Elephanta Caves: 2000 Years Old Heritage To Present State

Elephanta Caves Featured Image

In this blog post of District Mumbai: Read a visitor’s testimony of Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island near Mumbai. This site is officially recognized as a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” in 1987. If you are planning to visit to Elephanta Caves for the first time, then this blog would be able to answer all your questions.

In case if you still have some unanswered questions then feel free to put them across in the comment section below this post; this way our traveller’s community can participate, exchange and learn from information that is being shared on District Mumbai platform. As usual, we will try to give you a close enough glimpse of the destination through some selected few images, but not too many that’ll take away the charm of your experience when you actually visit the place. So let’s begin!

Elephanta Caves Is A UNESCO World Heritage Site Off Mumbai Coast
Elephanta Caves was officially recognized as a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” in 1987

Officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Elephanta Island features a network of ancient sculpted caves. Here you can witness a number of ancient archaeological marvels from the mediaeval era, which are testimonies of its rich past.

The island is spread across 16 square kilometres and is located about 10 kms away from the south-east coast of Mumbai city.

Elephanta Island got its name around the 16th century by Portuguese explorers, after they discovered enormous black elephant statute made out of stone at this site; the island is also referred by its native name “Island of Gharapuri”.

The island is popular amongst locals and tourists alike, mainly due to its cave temples, which are also referred to as Elephanta Caves; these ancient caves have been carved out of basalt rock and are believed to be up to 2000 years old.

The Story Of Iconic Elephant Statue

There is an interesting story about the Elephant statue that was discovered at this site by Portuguese explorers; which goes like this:

The Iconic Elephant Statue Of Elephanta Island.

After the British rule took over the “7 Bombay islands” from Portuguese in the 17th century, they were so fascinated by the majestic statue that they wanted to ship it to England. They even attempted to lift the statue from the island in 1814, however their efforts went in vain as they ended up dropping the statue in the Arabian Sea during the shifting process. After the failed attempt, the British general who was in-charge of this operation was quoted saying that the iron chains used for the operation were not strong enough to hold on to this enormously heavy statue.

Later in 1864, the damaged statue was recovered from the sea and moved to “Victoria Gardens” which is now known as Veer Mata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan & Zoo in Mumbai City. In 1914, the damaged statue was finally restored & reassembled; today the monolithic basalt elephant sculpture still stands strong outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum (formerly Victoria & Albert Museum) at the Veer Mata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan (formerly Victoria Gardens) at Byculla in Mumbai where visitors can observe it up-close.

At The Elephanta Island

Sculptures In Elephanta Caves
Sculptures Inside Elephanta Caves

Coming back to the Elephanta Caves, the cave temples at Elephanta Island feature Hindu and Buddhist sculptures carved out of basalt rock; these are some of the oldest and most spectacular ancient carvings that can been seen in all of India.

The Elephanta Island features a network of 7 ancient caves which are divided into 2 groups; a group of 2 caves on the eastern hills dedicated to Buddhist culture and other group of 5 caves on western hill dedicated to Hindu culture.

These temples represent the Hindu Shaivism cult and houses a number of manifestation of Lord Shiva, which includes “Trimurti Sadashiva”, which depict three heads of Lord Shiva as the creator, preserver and the destroyer of this universe. “Ardhnarishwar”, depicting manifestation of Lord Shiva whose other half is a woman, vertically spit down at the middle, the right half is Lord Shiva and the left half is Goddess Parvati (which symbolizes Shakti / Energy). “Gangadhar” is a representation of Holy river Ganga descending down to Earth.

Sculpture Of Lord Shiva As Trimurti In Elephanta Caves
Sculpture Of Lord Shiva As Trimurti In Elephanta Caves

Other manifestations of Lord Shiva at this site includes Ravananugraha, Lord Shiva-Goddess Parvati at Mount Kailash, Wedding of Lord Shiva, Nataraja, Yogishvara & Linga. The majestic statue of Lord Shiva sitting with his eyes closed in a meditative posture, is described as the most fascinating sight by visitors. Apart from the ancient sculptures, the main temple dedicated to Lord Shiva features a charming courtyard, corridors and shrines with immersive work of art.

