If you’re setting off on your holiday this year in desperate need of some R&R, spare a thought for the dedicated workers who chipped away, day by day, year after year, to create the cave temples and rock-cut stone sculptures that are the star attractions of Elephanta Island (known locally as Gharapuri, or ‘city of caves’).
Elephant Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mumbai Harbour, about an hour’s boat ride from the Gateway of India. It was named after the elephant statues that Portuguese settlers found on the island during their early exploration of India; the first landings are recorded from the 15th century and, although the largest of these elephant statues is now in Mumbai’s Victoria Gardens (Jijamata Udyan), the name stuck. The cave temples, sculptures and wall carvings are dedicated largely to the Hindu god Shiva, although there are also two Buddhist caves and several Buddhist stupa mounds (‘heaps’ or mound-like structures). These are believed to contain the remains of Buddhist monks, and are typically used as places of meditation. Created between AD 450 and 750 (5th and 8th centuries), the Elephanta Caves were, for hundreds of years, a place of worship and storytelling, with mythologies and history portrayed in the beautiful basalt rock carvings. The caves were damaged during the years of Portuguese colonisation, but underwent partial restoration in the 1970s. Today, they are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
There are two groups of caves on the island – five on the western side of the hill, best known for their Hindu sculptures, and two on the east. They’re connected by a walkway that makes exploring both sides easy. The caves cover an impressive 5600m 2 between them, and boast courtyards and a complex labyrinth of chambers and prayer halls. Getting to the main cave, or Cave 1 – aka the Great Cave or Grand Cave – requires a bit of effort. Visitors must navigate the 120 steep steps up from the beach, but, once there, it’s impossible not to marvel at the scale of the workmanship.
The main cave boasts a 6m-tall statue of Sadhashiva – a three-faced Shiva as creator, destroyer and preserver of the universe – eyes closed as if deep in contemplation. Despite the damage it’s sustained over the years still being visible, it’s breathtaking. The grand pillars that announce the entrance to the caves are intricately carved and serve as more than mere decoration – crucially, they support the weight of the hills above, keeping you, and generations to come, safe in your explorations.
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You can reach Elephanta Island and the Elephanta Caves by ferry from the Gateway of India.
A service runs regularly from Gateway of India between 9am and 2pm daily, except Mondays, when the caves are closed.
A return ticket will cost you around INR 120.
Dress conservatively, as in India generally, and especially when visiting spiritual or religious temples or places of worship.
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