Elephanta: Spirituality set in stone

Incredible India!

Incredible India, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India

One of the best things about Mumbai is the sea and the access it provides for quick day-time trips to nearby beaches and islands. Less than an hour's boat ride from the Gateway of India in South Mumbai’s Colaba district lies Elephanta Island, colloquially known as Gharapuri, or the Fortress City.

The scenic island stretches across 10 to 15 square kilometres and has a dense foliage of mango, tamarind and palm trees. Perfect for a weekend excursion, this island provides good trekking as well as picnic opportunities.

The island gets its name from a giant stone sculpture of an elephant that was discovered by the 16th century Portuguese explorers who came to this area. The sculpture has since been placed at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum at Rani Baug, in Mumbai’s Byculla East area.

The island owes its global popularity to the fact that it is home to the Elephanta Caves, a network of ancient rock-cut caves with artistic wall carvings and sculptures inside, dedicated to Hindu and Buddhist gods.These caves were incorporated in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in the early 1980s.

The caves, located on top of a hillock, have walls that are lined with rock art, which experts say dates as far back as the mid - 5th and 6th Centuries.

There are two main hills on the island – Gun Hill and Stupa Hill. The former gets its name from the two British-era canons perched on it. Stupa Hill, shown here, is called so due to the remains of a Buddhist stupa which was excavated here.

The most intricately detailed and architecturally majestic cave among the Elephanta network is situated on Gun Hill. The panels on these caves depict the lives and beliefs of the esoteric Pashupati sect of the Shaiva system.

A 7 metre high sculpture called Sadashiva lies at the entrance of this cave at Elephanta.

These ancient cave temples have been declared a World Heritage Site for their impressive rock-architecture and art work reliefs found inside the inner walls.

Depicting the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, the Kalyanasundaramurti carving is a masterpiece. The goddess is shown as a shy, young bride, her head bowed down. She looks charming and full of joy, as she poses with a stanahara (or stringed necklace) and a small crown. Meanwhile, Lord Shiva is shown as a tall and slim lad, wearing a crown.

A chamber in the west wing of the Elephanta caves houses an old shivling, where visitors can pay their respects. In the verandah, there is a wall that has been adorned with the carving of Lord Shiva in a yogic posture.

Carved from a single rock, this cave at Elephanta lacks the sculptural details and only seven pillars can be seen in the verandah.

One end of the verandah has what can be described as a chapel, while a small cell is located at the centre.

This Cave at Elephanta features Lord Shiva’s Ardhanarisvara Murti, where he is depicted as half-woman and half-man.

Legend has it that Lord Brahma created all male Prajapatis, who were responsible for creation. Since all of them failed to do so, Lord Brahma sought Lord Shiva’s counsel and the latter appeared in his ardhanarisvara form - half man and half woman. This led Lord Brahma to realise his mistake and he then created a woman.

There are a host of beautiful carvings depicting Lord Shiva in various forms. From his half-man and half-woman form to his Maheshmurti avatar - where he is shown to behold the three aspects of divinity - these carvings will leave you in awe.

Visitors comes across several small caves like this one, while walking through the well-kept walkways at the Elephanta Caves complex. Carved from a single rock, the cave rests on five pillars and lies close to the cannon point.

Cave 1 or the main cave is a cavernous structure of great dimensions. It is divided by 24 huge columns into corridors.

A linga, centred in a Shaiva temple is the main object of worship and lies on the right side of the cave.

The entrance to the cave has been aligned with the north-south axis, which is rare for a Shiva temple that usually has an alignment with the east-west axis.

Credits: Story

Virtual Tours courtesy Archaeological Survey of India and Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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