The Elephanta Caves is such a travel cliché. Let me tell you how.

Most tourists, in their delicious anecdotes after visiting the place, will only talk about the ferry ride, the lovely skylarks dotting the skyline and the intricately-detailed craftsmanship of the trinkets purchased for peanuts at the nearby market. But no one will say anything more about the marvelous rock-cut sculptures other than “oh, they were pretty!” What else will they say when all they’ve done is flitted past the exhibits with splendid briskness to avoid any trace of the ‘unforgiving’ Mumbai humidity?

When I, then a journalism student and accompanied by nearly 60 other media and communication students, went there as part of a college excursion, it wasn’t like that at all and I couldn’t be more grateful. We wanted to understand the history behind the caves, and we did. It was all thanks to our history professor, the brilliant Mr. Sagar Kamath, who was thoroughly versed with everything. The guides at the cave too are similarly efficient and come highly recommended for fully experiencing the place.  

After the picturesque drive on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, and then through the vibrant hustle and bustle of the city, we stopped in front of the Gateway of India, located right on the waterfront. It is from here that ferries depart for Elephanta Islands, the caves’ abode. Adjacent stands The Taj Mahal Palace hotel in its sun-kissed glory, along the cobblestone Colaba causeway.

A quick look at the Wellington pier slowly disappearing into the cityscape reveals a fleet of luxury yachts standing along the jetty. In its backdrop, we have the Gateway of India and the rest of the causeway, miniaturised but more complete as a painting.

Wikipedia
The facade of Elephanta Caves
The facade of Elephanta Caves

An hour later, we had arrived at Elephanta Islands. Part of the Mumbai harbour, the islands were named so by Portuguese explorers who were bemused by the sculpture of an elephant positioned at the entrance. No, you are no longer greeted by that friendly monolith. It’s today a part of the array of displays at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the main city.

The pier here is connected to the main island by a bridge and a cute toy train. We chose the faster mode of transportation—walking—and arrived within no time. From here, steps ascend up the hill to the caves’ enclosure, and are lined with an arts and crafts market that is certainly worth the visit. The salesmen there are particularly good—one of my naïve NRI friends was almost convinced of the utility of a dagger. Luckily, better sense prevailed and she let go of the purchase. But not many can resist the handicrafts, trinkets, necklaces and other such accessories. And yes, they are dirt cheap!

At the top of the stairs lay the entrance to Elephanta. By now, everyone had been exhausted by the grace of the scorching sun and the blessings of the suffocating humidity. My mind too wandered along the “I now understand why people wouldn’t want to spend too long at the caves” lines. Too soon.

There are seven caves in total that constitute Elephanta Caves, but we were only concerned with the main one, which reveals itself the moment one enters the enclosure. The other six are mostly incomplete and not as significant, so you can give them a miss.

The sculpted cave system is a relic to both Hinduism and Buddhism, but the main cave symbolises the former’s influence and surreptitiously overshadows the latter’s. In fact it boasts of ten colossal sculptures of Lord Shiva. Each and every sculpture, big or small, weaves a larger story—one of the re-emergence of Hinduism.

Origins are hazy. Carved between the 5th and the 8th century AD, as historians claim with uncertainty, the caves may be from an era when Buddhism had gained great prominence in the subcontinent. The faith not only renounced people of forced caste identities, but assured them of a God attained through devotion—a path that did not discriminate. And of course, Hinduism was the common enemy.

Wikipedia
Shiva, in mid-taandav, at the Elephanta Caves
Shiva, in mid-taandav, at the Elephanta Caves

But at the main cave, it is the resurgence of the much-older religion that is envisioned, if not expressed. Here, we enter the enclosure from the east and stand face-to-face with the semi-ruined sculpture number one—Shiva as an ascetic mid-taandav (the dance of death), shying away from the material world, and displeasing the gods. The next sculpture has Shiva vanquishing a demon with a single blow, indicating that evil must be vanquished in its entirety and in the simplest manner possible. The third sculpture denotes marriage, through Shiva’s to Parvati, an essential tool of Hinduism. The fourth is of settlement and civilisation, showcasing how it flourished on the shores of rivers and eventually led to the creation of ancient tradition. In the fifth, Shiva watches Brahma and Vishnu, happy in a material existence, while he rediscovers his own. The sixth focuses again on the essence of women in a man’s life, where marriage is looked at with greater depth.

And just like that, the remaining sculptures further prod Shiva into the mainstream. The last one is of conception, where the primal union of woman and man and signifies life and progress. Hinduism, in this manner, is considered the vessel that steers civilisation further.

Who would have known that this gargantuan enclosure was meant to denote a paradigm shift? It felt ethereal. It felt like a time-machine, since we traversed infinite years in finite steps. It felt clairvoyant, because Indian society today is sculptured in the final panel. There and then, we were taught the importance of history, and the magic that is conjured when it paradoxically embraces its enemy—mythology.

It’s a fascinating world 10kms off the city’s main coast.

INFORMATION

Getting There

Arrive at the Gateway of India, located at the end of Chhatrapati Shivaji Marg in South Mumbai. From there, take an hour-long ferry to the islands (the ordinary boat is 120 per adult for a round ticket, while the luxury boat is 150 and also includes a guide fee. Boat departs every half an hour starting at 9am and until 2pm.). At the islands, you can take the toy train (5 one way) to the main market located at the hill or walk the pier. From the base of the hill, it’s a 120-step trek to the caves.

Where to Stay

There are no hotels on the Elephanta islands, but there are many nearby the Gateway of India. The well-known and charismatic Taj Mahal Palace hotel (from 9,450 for a regular room and up till 87,750 for a luxury suite; tajhotels.com) is a high-end option, while others such as Hotel Diplomat (from around 4700; thehoteldiplomat.com) is more affordable.

Where to Eat

There is only one restaurant at the island, the modest Elephanta Port Restaurant and Bar. You can purchase snacks on the ferry and in the islands, but proper eating options are very limited. In the Apollo Bunder, Colaba causeway and nearby South Mumbai areas boast of numerous eateries and restaurants at all prices.          

What to See & Do

>Visit the main cave: The prime attraction of Elephanta Islands, the main cave is the first and the largest enclosure and contains a majority of the splendid sculptures.

>Visit the other attractions at the islands: Come early and visit caves number two all the way to seven, trek up the Cannon Hill and visit the little site-museum next to the ticket counter.

>Shop at the market: numerous shopkeepers sell everything from accessories such as trinkets, bangles and earrings to souvenirs, ornaments and literature are lined alongside the trek to the caves.

>Experience the ferry ride: The breathtaking view of the Mumbai harbour and the various barges, guard posts and ships that line its periphery are just as exciting as watching skylarks in their rhythmic motion.

>Take a ride in the toy train: Although sloth-like and nothing too spectacular, you can travel in it if you’re feeling lazy.