breeds complacence, if not contempt. Take the case of Elephanta, the
island seven miles east of Bombays Apollo Bunder or Gateway of
India. It has one of Indias greatest temples housing what is
probably the finest example of Indian sculpture, which Andre Malraux
said was the greatest in the world.
natives like us are subconsciously aware of the sheer
monumental gravitas of Elephantas great cave of Shiva, (also
called Mahesha or Mahadeva, the greatest of the gods of the Hindu
pantheon), it takes a foreign-born scholar to put the feeling in
apposite worlds. Says Wendy Doniger OFlaherty, Professor of
the History of Religious and Indian Studies at Chicago University,
Everyone should visit Elephants at least once in each lifetime.
It breaks my heart to see the tourist droves milling about the Taj
Mahal (a building that is, like a beauty contestant, pretty enough in
its way, and perfect in all its dimensions, but not very exciting)
and passing by this mysterious and spectacular island.
An architect George
Michell says, Everything about Elephanta suggests a withdrawal
from the everyday world: Several journeys have to be undertaken in
order to reach the cave: water must be crossed, a mountain climber
and a cave entered. For the devotee this passage across, upward, and
inside is interpreted as a progression towards god.
To reach the island, you
have to take a launch from the Gateway of India waterfront (opposite
the Taj Mahal hotel). As you chug along at a modest speed out of the
Bombay Harbour, you come to realize why the ancients called Elephanta
an island of purification. The hurry and bustle of the busy
metropolis gradually falls away as you weave past large steamers and
small fishing boats and oil terminals from the Bombay High into the
The ever present breeze,
even at high noon, and the swishing of the waves combine to soothe
your city-frayed senses into a state of expectant relaxation, ready
for the experience ahead.
After an hours ride
across the Arabian Sea, you are at the wooded island which is locally
known as Gharapuri, variously translated as city of the
priests or fortress city. According to an
inscription found on a votive copper vessel the island was known as
Sripuri or the island of wealth in the 11th century.
Earlier, it was a Buddhist centre and its is widely believed that the
cave temple was made during the reign of the King Krishnaraja, in the
middle of the 6th century.
It was the Portuguese who
named it Elephanta in the 16th century, after a huge
rock-cut elephant with its baby perched on the back, which originally
stood on a knoll a little to the east of the Gharapuri village.
After many adventures with the forces of time, marauders and
well-meaning restorers alike, the elephant lost its head and the
baby. It eventually got a new head, as in the legend of Ganesha, the
elephant-headed son of Shiva; and is now permanently placed outside
the museum in the zoological gardens at Byculla in Bombay.
Besides baptizing the
island, the Portuguese also wantonly vandalized its sculptures
one hidalgo used to fire cannonades into the 130 sq. ft. cave to
amuse himself with the echoes! Mercifully, the main sculpture, the
three-headed Maheshamurti, escaped damage probably because it was
cleverly concealed behind slatterns or doors which have now
disappeared. Also gone are the extensive paintings on the wall and
the ceiling of the amine cave, extent till the 17th and
the 18th centuries.
From the narrow jetty
which becomes unusable during the monsoons and heavy weather, you
have to cross over a mangrove patch and take a steep climb up
moiré than a hundred steps, past trees heavy with blossom that
exude an almost sickly-sweet scent, alive with birds and monkeys,
past vendors selling postcards and baubles, until one reaches the top
the caves. You can even have yourself carried up,
literally, in a chair by coolies and get a drink of water for
a charge ladled out of enormous copper pitchers, scrubbed and
shining and decorated with marigolds, kept on top of the steps.
Then you go upto the
cave. It is accessible from three entrances on the east, north and
west sides. Without an outer elevation it just goes into the womb of
living rock and the image of the natural mountain all around
dominates the interior space which is divided into a number of isles
by columns. Inside is cool shade while a few feet away, outside, is
blinding natural light. Also a stage light seems to come out
of the inner recesses and corners. And once you begin to gaze
at the sculptured panels based on the mythology of Shiva the
wedding of Shiva; Shiva as the divine dancer; Shiva the and-rogyne;
Shiva the householder subduing the demon king Ravana; Shiva the lord
of yoga and as the furious killer of Andhaka, the magic of the cave
begins to work on you. The giant figures with their own eternal
logic of movement and space profoundly affect your sense of axis and
gravity. Of course it is impossible to describe in this short space
the fascinating richness of myths and symbols and culture that these
sculptures represent. The Maheshamurti, mentioned earlier, is not
the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as thought earlier, but
eternal Shiva who shows three of the visible faces. The fourth face
at the back of the 18-foot bust carved into a 11-foot deep recess
cannot be seen and the fifth face in transcendency is
beyond the sight of mortals and has not been carved. You have to
just to and experience all this.