Elephanta Caves, or Om Namah Shivay

Entrance to main Elephanta caves
Show some faith, ye who enter here

Visiting the Elephanta Caves is like undertaking a pilgrimage (cross the water, climb the steps, enter the caves). The rock-cut caves, located on the island of Gharapuri off the Mumbai coast, are shrines to Lord Shiva, and have mixed heritage (Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, et al; historians are not really sure who did what).

When you enter, there are two contrasting sculptures of Shiva, in the Yogishvara pose to your left and in the Nataraja pose to your right. Both are pretty badly damaged, with missing arms and/or legs, but you can take your time to marvel at the majesty of the sculptures, and try to forget the sculpting class you took during that long weekend where you managed to end up in hospital after hacking at a block of stone.

Ardhanarishwara Shiva
Ardhanarishwara, the half-woman god
Trimurti, depicting three aspects of Shiva

It grows darker as you walk deeper into the caves, in harmony with the Indian belief that faith needs to be blind to be truly strong. There are panels showing the androgynous Ardhanarishwara and the Ganges-in-his-hair Gangadhara, but the prime attraction is the Trimurti, representing three aspects of Panchamukha Shiva- the Creator (Vamadeva), the Preserver (Tatpurusha) and the Destroyer (Aghora). We initially thought it was Mahavira (our mythological knowledge doesn’t suck, but our correlating capability does), but a little Google cleared up the story. Our gaffe was a little justified, though, because there are distinct Buddhist/Jain influences in the sculpture.

Andhakasuramardana, or killing of the Andhaka asura, presumably for leaking state secrets

After a few more sculptures that a guide or granny can decode for you, it is time to pray. The main cave has a Shiva linga in a shrine flanked by four dwarapalakas, and there is another in the adjoining cave. An enthusiastic guard literally pushed us into the second shrine, where, from what we gathered, Parvati had prayed to Shiva and gained him as her husband. 72000 kanyadaans, the guard kept saying, and that seemed to be an enticement for many, who prostrated themselves at the door of the shrine, probably hoping to find their own Shiva.

Entrance to other caves at Elephanta
The other caves, with lots of lingas and water damage

There are other caves, but most of them are severely damaged by the elements- the carvings destroyed and the inscriptions faded away. Even the main cave is in bad shape, mainly due to the Portuguese invaders who apparently used the carvings for target practice- the predecessors of the idiots who scrawl Bittoo Loves Sonu on monuments.

There is also a Cannon Hill which has a cannon on a hill (d’oh!), but it was too wet and slippery for us to climb up to it. The steps leading up to the caves are flanked with small souvenir shops, but you should bargain well with them, as prices are quite inflated. Beware the monkeys, coz they can gherao you and snatch things out of your hands.

As for the Elephant of Elephanta, that is ensconced at Mumbai’s Jijamata Udyan.


4 thoughts on “Elephanta Caves, or Om Namah Shivay”

    1. I’ve been told winter is the best time to visit Mumbai. No annoying rains, no sweltering heat. Tourists though, you can never avoid. And thank you for the compliment.

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