Did you know that the statue of the Elephant which once stood on the docks of the Elephanta Island, and because of which the island got its name, stands in a museum today? Or that the iconic Trimurti of Shiva for which the caves on the island are often visited, is actually a Panchmukhi or five-faced? Or that a dinner party was held in its main cave for Prince of Wales?
An hour-long ferry ride from the Gateway of India in Mumbai to an island locally called Gharapuri takes you to a hidden world of rock-cut caves with magnificent sculptures and beautiful carvings. Called Elephanta Island by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Elephanta Caves comprise five Hindu cave temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and two Buddhist caves and stupas.
While experts are still debating when the caves were first excavated, it is generally believed that they were built between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, based on the dating of similar caves in the Deccan region. But the island had been home to early communities well before the caves were constructed and human occupation of the island can be traced back two millennia.
Its location plum on the west coast of India, at the mouth of what is now the Thane Creek, made this small island an important pit stop for traders as far back as the 2nd century BCE. Archaeological remains of Roman amphorae dating to these times have been found on the island, suggesting that this small port offered sailors a chance to rest and refill supplies of freshwater.
The caves themselves were built much later. Recent studies on their architectural style suggest that they were constructed by King Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri Dynasty in the mid-6th century, and tens of copper coins of King Krishnaraja have been found at Elephanta.
The Kalachuris ruled from Mahishmati (present-day Maheshwar) in Madhya Pradesh. They were great devotees of Shiva and were followers of 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. The Elephanta Caves are one of the three main sites of the Pashupata cult in Mumbai, the other two being the Jogeshwari Caves and Mandapeshwar Caves. All three cave complexes are within a 50-km radius of each other.
There are just seven caves at Elephanta spread across two hills – one set of caves to the west and the other to the east. The most astounding is Cave No 1 or the Main Cave on the western hill and is considered an excellent example of Indian rock art. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it celebrates his various forms and legends.
A Celebration of Art
The centrepiece of Cave No 1 is Panchamukhi Shiva, also known as Sadashiva. He is represented with five heads, each depicting a different avatar or facet of his nature. This sculpture is often misunderstood as a ‘Trimurti’ as only three of the five heads are visible. The head in front represents the ultimate divine energy (Sadashiva or Maheshmurti); the one on the left is fearsome (Aghora-Shiva); and the one on the right is blissful (Vamadeva). The two heads that are not visible are the one facing the back of the cave, in meditation (Tatpurusha); and the once on top, which represents the power of creation (Sadyojata Shiva).
The sculpture is an imposing 17 feet (5.45 metres) tall and it stands on a 1-metre-high platform.
Panchamukhi Shiva has other sculptures on its sides. On the left is Ardhanarishwara i.e. the half-male and half-female form of the god. The female half, representing Parvati, wears elaborate jewellery. The male half, which is Shiva, has his bull Nandi. While one of his hands rests on the bull, the other holds a cobra. The figure is surrounded by many gods and attendants.
To the right of Maheshmurti is a sculpture of Shiva in his Gangadhara form. Shiva’s hand holds his matted hair, out of which emanates a female figure, that is, Goddess Ganga. This goddess has three heads, identified as the river flowing through the three worlds – Mandakini (the world of gods), Bhagirathi (the world of men) and Bhogavati (the netherworld).
The shrine of Shiva is located in the western half of the cave. The garbhagriha or the sanctum sanctorum of this cave temple has an austere interior, with a 1-metre long shivalinga.
Each wall of the cave has large carvings that depict Shiva-related legends, each carving more than 5 metres high. Popular themes include the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, Shiva slaying the demon Andhaka, the king of Lanka Ravana shaking the Kailash Parvata, and Shiva depicted as Nataraja (god of dance).
Apart from the sculptures, there are traces of paintings on the ceiling, indicating that the cave was originally adorned with murals. Similar traces can be found in other caves at Elephanta.
Interestingly, this Main Cave at Elephanta is similar in structure to the Dhumar Lena (Cave 29) at Ellora. Dhumar Lena was one of the earliest excavated caves at Ellora, around the 7th century CE. The plan, the style of pillars and the placement of sculptured panels of both caves are almost identical.
Of the seven caves at Elephanta, only Cave No 1 is profusely adorned with sculptures. The others are almost plain-looking and three of them are even incomplete. Cave No 2 has a porch with four pillars in front and two small rooms. Cave No 3 has an oblong hall and a carving of a male figure with six arms on the doorway. Cave No 4 is very similar to Cave No 3 and has a large verandah. Cave No 5 is unfinished.
While Caves 1 to 5 are situated on the western hill, Caves 6 and 7 are on the eastern hill. The hills are separated by a ravine but connected by a walkway. Cave No 6 was converted into a Catholic church during Portuguese rule in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. Near Cave No 7 are the remains of a Buddhist brick stupa dating to the 2nd century BCE.
The Elephant Statue
The island was not always called ‘Elephanta’; this was a name given by the Portuguese. In 1534, the Portuguese took over the island from the Gujarat Sultanate, and somewhere at the entrance to the island, they found a life-size stone statue of an elephant. The Portuguese used the structure as a landmark to dock their boats and to also tell it apart from the other, smaller islands in the Arabian Sea. Thus, they called it ‘Ilha Elefante’ or ‘Elephant Island’.
But this statue is no longer on the island. In 1864, the British tried to ship it to the United Kingdom. In the process, the crane broke and the statue shattered. The pieces were brought to the Victoria Garden (now Jijamata Udyan) in Mumbai and assembled. Today, you can see it in the garden’s premises, outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Restoration of the Caves
While some of the sculptures at Elephanta have survived through the centuries, most of them have been ruined. Scholars blame various sources. Some say the rulers of the Gujarat Sultanate had defaced the figures while others say that Portuguese soldiers used the caves as a firing range and used the sculptures for target practice. The Elephanta Caves were an active site of worship till the advent of the Portuguese.
In 1871, archaeologist James Burgess drew sketches of the site and published The Rock Temples of Elephanta, highlighting their condition. Then, in 1875, a royal banquet drew further attention to these monuments. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), embarked on an extensive tour of India that year. During his visit to Bombay in November 1875, the Governor of Bombay, Sir Philip Wodehouse, organised a formal banquet for the royal party inside the Main Cave at Elephanta. About 400 people attended the dinner!
In the 1890s, the Public Works Department under the British government undertook excavation and conservation efforts at the Elephanta Caves.
In 1905, six stone sculptures were discovered below the ground in the Main Cave. They include a four-faced figure of Brahma or Shiva, and a figure of Mahishasurmardini. The existence of loose sculptures suggests that besides the rock-cut caves, there must also have been structural temples here.
The caves were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and they are well-maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Just as devotees thronged the site 2,000 years ago, pilgrims arrive on the island by the boatload on Mahashivratri to worship Shiva. But besides being an ode to Shaivism, the Elephanta Caves impress visitors of all kinds with their artistic excellence.