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Elephanta Caves – Bombay

Familiarity certainly breeds complacence, if not contempt. Take the case of Elephanta, the island seven miles east of Bombay’s Apollo Bunder or Gateway of India. It has one of India’s greatest temples housing what is probably the finest example of Indian sculpture, which Andre Malraux said was the greatest in the world.

Although Bombay-born “natives” like us are subconsciously aware of the sheer monumental gravitas of Elephanta’s 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 O’Flaherty, 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 open sea.

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 hour’s 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.

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