Take an hour-long ferry ride from the Gateway of India in Mumbai to an island locally called Gharapuri and you will find yourself standing in front of a hidden world of rock-cut caves with magnificent sculptures and spectacular carvings. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these caves have attracted a lot of international attention, but surprisingly their excavators are shrouded in mystery.
When the Portuguese physician, Garcia de Orta, considered to be Mumbai’s first European resident, visited the island circa 1534 CE, he attributed the caves to the Chinese. By this time, the Portuguese had occupied the region from the Gujarat Sultanate and renamed Gharapuri as ‘Ilha Elephante’ courtesy the life-sized statue of an elephant at the entrance to the island. The statue broke in 1864, when the colonial British tried to move it off the island so that they could cart it to England. It was reassembled and now stands on the grounds of Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Subsequently, a Venetian merchant and jeweller named Gasparo Balbi, who made a trip to Gharapuri around 1580 CE, wrote in his travelogue Voyage to the Oriental Indies that the caves were constructed by Alexander the Great! Of course, the Macedonian ruler had never travelled this far into the Indian subcontinent.
Until the 20th century, the Elephanta Caves, besides mesmerising many, had also perplexed historians as they did not provide clues to their origin or how far back they went. But the excavation of a few coins from different parts of the island, between 1976 and 1992, provided some hints.
One of the coins had an engraving of a trikuta (three-peaked hill) on the obverse, which led archaeologist Suraj Pandit to point out in 2012 that the Traikutaka dynasty was the first to start construction at Elephanta.
The Traikutakas ruled in southern Gujarat and Maharashtra (especially the North Konkan) in the 5th and 6th centuries CE as the power of the Western Kshatrapas began to recede. But the Traikutaka kings described themselves as Parama Vaishnava, i.e., devoted followers of Vishnu. So, while they must have started construction at Elephanta, the Shaivite sculptures that we see today were probably built by someone else. And this someone else, suggested by Indologist Vasudev Vishnu Mirashi in 1955, were the Kalachuri rulers.
The Kalachuris were vassals of the Vakataka dynasty in the Deccan and rose to power after the death of the Vakataka king Harisena in 477 CE.
Art historian Walter Spink proposed that the grandson of Harisena fled with his sister to Mahishmati, where a local ruler named Subandhu married the princess and founded the Kalachuri dynasty. However, numismatic and inscriptional evidence is available for only three Kalachuri kings, the earliest being Krishnaraja (r. c. 550-575 CE).
Krishnaraja issued coins featuring the Brahmi script, which describes him as ‘Parama-Maheshvara’ (devotee of Shiva). In fact, his coins imitate the design of earlier coins issued by the Traikutaka kings.
We have evidence of the Kalachuris’ extension to the Konkan thanks to the discovery of a copper plate inscription from Abhona village in Nashik District, issued by Krishnaraja’s son Sankaragana (r. c. 575 – 600 CE). Sankaragana is the earliest ruler of the dynasty to be attested by his own inscriptions and this particular Abhona plate was issued from his camp at Ujjain in 596-97 CE. It records the donation of land in the Vallisika village (present-day Walsa in the Marathwada region). With the seat in Madhya Pradesh and inscription in Maharashtra, the Kalachuri kingdom probably included parts of present-day Gujarat.
The last Kalachuri king we know of is Sankaragana’s son Buddharaja (r. c. 600-625 CE). He is believed to have had a hold over the area around present-day Malwa for some time. But soon after his accession, he found himself in a fight on the southern frontier of his kingdom. Badami Chalukya king Mangalesha (r. c. 592-610 CE) has mentioned defeating Buddharaja in his Mahakuta pillar inscription in present-day Karnataka. It has been suggested that the Chalukyas were probably helped by the Vallabhi rulers of Gujarat in their fight.
Although the Kalachuris lost their power, the dynasty seems to have lingered on in the Malwa region until a later date, probably as feudatories of the Chalukyas. But, soon, as pointed out by V V Mirashi, a new branch of the Kalachuris sprung up at the end of the 7th century CE. After the death of Harshavardhana in 647 CE, his extensive kingdom in Northern India crumbled to pieces.
In the consequent confusion and scramble for power, one Vamaraja (c. 675-700 CE) probably overran Bundelkhand and Baghelkhand and established himself at Kalinjar, the impregnable fort in present-day Banda District in Uttar Pradesh. He is considered the founder of the Kalachuris of Tripuri (present-day Tewar near Jabalpur). However, there is no concrete evidence that links the Kalachuris of Tripuri to the Kalachuris of Mahishmati.
Mirashi observed that the Elephanta Caves were definitely built under the patronage of the Kalachuris as they were well-known for their adherence to the Pashupata cult of Shaivism. The Pashupatas are considered the earliest Hindu sect to worship Shiva as the supreme deity and are believed to have been established around the 2nd century CE by a wandering monk named Lakulisha. He is believed to be the 28th and final incarnation of Shiva.
Also, over 30 coins of Kalachuri ruler Krishnaraja were excavated from the island, leading Mirashi to believe that he was the main patron of the caves. However, Krishnaraja’s coins were used in the Deccan 150 years after the period of his rule and have been discovered from many parts of North-West and Central India, where they could have circulated via commerce.
Mirashi also says that it was only the Kalachuris in this region who had sufficient resources to support such a grand undertaking during the 6th and 7th centuries CE. Their wealth probably came from the coastal trade opportunities that Konkan provided. Its ports like Sopara, Kalyan, Chaul, Sanjan and Elephanta were known to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Arabs since ancient times and commercial maritime activity here had brought prosperity to many kingdoms.
Interestingly, a silver coin of Krishnaraja was unearthed from the debris in the courtyard of the Rameshwara Cave temple at Ellora in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, and this find has been cited by Spink as evidence of Kalachuri patronage here too.
But more than the coin, what connects Elephanta to Ellora is design and iconography. The Main Cave at Elephanta is very similar to Ellora’s Dhumar Lena (Cave 29) in terms of the plan, style of pillars and placement of sculpted panels. Furthermore, there are two more caves in Mumbai – Jogeshwari and Mandapeshwar – which share sculptural details with Elephanta.
All these caves have been dated around the same time period i.e between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, and they also have sculptures of Lakulisha carved into their walls, making some scholars believe that all of these were built by the same followers of the Pashupata sect i.e. the Kalachuris. This shows that there was a wave of Shaivism that passed through the Deccan in the late ancient period.
However, since none of these caves has any inscriptions, they cannot be certainly attributed to the Kalachuris and we have to rely on the assumptions made by art historians for their connections. But what cannot be denied is that the Kalachuris did fill a vacuum in the Deccan region in the 6th century CE before being overthrown by the Chalukyas and are a significant part of the history of Western India.
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
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