Home > General, Mumbai, Mumbai Architecture, Mumbai History > Elephanta Caves, rock cut caves and amazing sculptures

Elephanta Caves, rock cut caves and amazing sculptures

Elephanta Caves

Rock cut caves and amazing sculptures

Also see: Ferry Ride to Elephanta Island

The Elephanta Caves, an UNESCO Heritage Site is located on the Elephanta Island about 11 km north-west of Apollo Bunder Jetty located next to Gateway of India.

Entrance of Cave 1 of Elephanta Cave

Entrance of Cave 1 of Elephanta Cave

The island has been referred as Gharapuri (literally meaning village of caves) in ancient literature. The island covers an area of 1050 hectors. The island consists of two hill separated by a narrow valley. The higher of the two hills rises to a height of 173 m above sea level.

Map of Elephanta Island (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Map of Elephanta Island (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The island has a cost line of 7 km and once had a large share of mangrove forest but most of it have been lost over time. The island also houses three villages with an approximate population of 1600 people.

The Portuguese named the island Elephanta, after a huge rock cut elephant statue found on the island.

The elephant statue was damaged in attempts to relocate it to England, was moved to the Victoria Gardens (now Jijamata Udyaan) in 1864, was reassembled in 1914.

Because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Thane Creek the island has served as an pit stop for ancient sailors dating back to the 2nd century BCE.

The caves, for which the island is famous, came up much later. Nothing much is known about the history of the caves.

Recent numismatic evidence, along with inscriptions and construction style suggest that the caves were constructed by King Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri Dynasty and date back to the mid 6th century CE. (Also see: Kalchuri Temples of Amarkantak).

Stairs to Elephanta Cave

Stairs to Elephanta Cave

Today the grand sculptures of the cave are heavily damaged and defaced, it was not known when the destruction started.

The most common theory states that the statues were damaged by the Portuguese soldiers as they used the caves and statues as a firing range and for target practice.

Today the site consists of a total of 7 caves out of which Cave 1 is the largest and grandest.

Caves 2 – 5 are adjoining to Cave 1 but are nothing spectacular. Caves 6 and 7 are located far from the other caves and is seldom visited. Apart from the caves the Elephanta Island houses two giant cannons mounted on rotating platforms situated high up on the hill.

Gigantic pillars of Cave 1, Elephanta Cave

Gigantic pillars of Cave 1, Elephanta Cave

Today regular ferry service connects the Elephanta Island with the main land of Mumbai.

The ferry service operates from the Apollo Bunder Jetty located next to Gateway of India. The Ferry ride to Elephanta Island is an experience by itself.

The jetty is located on the northern side of the Elephanta Island. A toy train runs along the jetty but there is option to walk also.

After the jetty a long flight of stairs leads the caves. There are 100+ steps and it is not very steep. There are souvenir and artifacts shops all along the way. It leads to Cave 1, the largest and grandest of the Elephanta Caves

Map of Cave 1, Elephanta Caves (Source: Wikimedia Commons) (Click to enlarge)

Map of Cave 1, Elephanta Caves (Source: Wikimedia Commons) (Click to enlarge)

Entrance of the Cave 1 is from north and leads to a pillared hall with a a Shiva Linga Shrine. The walls contains a total of 9 panels depicting the life of Lord Shiva. The entrance is marked by two panels on either side. The left panels shows Yogishvara Shiva and the right one shows Nataraja Shiva

Yogishvara Shiva, Elephanta Caves

Yogishvara Shiva, Elephanta Caves

Yogishvara Shiva (No. 9 in map): Located on the left of the entrance the panel shows Shiva seated in padmasana posture and lost in his meditation.

Here the lord is represented as a master of discipline of yoga, the teacher of Yoga arts. It is also known as Mahayogi or Lakulisa.

He sits on a lotus with a stalk shown as if coming out of the earth, his legs are crossed symmetrically. He wears a crown and his expresses great spiritual strength and calmness.

