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Elephanta Caves

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Elephanta Caves can be easily slotted as one of the top most frequented tourist destinations of India. Located 10 km away from the Gateway of India at Mumbai, these caves houses brilliantly designed rock-cut temples that dates back to the 5th century. The temples bear witness to the rich and unique civilization of the ancient times.

The maze of cave temples that one finds on this island are carved out of the basalt rocks found here. The artwork is extremely detailed, brilliant and highly impressive and can be ranked as one of the finest ever discovered in this part of the world. The cave is designed to represent the Hindu religious ritual of circumambulating places of worship. The cave has stunningly beautiful carvings and temples of Lord Shiva. Traces of ancient Buddhist culture can also be seen here.

History of the Elephanta Caves

It is believed that Pulkesin II, the prince of the Chalukya Dynasty and a legendary warrior created this place. Some historians are of the view that these caves were built way back in the 6th century by King Krishna Raja of Kalchuri. The style and designs of the sculpture and temples at Elephanta have a striking resemblance to the structural designs and sculptures at the Kailasa Temple of Ellora. Historians believe that the same sculptors and craftsmen were employed to create these caves and its sculptures at both the places. However, local belief is that the caves were carved out by a divine hand and are not manmade. This belief arises because there are no inscriptions on any of the caves on this Island.

The caves were called Gharapuri which means a ‘place of caves’. In 1534, the Gujarat Sultanate which controlled the place handed over the caves to the Portuguese. They named it the ‘Elephanta Island’ as there was a gigantic black stone statue of an elephant cut out from a rock and mounted on a mound near Gharapuri village. The statue had a captivating presence which prompted the Portuguese to name the place in honor of the elephant. The stone came down in 1814 and was later move to the Victoria Gardens of Mumbai by the British administration.

Caves and the Sculptures

The complex covers an area of 6,000 square feet and is made of one main and two lateral chambers. There are many courtyards and supplementary shrines in the vicinity of the main cave. A huge mass of naturally formed rock is situated above the main temple.

Visitors are greeted by three entrances to the temple. The entrances on the east and west signify the axis of the temple. A Shivalingam is kept in the western end of the cellar. The pillars are creatively sculptured with columns supported on square bases and cushioned designs on the top.

The sculpture of Trimurthi Sadasiva which is enigmatic representation of Lord Shiva is at the end of the north-south axis. This enormous figure of the three-headed Shiva, which rises 20 feet high from the ground, offers a truly majestic view. This carving represents the Pancha mukha Shiva or the three faces of the Lord which are carved out of a gigantic stone in the wall.

The wall on the southern side depicts imposing sculptured figures of Uma Maheswara, Ardhanariswara, Kalyanasundara and Gangadhara. The west side wall has sculptured images of Nataraja or Lord Shiva in a dancing form.

The same wall also has a captivating image of the Andhakaasuravada Moorthy. To the east are images of Yogeshwara and Ravana-anugraha Murthy. The brilliance of the sculptures of the Elephanta Island is that here Shiva is portrayed in the Shivalingam form, and also in his standard being emanating from the Shivalingam. All the eight forms of the Lord represented here are extremely captivating and has a mesmerizing effect on the visitors.

Towards the end of the shrine, there are images of an unidentified dancing figure. There is also a grisly representation in stone of Kala and his consort, Kali. There are smaller groups of caves that represent Buddhist monuments. There is a cave left incomplete, while the other contains a Stupa made in brick which stands in sharp contrast to the other basalt stone carvings.

How to Reach Elephanta Island

The island is situated 11 km off the Mumbai coast. There are boats and ferries leaving the coast from Gateway of India at regular intervals. The journey takes about an hour. Nearest airport is Mumbai Airport at 20 km. The nearest railway stations are Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on the Central Railway and Churchgate on the Western Railway. Elephanta Caves is closed for public viewing on Mondays.

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