Have you ever wondered how ancient artists carved magnificent sculptures and temples out of solid rock? If you are fascinated by the skill and creativity of rock-cut art and architecture, then you should not miss visiting the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai. The Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases the rock-cut art and architecture of medieval India.
The caves are located on Elephanta Island, about 10 km from the Gateway of India by ferry ride. The caves are famous for their sculptures and themes dedicated to Lord Shiva and Buddhism. In this article, we will take you on a virtual tour of the Elephanta Caves and help you discover their history, architecture, and significance.
History of the Elephanta Caves
The Elephanta Caves are believed to have been built between the 5th and 8th centuries CE by different dynasties and rulers. The origin and dating of the caves are still uncertain, as there are no inscriptions or records to confirm them. Some scholars suggest that the caves were built by the Kalachuri dynasty, while others attribute them to the Rashtrakuta dynasty or the Chalukya dynasty. The caves were patronized by various kings and nobles who supported Hinduism or Buddhism as their religion.
The Elephanta Caves consist of two groups of caves: one group of five Hindu caves (Cave 1 to 5) and another group of two Buddhist caves (Cave 6 and 7). The Hindu caves are dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the most revered deities in Hinduism. The Buddhist caves are dedicated to Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The caves reflect the religious diversity and tolerance of medieval India, as well as the artistic excellence and innovation of its craftsmen.
The Elephanta Caves suffered severe damage and destruction over time due to natural erosion and human intervention. The most notorious act of vandalism was committed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, who used the caves as a target practice for their cannons and rifles.
Many sculptures and carvings were defaced or mutilated by the Portuguese, who also looted some of them for their museums and churches. The caves were also neglected and abandoned by the local population for centuries, until they were rediscovered and restored by British archaeologists in the 19th century. The caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in recognition of their outstanding universal value.
Architecture and Sculptures of the Elephanta Caves
The Elephanta Caves are a marvel of rock-cut art and architecture, as they were carved out of basalt rock using chisels, hammers, and picks. The caves have a simple layout and design, with a main hall (mandapa), a sanctum (garbhagriha), and a few subsidiary shrines or cells. The main attraction of the caves is their sculptures and carvings, which depict various forms and narratives of Lord Shiva and Buddha.
The most impressive and famous cave is Cave 1, also known as the Great Cave or Shiva Cave. This cave is the largest and most elaborate among the Hindu caves, measuring about 39 meters long, 22 meters wide, and 7 meters high. The cave has four entrances from different directions, leading to a spacious hall with four rows of pillars. The hall has three recesses on each side, each containing a sculpture or carving related to Shiva. The main sanctum at the back wall houses a linga, a symbol of Shiva’s energy and power.
The highlight of Cave 1 is its sculptures of Shiva in various forms and narratives. The most iconic sculpture is the Trimurti, which shows Shiva as three-faced: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Rudra (the destroyer). The sculpture is about 6 meters high and 5 meters wide, occupying the central recess on the south wall. The sculpture is considered as one of the masterpieces of Indian art, as it captures the essence and expression of Shiva’s cosmic role.
Another remarkable sculpture is Ardhanarishvara, which shows Shiva as half-male and half-female: Parvati (his consort). The sculpture is about 5 meters high and 3 meters wide, occupying the recess on the east wall. The sculpture represents the concept of duality and harmony in nature, as well as Shiva’s completeness and compassion.
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Other notable sculptures in Cave 1 include Nataraja (Shiva as the lord of dance), Gangadhara (Shiva holding the river Ganga in his hair), Kalyanasundara (Shiva’s marriage to Parvati), Ravana shaking Kailasa (Shiva’s abode), Andhakasuravadha (Shiva slaying the demon Andhaka), Yogishvara (Shiva as the lord of yoga), and Nandi (Shiva’s bull mount).
The other Hindu caves (Cave 2 to 5) are smaller and simpler than Cave 1, but they also contain some interesting shrines and carvings of Shiva and other deities. Cave 2 has a large hall with a linga in the sanctum, as well as sculptures of Kartikeya (Shiva’s son) and Ganesha (Shiva’s elephant-headed son). Cave 3 has a similar hall with a linga in the sanctum, as well as sculptures of Durga (the goddess of power) and Saptamatrikas (the seven mother goddesses). Cave 4 and 5 are incomplete and unfinished, but they also have some traces of sculptures and carvings.
