City of caves - Elephanta Island

My love for Unesco world heritage sites continues and during my trip to Mumbai last week I took the opportunity to cover two more sites Elephanta caves and Victoria Terminus. Though I had already seen these two places when I was in Mumbai in way back 2006 but this time I spent good amount of time to explore and look in to archeological details.

The ancient cave city of lord Shiva is a Unesco world heritage site since 1987 and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. All caves are carved from single stone – in between 5th A.D and 8th A.D.

Elephanta Caves are located on Elephanta Island, also known as village of Gharapuri. It was called Elephanta by the Portuguese, they found big stone statue of an elephant at entry points to the Island. Though they tried their best to destroy the statue (sad), they only succeeded in severely damaging it and today the restored elephant is installed at one of the museum in Mumbai.

The Elephanta Island is located 10 km away from the Gateway of India at Mumbai and 40-45 mins ferry ride (Rs 180). I planned my trip in such a way that I can see the sunset over Mumbai return journey. I started bit late from Gateway of Mumbai, 2PM but no mercy from heat. Though I felt good during ferry ride, cool breeze and started feeling sleepy but once I reached Island, things back to worst heat, crowd and noise all around.

Once you step onto the island, the mini train welcomes you. Again, as I always prefer to do, chose to walk to the base of the caves, which was only 5 minute walk away. 

Before you start climb to the caves, there is a tourist entry fee of 5 Rs per person by Gharapuri Grampanchayat. After paying the entry fee,climb started,it was gentle incline and it takes about 15-20 minutes if you are not distracted by the numerous stalls selling foods, bags, hats, books, photo frames, various artefacts, statues or stop for a refreshing drink. I avoided all of them and kept climbing up but the fifteen minute trek to the first cave is the noisiest part of the whole trip, crowd and heat was getting worst.

Once you reach at the top, then there is another entry gate and you will have to pay Rs 30, that is common across all ASI sites.

Once you are done with all these entry gates, numerous stalls, steps, climb, crowd, then you are through to give your eyes the sight of marvelous sculptures.

The cave complex comprises total of 7 caves. 1st group contains five caves in the lower western side and 2nd group contains two caves at eastern top of the hillock. All caves are carved from solid basalt rock, like caves at Ellora and Ajanta. Cave no 1 is exclusively carved with various manifestation of lord Shiva. It consist of a pillared hall with a small shrine and four entrance doors flanked by Guardian.

The major attraction of this cave is the enormous statue of Maheshmurti of Shiva, is depicted three aspects of creation, protection and destruction. A masterpiece of Chalukya Gupta Art.

I wont say I was amazed at the artistic skill of the workers who have sculpted these so perfectly and in details. I was already expecting these truly remarkable work. After visiting many historical and archeology sites in India, Its absolutely perfect to say this is Incredible India. Cant comment more on the arts, sculptures and belief but my only curiosity has been always how did they do it, carving such beautiful sculptures, big caves, rocks without any mechanized tools and power supply. I have seen many thousand years old sites and still standing tall.

One thing I noted this cave has many similarity to Ajanta (Maharastra) and Badami caves (Karnataka). Reason might be, once Chalukyas ruled here and contributed to structure but actual ancient history of Elephanta caves is a mystery. The date of the caves is different according to different archaeology specialists. During my reading and research on the internet about this place,  what I came to know that there were some inscriptions about the ancient cave city of lord Shiva, which is missing since Portuguese ruling. Portuguese destroyed many sculptures and inscription. We dont know if those inscription could have been vital to get more details more about caves.

After spending good amount of time exploring all the sculpture, I headed to cave 6 & 7. Once you come out of Cave 1, take right and you will have one great view point, where you can have quick view of caves. You can stop here just to look at the antics of the aggressive monkeys. Beware of carrying any foods, monkey are too brave, aggressive and dont mind snatching foods from visitors hand.

Cave 6 and 7 are located in the eastern side of the island. not much there and Cave 6 and 7 need more excavation.

Many of Elephanta's priceless statues were already damaged or destroyed by the Portuguese. There have also been reports of vandalism and carelessness by modern visitors. The island was full of tourists and frankly its becoming more and more noisy. I see many dont care about the place and its significance. For many its just another tourist spot, another place to hang around with friends and family, which is quite ok but the element of respect, care, giving importance to caves and sculptures was certainty missing.

I am sure that centuries ago, people who built this cave complex, inspired by Shiva demanded silence, solemnity and respect, a place of worship in the middle of the vast ocean.

By the time I left the Island, it was 5:30 and after that you wont get any other ferry to return to Mumbai. Return ferry also offers seagull chase, seagulls were so close


Return timing was perfect as I was able to witness amazing sun set, seagulls chasing and a great view of Mumbai's skyline.

Reached Gateway of India, spent some time over there. It was good to see India gate and Taj hotel in lights. Will write more about other places I visited in Mumbai and its colonial charms in next blog.

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