The statue is badly damaged with both the upper limbs completely broken. The background contains several smaller statues of gods and goddesses, as well as monks and sadhus, creating a complex collage. Although these statues are badly damaged but one can trace out Bramha, Indra and Vishnu riding their respective vehicles of swan, elephant and Garuda.

Nataraja Shiva, Elephanta Caves

Nataraja Shiva, Elephanta Caves

Nataraja Shiva (No. 8 in map): This panel lies at the right hand side of the main entrance and bang opposite the Yogishvara Shiva.

Here Shiva represents Nararaj or Nataraja, the king of the dancers and is seen in lalita mudra

The Nataraja Shiva has lesser figures in the background than the Yogishvara Shiva.

On the top left corner statues of Bramha, Parvati, Ganesha and Kartikeya can be spotted. This statue is also severely damaged. Only fragments of Shiva’s upper eight limbs have survived. Large chunk of statue’s lower portion totally missing.

The northern gateway flanked by the Yogishvara and Nataraja Shiva leads to the interior of the caves. The huge hall is supported by several colossal pillars and as one eyes gets accustomed with gloomy interiors the giant statue of Shiva with its three gigantic heads unfold before the visitor. This colossal statue is located on the centre of the caves southern wall and is bang opposite the entrance. Known as Trimurti it is flanked on the left by a statue of Ardhanarishvara and on the right by a statue of Gangadhar Shiva.

Trimurti, Elephanta Caves

Trimurti, Elephanta Caves

Trimurti (No. 4 in map): Trimurti or Mahesh Murti occupies the prime postion of the Elephanta caves and no wonder is the star attraction of the cave. The sculpture has a width of 6.55 m and a height of 5.43 m and a depth of 3.2 m. It consists of a three headed statue of Shiva. The three heads represent three essential aspects of Shiva: creation, protection, and destruction. The trimurti is flanked on both sides by statues of guardians, each with a dwarf attendant.

Ardhanarishvara, Elephanta Caves

Ardhanarishvara, Elephanta Caves

Gangadhara Shiva, Elephanta Caves

Gangadhara Shiva, Elephanta Caves

Ardhanarishvara (No. 3 in map):Left (east) of the Trimurti is the sculpture of Ardhanarishvara, literally meaning half female god. The female part represents Parvati while the male part represents Shiva.

The male part of the four handed statue leans on a bull (Nandi). Numerous other figures crowd the background of the statue creating an elaborate backdrop.

Gangadhara Shiva (No. 5 in map):Right (west) of the Trimurti is the sculpture of Gangadhar Shiva. The panel represents the story of Lord Shiva bringing the River Ganges from heaven to earth. The panel shows Lord Shiva and Parvati standing side by side. In between them stands a gana (dwarf jester). Baghirath can be seen kneeling down on the lower left corner. Here also the background contains an amazing collection of minor sculptures, which include Bramha and Vishnu.

Shiva - Parvati dice game, Elephanta Caves

Shiva – Parvati dice game, Elephanta Caves

Shiva – Parvati dice game (No. 2 in map): This panel occupies the south east corner of the main hall of cave 1. The panel shows Shiva and Parvati engaged in a game of dice in Kailash.

The scene includes rocky terrain and clouds layered horizontally. Sadly the panel is severely damaged and the face of Shiva badly mutilated. There are traces of a crown and a disc behind Shiva, but it is all damaged.

In between the couple stands a female figure with a child in her lap. The background is crowded with accessory figures, many of which have been damaged beyond recognition.

Shiva - Parvati marriage, Elephanta Caves

Shiva – Parvati marriage, Elephanta Caves

Shiva – Parvati marriage (No. 6 in map): This panel occupies the south west corner of the main hall of cave 1. The panel depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

According to Hidu text the icongraphic representation of this celestial marriage is known as Kalyanasundara.

