There are only few places on earth where you can truly meet the holy god in his entirety and versatility. And no such place could compare to the Elephanta islands which really pinch you by the labor and pain that it would take to construct an art marvel like this. The great caves of Elephanta depict the fact that a human mind set on fire can achieve the impossible.
Can you imagine that twenty seven hundred years ago, a bunch of villagers excavated and carved a hill island of 16 kilometer square area? Can you imagine that how they used to work day and night, at a place more than ten kilometers from the mainland? Can you imagine how those nomads even thought of the beam and column system to support the great load of mountain above the caves of Elephanta? On my recent visit to the industrial and glamour capital of India, I could not stop myself from visiting these somewhat pale and silent figures of sheer beauty and hard work.
We reached Gateway of India at about twelve and we got to know that the boats for Elephanta set sail at one in the afternoon. For the time we visited the magnificent hotel constructed opposite to Gateway of India – The Taj Residency. This magnificent figure can leave most Britons gob-smacked as being a gothic church. However, this whim for eyes would at least cost you two fifty rupees as even coffee at this gubernatorial hotel costs as much!
At about one, we set sail towards the caves and on the way I saw ships of all types – be it the warships of the navy or coast guard, to the commercial vessels to the fishing and tourist boats – this busy region of Arab Sea has them all. With the help of the exceptionally calm ocean – in about an hour we reached the island. The boats were anchored at a platform specially made for tourists’ boats to park. This is a 100 meter long concrete structure built on the land reclaimed from the sea. This artificial marshy land has the rarest of flora and fauna and was a starter for my appetite for beautiful scenes. We reached the steps that lead to the cave through a toy train (like the one in the north-east). Till now, it was pure fun, but from now on began the terrible part that made me realize the sort of life lived by the builders of this great temple. There are more than 250 steps that lead to the temple premises. However, the sun and scarcity of drinking water are the factors that troubled me much more than anything else. Everything here is sold at double the rate and water is as precious as crude oil! It is hard to imagine just how the wanderers used to live without drinking water in the middle of the ocean.
Pondering over this, we reached the temple where there is an office of the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Those people have made a museum there which displays every detail of not only Elephanta but its sisters like Ajanta and Ellora as well. Going further, we confronted the grand entrance which truly reflects the name given to this mighty rock-cut architecture marvel.
The caves of Elephanta, located about 10 kilometers from the famous Gateway of India, have been given the status of world heritage site by UNESCO. Elephanta (officially known as Gharapuri Island or place of caves) is a hill island and have no straight pastures. At the entrance is an entablature which is supported by 4-5 pillars about 2 feet in diameter. This whole column-entablature system is carved in the rocks and is made to step up by about 3-4 feet. These caves house rock cut temples dating back to the 5th century BC. The Elephanta Island was so christened by the Portuguese due to the excessive use of figures of Elephants in the premises. This rock cut temple is dedicated to Lord Shiv and is rich in sculptural content. The entire complex was created through a process of rock removal. Some of the rock surfaces are highly finished while some are untreated bare rock. There are three distinct entrances to this temple, of which the ones on the east and the west mark the axis of the temple. A 20 pillared hall is mirrored against this axis, and on its western end is the cella (entrance portico). The pillars consist of fluted columns standing on square bases, and are crowned with fluted cushion capitals.
The Sadasiva avatar of Shiv is carved in relief at one wall of the cella. Going further through the interior gate of the temple, we arrive at the open yet covered mandala. This depicts the Nat-Mandir of the Dravidian Architecture and has bare rocks as its enclosure. This courtyard leads to the secondary shrine, which I think was constructed much later than the former one.
This shrine is not that big in scale as is the older shrine, nor is it very beautifully carved. The secondary shrine basically houses a small mandir of Shiv (Lingalingam) and the pradakshina path, all around it. The temple as a whole gives a glimpse to the whole life and events of Lord Shiv and is a treat to not only the religious folks, but also to the nature lovers and adventure prone ones!