where the ends are shown hanging down. The right side male arms wear twisted open armlets and thick wristlets. The left side female arms have broad armlets, long solid bracelets, and thick jeweled rings on the fingers. The back pair of arms of the figure is fairly preserved, where the right arm holds a cobra and the left arm holds a mirror. The front left arm, now broken, seems to have held the lower part of the robe which hangs in folds over both the left arms. The front right arm, bent at the elbow, rests on the left horn of Nandi bull. The central figure of Ardhanarishwara is surrounded by divinities. Vishnu is shown next to the female side of Ardhanarishwara figure while Brahma and Indra are shown next to the male side of the central figure.
Ardhanarishwara Murti panel located on the east side of the central Trimurti
Image of Ardhanarishwara Shiva
I am standing in front of the image of Ardhanarishwara
We noted that the broken parts of various sculptures are preserved near the east end of the southern wall of the main hall. It was interesting to note that only a few broken parts have been retrieved till date.
A few broken parts of various sculptures
I will write about several more sculptures located in the main hall of the main cave as well as a few other caves of the Elephanta Caves complex in the next post.