The Buddhist caves on the eastern hill contain remains of a Stupa and a water tank which was possibly used by the first Buddhist occupants of this island. The western and eastern hills are connected via a walk-way.

The Origin

Stone Carved Sculptures In Elephanta Caves
Stone Carved Sculptures In Elephanta Caves

Since there are no inscriptions on any of these caves, the Elephanta Caves are of unknown date and attribution. During an archaeological excavation exercise a few coins from “Kshatrapa Era” were unearthed which dates back to 4th century AD. Some historians date these caves in the range between 2nd to 8th century AD.

Apart from its age, there’s another debate as to who actually carried out such super-human excavation effort to build these caves. As per the traditional beliefs of inhabitants of this island, these caves are not man-made; and its creation is attributed to super-humans or people with Godly powers.

The Present & Recent Past

Damaged Sculpture At Elephanta Caves
Damaged Sculpture At Elephanta Caves

Majority of the sculptures at this site are severely damaged and defaced, this damage is mainly attributed to the Portuguese soldiers who occupied this island from 1534 to 1661. The Portuguese soldiers used the sculptures, especially relics of Lord Shiva for target practising. However, some historians equally blame the Britishers for inflicting further damages to the ancient caves.

The caves were restored in 1970, however significant number of sculptures are still in damaged state. Subsequently the site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, as per the cultural criteria of UNESCO:

The caves “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius and bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”.

UNESCO About Elephanta Caves

This site is currently maintained by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

The Elephanta Island

The estimated population of this island is about 1200 people. Apart from the original inhabitants of this island, no one is permitted to stay here overnight. The people of this island are mainly engaged in fishing and farming activities.

Elephanta Island
Elephanta Island

The island comprises of 3 villages named Rajbandar, Shentbandar and Morabandar; majority of island population live in Rajbandar, which is also the capital of this island. Morabandar mainly comprises of dense forest area and is home to few tribal population. The Elephanta caves are located in Shentbandar region. Recently a dam was constructed here under the rain-water harvesting project to give uninterrupted access of clean drinking water to the people of this island.

How To Reach Here

Iconic Taj Hotel Alongside Gateway Of India In Mumbai
Iconic Taj Hotel Alongside Gateway Of India In Mumbai

Elephanta Island is easily accessible from Gateway of India, Mumbai by ferry; the ferry-boat usually takes about 1-hour to reach. The inexpensive ferry tickets to this island can be purchased on-the-spot at Gateway of India ticket counter itself, no prior booking is necessary. Just be mindful of the ferry timings before planning your trip; since night stay at the island is not allowed for tourists, the ferry timings have been scheduled accordingly. Usually, all onward trips from Mumbai to Elephanta caves are made between 9:00 Am to 2:00 Pm with a frequency of 30mins between each ferry; while return trips from Elephanta Caves to Gateway of India, are conducted until 5:30 Pm.

Mini Train At Elephanta Island
Mini Train At Elephanta Island

After you reach the Island, it would involve a bit of light-trek (approximately 120 steep-steps) to reach to the caves site; there’s a toy-train (small train) at the site which can considerably reduce your walking, it is advisable to avail this ride as it’ll help you conserve more energy to explore the historical site in the hot and humid climate here. At the island you’ll find a lot of stalls selling food, beverages and souvenirs.

Points to be noted, my readers!

  • Elephanta island remains shut for tourists on Monday, as such there is no ferry service to the island on Monday.
  • Beware of Monkeys at the island, they may get aggressive if you offer them food items. Try to avoid consuming food in sight of monkeys and keep your cameras safe from them; it would be a good idea to attach a safety string to your camera and phones, to avoid them being snatched away by monkeys.
  • You don’t need a personal tour guide to visit Elephanta Caves, beware of touts; if you’re hiring one, make sure to check their Govt. issued guide license. You may even opt to purchase the “Guide to Elephanta” booklet, which is sold in the stalls at the island and self-explore. In case you are opting for a personal guide, you’ll get an English, Hindi and/or Marathi speaking guide quite easily.

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