When I arrive at the pier near The Gateway to India, I am immediately approached by the inevitable ticket sellers for the boat to Elephanta island. I ignore them and walk straight to the other side of the impressive arch, where I buy a ticket for the boat to Elephanta, and am urged to dock at once. Indeed, as I step on board, the boat leaves immediately. The haze lying over the city and the sea means I only see the skyline of Mumbai in a fog, and Elephanta island only appears as a contour lying on the quiet waters of Mumbai Harbour. We are stopped by the Coast Guard, and after some administrative stuff can continue. I make sure to disembark first, and walk as fast as I can along the pier, up the stairs which are lined by souvenir stalls on both sides, until I reach the entrance of the main cave of the Elephants Complex. When the Portuguese arrived at the island, there was a large statue of an elephant on the south side, which has been removed. But the name Elephanta stuck.
With a small guidebook in hand that I bought on my way up, I walk straight into the main cave, which is the most interesting. Most of the sculptures are badly damaged, but still, there is a lot to see and marvel at. It is assumed the caves were completed some 1300 years ago. When you take time and let your eyes get used to the relative darkness of the caves, you can see fine details in the sculptures. The first compartment shows a dancing Shiva, with a Ganesh sculpted on the side. Then, I come to a square shrine, a lingam shrine, with stairs on all four sides, and dvarapala, or guardians, at all entrances. Behind it, a small court, and more sculpted scenes from Hinduism and Buddhism carved out in the basalt rock wall. It is time to walk through the main cave, with its rows of massive columns to the backside, the southern wall of the temple.
Here, in the darkest spot of the main cave. are three cells, each with elaborate sculpted scenes. On the west side, Gangadhara Shiva, or Shiva carrying the river Ganges; an elaborate panel with Parvati, Vishnu, Brahma on a lotus seat carried by swans, and more details. The central panel is the most impressive of Elephanta: an enormous, 6 metres high Mahesh-Murti-Shiva three-faced bust with exquisite details. The three faces represent the functions of the god: creation, protection and destruction. The left face stands for destruction, and looks evil, while the most prominent one is creation, and the right hand side face is protection. Whenever no groups are standing close, there is just enough daylight to be able to discern the details of this masterpiece. On its west side, I find the Ardhanarishvara Shiva panel, where Shiva is represented as half man, half woman. Again, plenty of details on this panel. Other panels in the main cave are partly or badly damaged. I now explore the East Court before coming back to the main cave, where I have a closer look at the enormous columns. More people are coming in now, and it is time to leave the caves behind; I am happy I made it in time before the arrival of most visitors. The other caves are still quiet, but much more damaged, and when I step aboard the ferry, I am happy with my visit to these world heritage caves.
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