The Buddhist caves (Cave 6 and 7) are located at the eastern end of the island, about 1.5 km from the Hindu caves. These caves are much older and simpler than the Hindu caves, dating back to the 2nd century BCE. The caves have a plain layout and design, with a main hall, a sanctum, and a few cells. The main feature of the caves is their stupas, which are hemispherical structures containing relics or images of Buddha. The caves also have some water tanks and cisterns, which indicate that they were used for monastic purposes.
How to Reach and Visit the Elephanta Caves
The Elephanta Caves are easily accessible from Mumbai by ferry service from the Gateway of India. The ferry service operates daily from 9 am to 5 pm, except on Mondays when the caves are closed.
The ferry ride takes about an hour to reach Elephanta Island, and it offers a scenic view of the Mumbai skyline and harbor. The ferry ticket costs Rs. 200 for adults and Rs. 130 for children for a round trip. The ticket also includes a guide or an audio device that explains the history and significance of the caves.
Once you reach Elephanta Island, you have to climb about 120 steps or take a toy train to reach the entrance of the caves. The entrance fee for the caves is Rs. 40 for Indian nationals and Rs. 600 for foreign nationals. You can also hire a local guide or buy a guidebook at the entrance for more information on the caves. The caves are open from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, and it takes about two hours to explore them.
The best time to visit the Elephanta Caves is during the winter season (November to February), when the weather is pleasant and cool. The summer season (March to May) can be hot and humid, while the monsoon season (June to October) can be rainy and slippery. The ideal time of the day to visit the caves is in the morning or evening, when the sun is not too harsh and the crowd is not too large.
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Best Hotels to Stay Near Elephanta Caves
If you are looking for the best places to stay near Elephanta Caves, you have plenty of options to choose from. Whether you want a luxury hotel, a budget resort, or a cozy guest house, you can find a suitable accommodation that suits your needs and preferences. Here are some of the best places to stay near Elephanta Caves, along with their nightly tariffs:
1. Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Palm Grove:
This is a 5-star hotel located on Juhu Beach, about 18.7 km from Elephanta Caves. The hotel offers spacious rooms with sea views, a swimming pool, a spa, a fitness center, and multiple dining options. The nightly tariff for this hotel is Rs. 8,000 for a deluxe room with breakfast included.
2. ITC Grand Central, Mumbai - a Luxury Collection Hotel:
This is another 5-star hotel located in Parel, about 10.5 km from Elephanta Caves. The hotel features elegant rooms with city views, an outdoor pool, a wellness center, a business center, and several restaurants and bars. The nightly tariff for this hotel is Rs. 9,500 for an executive club room with breakfast included.
3. Taj Lands End, Mumbai:
This is a 5-star hotel located in Bandra West, about 14.8 km from Elephanta Caves. The hotel boasts of luxurious rooms with Arabian Sea views, a landscaped pool, a spa, a fitness center, and a variety of dining and entertainment options. The nightly tariff for this hotel is Rs. 12,000 for a deluxe sea view room with breakfast included.
4. The Oberoi Mumbai:
This is a 5-star hotel located in Nariman Point, about 12.4 km from Elephanta Caves. The hotel offers contemporary rooms with bay views, an indoor pool, a spa, a fitness center, and several fine dining and lounge options. The nightly tariff for this hotel is Rs. 15,000 for a luxury room with breakfast included.
5. Trident Hotel:
This is a 5-star hotel located in Nariman Point, about 12.3 km from Elephanta Caves. The hotel provides modern rooms with sea views, an outdoor pool, a spa, a fitness center, and multiple dining and bar options. The nightly tariff for this hotel is Rs. 10,000 for a superior sea view room with breakfast included.
The Elephanta Caves in Mumbai are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases the rock-cut art and architecture of medieval India. The caves are famous for their sculptures and themes dedicated to Lord Shiva and Buddhism.
The caves reflect the religious diversity and tolerance of medieval India, as well as the artistic excellence and innovation of its craftsmen. The caves are a must-visit destination for anyone who loves history, culture, and art.