THE BOAT RIDE
The boat journey is itself part of the experience, with so many things to see that time flies past. This is one of the few places in Mumbai, where you can see flocks of seagulls at any time of the day!
The island itself was originally known as Gharapuri. It is believed to have been the capital of the Konkan Mauryas, and the name literally means ‘fort city’. The only village here which is still inhabited is known by the same name. The name ‘Elephanta’ came from the Portuguese, who landed here and saw a huge stone elephant guarding the entrance to the holy cave-shrines. (For those who are interested, this elephant was broken down by the Portuguese who found them, but the pieces have been reconstructed, and the elephant is on display at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum at Byculla)
Once we reached the island, there was a mad rush for the toy train. Yes, there is a tiny toy train which takes us to the foot of the hills. It costs Rs. 10 for the return journey, but takes less than 5 minutes, and isn’t really worth all that rush!
That means it is really very slow. :p
The caves at Elephanta are believed to date back to the sixth century, to the reign of the Konkan Mauryas, who were vassals of the Chalukyas. The island was then known as ‘Sripuri’. Unlike the caves at Badami, which were built for the kings, or those at Ajanta, which were built by monks, the caves here - according to the ASI booklet – were patronized by merchants and traders! The caves apparently looked so impressive, that the Portuguese, who captured the islands in 1540, couldn’t believe that these were the work of human hands! There are various stories told about why the caves and the sculptures were defaced – while some say it was done because the Portuguese thought them to be the work of demons, some say that it was simply an attempt to destroy the Hindu influence in the area. However, it no longer matters WHY the caves were defaced and sculptures destroyed. What is important is to ensure that we do no more damage.
The main cave
There are seven rock cut caves in all, but the first is the most important one, and the only one really worth a watch. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, every available wall is covered with images of Lord Shiva in various postures or depicting stories related to him.
A little off centre is a huge temple with a lingam inside. There are entrances on all the four sides, with 8 dwarapalakas or guards at the corners. It is an impressive sight, and I had to remind myself that all this had been carved out of the rocks… not built!
At one time, this temple may have been the hub of prayers to the Lord, resounding with the echoes of chants and devotional music, but today, this temple comes alive just once a year – on MahaShivaratri – when permissions have been given for prayers to be performed.