Both Shiva and Parvati are in standing position. Shiva is depicted as calm and young, while Parvati is shy and emotional.

Brahma, the priest, is squatting on the floor to the right tending the yajna fire. The background shows Gods, goddesses and celestial apsaras as witness to the grand weeding.

Ravana lifting Kailash, Elephanta Caves

Ravana lifting Kailash, Elephanta Caves

Ravana lifting Kailash (No. 1 in map): This panel is on the north east corner of the mainhall of cave 1. According to legend Ravan wanted to uproot Kailash Parvat, the abode of Shiva, and bring back home in Lanka. ,

He managed to lift the mountain but when Shiva put his left foot on the mountain it settled back to its original position.

The panel depicts Ravana at the base while Shiva sits atop with one of his hands he steadies a frightened Parvati.

The background behind Shiva is crowded with numerous figures. The panel, especially the lower portion is badly damaged, and several of Shiva’s arm are broken.

Shiva slaying Andhakasura, Elephanta Caves

Shiva slaying Andhakasura, Elephanta Caves

Shiva slaying Andhakasura (No. 7 in map): The panel is on the north west corner of the main hall in Cave 1. The panel shows Shiva, the destroyer, killing the demon Andhakasura, literally meaning blind, darkness

According to legend each drop of Andhakasura, that falls on the ground creats a new Andhakasura.

The Shiva statue in Elephanta carries a cup to prevent the blood of the demon from touching the ground.

Upper portion of the panel contains a assortment of statues depicting various Gods and Goddesses flaying through the air and paying homage to a votive stupa. Sadly like all other statues of Elephanta this too is also badly damaged.

Main Linga Shrine, Elephanta Caves

Main Linga Shrine, Elephanta Caves

Linga Shrine (No. 16 in map):The Linga shrine consists of a free standing cubical cell located on the eastern side of the main hall of cave 1. All the four sides have doors approachable by a flight of stairs. Either side of the four door are flanked with colossal statues of dvarapalas (gate guardians). The linga inside, stands on a raised platform.

Yogishvara Shiva, West Wing Shrine, Elephanta Caves

Yogishvara Shiva, West Wing Shrine, Elephanta Caves

West Wing Shrine :A flight of stairs from the mail hall leads down to the western court. The western court houses a large water cistern on the south. The small shrine is on the west.

A small flight of stairs leads to the shrine supported by two pillars. The linga shrine is on the western wall and is guarded by two dvarapalas (gate guardians).

The northern wall contains a statue of Yogishvara Shiva (No. 14 in map) while the southern counterpart houses a statues of Nataraja Shiva (no. 15 in map).

Both the Shiva statues and those of the dvarapalas (gate guardians) are badly damaged. They are also of of inferior quality and does not match the grace and beauty of those of the main hall.

Eastern entrance of main cave (right) and entrance of the eastern wing shrine, cave 1, Elephanta Caves

Eastern entrance of main cave (right) and entrance of the eastern wing shrine, cave 1, Elephanta Caves

East Wing Shrine:The eastern gate of the main hall leads to a open space and on the southern end of the open space is the eastern court. At the middle of the open space is a circular pedestal. it probably housed a statue of nandi bull, the vehicle of Shiva.

Dvarapalas (gate guardians) of east wing shrine, Elephanta Caves

Dvarapalas (gate guardians) of east wing shrine, Elephanta Caves

Dvarapalas (gate guardians) of east wing shrine, Elephanta Caves

Dvarapalas (gate guardians) of east wing shrine, Elephanta Caves

A flight of stairs, in between six pillars, leads to the eastern shrine. Straight in front is the shiva linga shrine guarded by two lion statues.

A flight of stairs leads to the only entrance shrine housing linga. The shrine comes in with a circumambulating path.

On either side of the circumambulating path are statues of two giant Dvarapalas (gate guardians) (No 13s on map).

