An interesting journey of about an hour by boat from the Gateway of India, passing the Mumbai harbor, and the, Naval barges, takes you to Elephanta Caves where there are caves with carvings dedicated to Lord Siva. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Elephanta Island is the site of the magnificent Elephanta caves, containing beautiful carvings, sculptures, and a temple to the Hindu God, Lord Shiva. The island of Elephanta, being a commercial, military, and religious center for centuries has traces of early Buddhist culture.
The Elephanta caves are thought to date back to the Sahara kings belonging to the period between the 9th – 12th centuries. With the Brahminical resurgence during the reign of the dynasty in the 3rd century AD, these great caves exploded into existence at Elephanta. Legends and history suggest that the great warrior prince of Chalukya dynasty Pulkesin 11 raised the shrine to celebrate his victory Some historians also suggest that the Kalchuri king Kristmaraja built these caves in the 6th century AD. The island was the capital of the powerful coastal kingdom but later the Portuguese took possession of the island and as they first found a monolith elephant the island was named Elephanta:
As the worship of the figure of the Buddha began to be encouraged with the rising of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, a shrine was introduced to house Buddha’s image, replacing the cells at the center of the back wall. The Monasteries of Ajanta lead us directly to Elephanta.
It appears that the same families of craftsmen and sculptors who were working on the Kailasa temple of Ellora and adjoining Buddhist caves at Ellora were employed at Elephanta. It is believed that the caves were used as target practice after they constructed a fort and put a flag to ward off pirates. However, many of the sculptures have been desecrated. The Britishers captured the island from the Portuguese and tried to find out who had built these caves but failed. The Britishers planned to take the monolith elephant to England but they could not lift it. It is now kept in the Bombay Museum.
Hewn out of solid rock, the caves attract more visitors each year than the entire city of Mumbai. No wonder, this place resonates with the spiritual energy of India. The cave complex is a collection of shrines, courtyards, inner cells, grand halls, and porticos arranged in the splendid symmetry of Indian rock-cut architecture.
Unfortunately, iconoclastic Portuguese rulers who took potshots at Hindu Gods with their rifles have damaged many of the sculptures inside. And yet somehow, nothing has disturbed the sublime beauty of this place for centuries.
No doubt the cave was the creation of an unknown genius, a master architect, who had thoroughly absorbed and assimilated the magnificent contribution of his predecessors in the dual traditions of the independent free-standing sculpture and rock-cut architecture, produced a monument introducing a whole new world of form quite distinct from any previous achievement. At the entrance to the caves is the famous Trimurti, the celebrated trinity of Elephanta: Lord Brahma the Creator, Lord Vishnu, the preserver, and Lord Shiva the Destroyer.
Elephanta Caves and Temples located on an island in Mumbai harbor, these are a complex of temples hewn from the rock, dated to between AD 450 and 750. The temples are adorned with intricate sculptures of Hindu gods. The island rises in two conical hillocks. The architect sculptors carved out of solid basalt rock create a representation of the heavenly mountain residence of Lord Shiva.
Opening out from three sides, the temple lets in light from many angles making the sculptures seem to move with the changing angles of light. Inside the temple is a large hall, with nine sculptured panels representing Lord Shiva in different moods. The temple plan is symmetric with important focal points worked out in a geometric Mandala (the design representing rite energy field).
Flights of steps, which can prove to be very daunting, take you to the caves. One can hire a chair to be carried up, but today the caves can be easily approached. The artisan has tried to create a cave similar to the one in which Shiva resides in the Himalayas.
The Pillars inside the cave give an impression that these pillars support the roof. The pillars have been deliberately kept simple so as to attract attention towards the exquisite carvings on the panels. There are three openings to the caves allowing light to enter from various angles in different seasons giving an expression that the images are moving with the transition of light.
It’s like spending a day outside the world. Elephanta is the place where the main events in the mythology of Lord Shiva are depicted. At Ellora, though other Gods appear on the panel with Shiva, at Elephanta there is nothing but Shiva.
According to Hindu Mythology, three Gods govern their world: Brahma— the creator, Vishnu— the Preserver, and Maheshwara— the Destroyer. Here we find Lord Shiva practicing Yoga, meditating with snakes coiled around his neck, and at places, He is in the company of his wife, Parvati. Panel 6 of the caves represent the wedding of Shiva with Parvati with the rites being performed by Brahma and scores of other Gods attending the grand ceremony.
The coming of Ganga from heaven to Earth is described in panel 5 of the caves. As the great force of Ganga might have destroyed the Earth She lands in the hair locks of Shiva who then gently releases her. The wise and righteous Lord before whom the forces of evil and ignorance flee and are terrified into submission is carved on the 7th panel. On the western end is the sanctuary of Linga denoting the essence of creative power, in which Lord Shiva is worshipped as the Lord of Fertility and Procreation.