Elephanta Caves is a Unesco
World Heritage site and is one of the most prominent rock-cut caves belonging
to medieval India. Located on Gharapuri Islands, also known as Elephanta
islands, these caves are situated at a distance of about 11 km from the main
city of Mumbai. These caves, locally known as Gharapurichi Leni, were once an
elaborate set of well-painted rock-cut cave complex which dates back to the 5th
and 7th centuries and most of them are devoted to Lord Shiva. From
here you can also get a glimpse of the skyline of Mumbai. The cave is well
connected via ferry services from Gateway of India.
The cave complex has two
sections, one dedicated to five Hindu caves and other constitutes of two
Buddhist caves. There are beautiful stone cultures of Lord Shiva in the Hindu
caves which signify the dominance of Shaiva Hindu sect during its construction
period. The sculptures and carvings here are a perfect illustration of medieval
art and comprises of various manifestations such as three-headed Shiva or
‘Trimurti’, ‘Ardhnareshwar’ or the unification of Shiva and Parvati in one body
and ‘Gangadhar’, which symbolizes the descent of river Ganga to earth from
heaven. In addition to its rich cultural and religious heritage, Elephanta
Caves is also a popular trekking destination.
History of Elephanta Caves
There is no valid source that
elucidates the time during which Elephanta Caves were built. However, there has
been a lot of speculations and inferences made by historians regarding its
construction period. As per one legend, these caves were constructed by
Pandavas, while a few others give its construction credit to Banasura who was a
demon and a worshipper of Lord Shiva.
Few of the historians infer that
these caves were built around 5th and 8th century AD,
however, an excavation of a 4th century Kshatrapa coins has
falsified this claim made by the historians to some extent. Few of the sources
state that these caves were built during the rule of the Mauryan Empire and was
known as Purika or Puri. The records that highlight the defeat of Mauryan
rulers by Badami Chalukyas emperor, Pulakesi II, also validate this point about
Few portions of the caves are
also dedicated to Pashupata Shaivism sect, which is Kalachuris sect to which
Mauryan rulers of Konkan belonged to. Therefore, some historians claim that
these caves were constructed by Kalachuris who were somehow related to the
Mauryan rulers. In addition to these claims, it is also believed that
Rashtrakutas and the Chalukyas also contributed to the construction of these
After the fall of Chalukya
Dynasty, Elephanta Caves came under the control of a Sultanate belonging to
Gujarat, and in later years it was surrendered to Portuguese. In 1534, the
Portuguese changed the name of the caves and named it as ‘Elephanta Caves’,
because of a large elephant statue positioned near the island. Under the
Portuguese rule, the caves were not well maintained; however, when the
Britishers took control of the caves in 1661, major attention was paid to its
maintenance. Massive restoration work was conducted in 1970 and during 1987,
the Elephanta Caves was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and
simultaneously became a popular tourist destination.
Occupying an area of about
60,000 sq. feet, Elephanta Caves complex comprises of seven distinct caves. The
central cave is dedicated to Hindu God, Shiva and constitute of beautifully
carved pillared mandap or shrine, an alley and an open courtyard. The intricate
carvings on the walls of the caves represent the figurines of several deities.
The central cave also has a sculpture of Ravana lifting Mount Kailash,
three-headed Shiva or ‘Trimurti’, ‘Ardhnareshwar’ or the unification of Shiva
and Parvati in one body and ‘Gangadhar’, which symbolizes the descent of river
Ganga to earth. Additionally, the walls also depict a scene from the wedding of
Shiva and Parvati, Nataraja or a depiction of Shiva performing the Taandav,
Andhaka being out to death by Lord Shiva, and Yogishvara.
As you proceed to the east side
of the Elephanta Caves, you will notice beautiful carvings of Matrikas,
Kartikeya, Dvarapala and Ganesha on the walls. The west side walls of the caves
are embellished with figurines of Nataraja and Yogishvara.
To Visit Elephanta Caves
The most suitable time to visit
Elephanta caves with your family or friends is during the winter months, ie.,
between November to February. You should avoid travelling to the caves during
the monsoon season as the ferry services get disrupted by the ferocious waves
in the sea. Visit the caves in the morning hours of the day in order to make
your trip pleasant and enjoyable.
How to Reach Elephanta Caves?
Situated amidst the blue waters
of the Arabian Sea on an untouched island, the Elephanta Caves can be reached
only by ferry ride from the Gateway of India. In order to reach Gateway of
India, you will have to catch a Mumbai local train heading to Churchgate or CST
station. From there, you can either walk to Gateway of India or hire a cab. You
can even reach Gateway of India by a local bus.
From this point, the first boat
to Elephanta Caves leaves at sharp 9 am while the last one leaves at 2 pm. The
boat ride will cost you around ₹130 to ₹150, depending on the type of ride you
avail of. The short boat ride is pleasant and amusing, especially for the
children. You should carry snacks to much on while the journey.