The dvarapala on the left is badly damaged but the one on the right is mostly preserved. There are cells on both end of the porch in front of the shiva shrine.

Inside the East Wing Shrine, Elephanta Caves

The eastern cell is empty. The western cell contains statues of Kartikeya (No. 10 on map), Matrikas (No. 11 on map) and Ganesha (No. 12 on map). The cell is extremely dark and photography is difficult.

Elephanta Caves, Cave 2 – 5

Caves 2 – 5:The caves 2 – 5 of Elephanta caves are nothing spectacular but are only located next door. so it is advisable not to give it a miss. Cave 1 and 5 are unfinished caves with almost no ornamentations. Cave 3 has a grand entrance through a six pillared entrance. It has a large pporch a shiva shrine gurded by damaged dvarapalas (gate guardians). Cave 4 lacks the grand entrance of cave 3 but otherwise plans are similar with a shive shrine.

Elephanta Island Cannons

Elephanta Island Cannons:The Elephanta Island also houses two gigantic cannons mounted on rotating platforms. This strategically placed British cannons date back to the time of Edward VII. To reach the cannons one has to walk out of the cave complex and head left. A 15 mins walk along a winding trail will lead to the first cannon a couple of minutes more walk will lead to the second cannon.

Note:

  • The Elephanta Island contains two more caves (Cave – 6 and &) and two Buddhist Stupas, which were not visited by me and hence not included in my blog post
  • The giant stone elephant statue after which the Elephanta Island was named by the Portuguese can be see in Victoria Gardens (now Jijamata Udyaan)
  • In early 1900s six statues were excavated form the ground level of the main hall in cave 1. They are presently displayed in Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum) in Mumbai.
Inside the main hall of Cave 1, Elephanta Caves

Inside the main hall of Cave 1, Elephanta Caves

Gulls follow a ferry for food, en route Elephanta Island

Gulls follow a ferry for food, en route Elephanta Island

Necessary Information:

Elephanta caves are closed on Monday

Entry Tickets:

  • Toy Train: A toy train operates along the Elephanta Island Pier. Fare ₹ 10 for a round trip. But it is best to walk
  • Entry Fee: Entry tickets for citizen of India and SAARC and BIMSTEC (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailandpay) countries is ₹ 40 for other nationals it is ₹ 600. Children below 15 years have a free entry
  • Videography charge: ₹ 25 per camera
  • Still photography: Free
  • Gram Panchayat Tax: ₹ 5 per visitor

Ferry:

  • The first ferry leaves Gateway of India at 9:30 am
  • The last ferry leaves Gateway of India at 2:00 pm
  • The first ferry leaves Elephanta Island at 12 noon
  • The last ferry leaves Elephanta at 5:30 pm
  • One way journey takes one hour
  • The round fare for the ferry cost ₹ 200. A payment of an extra ₹ 10 will provide a seat in the upper deck

More on Ferry Ride to Elephanta

  1. October 7, 2020 at 9:46 PM

    Very informative entry , Mr Dutta.

  2. October 8, 2020 at 10:59 AM

    Excellent description.

  3. October 29, 2020 at 12:39 PM

    Awesome information on Elephanta Caves . I also want to see this place thanks for sharing such a nice information .

  4. October 30, 2020 at 6:12 PM

    Very interesting and informative post shared by you.
    Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. November 4, 2020 at 11:24 AM

    Superb blog thanks for sharing amazing post.

  6. November 20, 2020 at 8:48 PM

    Such an insightful post about these famous caves! I love how you have so elegantly capture the pictures and that too without people in the frame! That’s quite a task considering the crowd that throngs it 🙂
    Cheers & keep exploring!

    • November 20, 2020 at 8:50 PM

      Thanks. I took the first ferry so it was less crowded but I still had to wait for several minutes for the crowd to disperse

      • November 20, 2020 at 8:55 PM

        That’s a good pointer! I’ll keep that in mind when I plan a visit next time 🙂

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