The Elephanta Caves, 9 nautical miles of traffic-ridden Arabian Sea from the Gateway of India, ring with mystery and wonder, but most notably have nothing to do with elephants. Well, that is not entirely true; the namesake elephant stone sculpture that was discovered in a village close to the caves now rather confusedly sits in Jijamata Udyaan zoo in Mumbai (if at this point you find yourself subconsciously refiguring the purposes of zoos and museums, try thinking of something else). Local tradition maintains that the caves themselves were not built by man, but by the Gods; no conclusive evidence has been found to either prove or disprove this, and the Gods have maintained radio silence on the subject.
Unfortunately, the tourist experience to the caves is shoddy. The ferries are in relatively poor condition, although they fulfil their destiny of transferring humans between jetties. A lovely bonus was the flock of flamingos we saw en route, gracefully flying overhead. If you are a fan of marine vessels then there are tubs-a-plenty for you to gaze at in the hour long boat ride to and from the island. Once on the island, there is a fair bit of walking from the jetty to the caves; a tiny train can take you part of the distance if you’re willing to tussle with the crowds for some space onboard. If you can’t imagine climbing hundreds of stairs in debilitating heat without seeing visions of fast approaching unconsciousness and potentially death, you may want to think twice about visiting in the summer. Be prepared to part with several 10 Rupee notes along the way; payment for roof-top boat seats, the tiny train, the village Panchyat, the Archaeological Survey of India, and so on.
The caves themselves are magnificent; the first group are Hindu, and the second smaller group are Buddhist. They are worthy of their title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Large halls, lined with numerous square pillars, host gigantic sculptures hewn out of the solid basalt rock. The first cave is the abode of Lord Shiva; his acts and forms are depicted widely in the numerous carvings around the cave including the Yogeshvara (Lord of yoga), Nataraja Shiva (Cosmic dancer), and Shivaparvati (Shiva and Parvati). Of particular note is the Trimurti Sadashiva, or three-headed Shiva, which is thought to represent three essential aspects of Shiva: creation, protection, and destruction. This piece is representative of Chalukyan Gupta art; the Chalukya were a Kannadiga Empire that ruled the Deccan in years long past. To the east of the cave lies Lord Shiva’s shrine, guarded by leogriffs (winged lions) and a four-armed doorkeeper. The western cave is thought to be Buddhist.