Elephanta Caves, Mumbai
The Elephanta Caves are located on the Elephanta Island, at a short distance of 11 kilometers from the Apollo pier in Mumbai. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Caves are famous for their ancient rock cut temples dedicated to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The Elephanta Caves are located in Western India on Elephanta Island (otherwise known as the Island of Gharapuri), which features two hillocks separated by a narrow valley. The small island is dotted with numerous ancient archaeological remains that are the sole testimonies to its rich cultural past. These archaeological remains reveal evidence of occupation from as early as the 2nd century BC. The rock-cut Elephanta Caves were constructed about the mid-5th to 6th centuries AD. The most important among the caves is the great Cave 1, which measures 39 metres from the front entrance to the back. In plan, this cave in the western hill closely resembles Dumar Lena cave at Ellora, in India. The main body of the cave, excluding the porticos on the three open sides and the back aisle, is 27 metres square and is supported by rows of six columns each.
The 7-metre-high masterpiece “Sadashiva” dominates the entrance to Cave 1. The sculpture represents three aspects of Shiva: the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer, identified, respectively, with Aghora or Bhairava (left half), Taptapurusha or Mahadeva (central full face), and Vamadeva or Uma (right half). Representations of Nataraja, Yogishvara, Andhakasuravadha, Ardhanarishwara, Kalyanasundaramurti, Gangadharamurti, and Ravanaanugrahamurti are also noteworthy for their forms, dimensions, themes, representations, content, alignment and execution.
The layout of the caves, including the pillar components, the placement and division of the caves into different parts, and the provision of a sanctum or Garbhagriha of sarvatobhadra plan, are important developments in rock-cut architecture. The Elephanta Caves emerged from a long artistic tradition, but demonstrate refreshing innovation. The combination of aesthetic beauty and sculptural art, replete with respondent Rasas, reached an apogee at the Elephanta Caves. Hindu spiritualistic beliefs and symbology are finely utilized in the overall planning of the caves.
Criteria (i): The fifteen large reliefs surrounding the lingam chapel in the main Elephanta Cave not only constitute one of the greatest examples of Indian art but also one of the most important collections for the cult of Shiva.
Criteria (iii): The caves are the most magnificent achievement in the history of rock-architecture in western India. The Trimurti and other colossal sculptures with their aesthetic setting are examples of unique artistic creation.
All the archaeological components in the Elephanta Caves are preserved in their natural settings. There is further scope to reveal archaeological material and enhance information by exposing the buried stupas. At the time of the listing the need was noted to safeguard the fragile site from nearby industrial development. Currently, saline activity and general deterioration of rock surface are affecting the caves. Management of the property would be enhanced through the adoption of a Conservation Management Plan to guide restoration and conservation works.
The authenticity of the property has been well maintained since its inscription on the World Heritage List, despite certain repairs on the façade and pillars that have been carried out to ensure the structural stability of the monument. Besides the caves, Elephanta Island possesses archaeological remains from as early as the 2nd century BC and from the Portuguese period, as witnessed, respectively, by stupas buried towards the eastern side of the hillock and a canon located at its top. Moreover, the caves are preserved in the form of monolithic temples, sarvatobhadra garbhgriha (sanctum), mandapa (courtyard), rock-cut architecture, and sculptures. Since inscription, a number of interventions have been made to enhance visitors’ experience and to conserve the site. These include the construction of pathways, conservation of fallen and broken pillars, conservation of fallen and collapsed facades, construction of flight of steps leading to the caves from island’s jetty, repair to the Custodian’s Quarters, and setting up of a Site Information Centre.
Management and protection requirements
The property is protected primarily by the Archaeological Survey of India, which also undertakes the management of the Elephanta Caves with the assistance of other departments, including the Forest Department, Tourism Department, MMRDA, Urban Development Department, Town Planning Department, and the Gram panchayat of the Government of Maharashtra, all acting under the various legislations of the respective departments, such as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1958) and Rules (1959); Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act (2010); Indian Forest Act (1927), Forest Conservation Act (1980); Municipal Councils, Nagar Panchayats and Industrial Townships Act, Maharashtra (1965); and Regional and Town Planning Act, Maharashtra (1966).
Sustaining the Outstanding Universal Value of the property over time will require completing, approving and implementing a Conservation Management Plan to guide restoration and conservation works; addressing saline activity and the general deterioration of the caves’ rock surfaces using internationally recognised scientific standards and techniques; safeguarding the property from nearby industrial development; and considering exposing the buried stupas. The restoration of some of the pillars that was carried out in 1960s needs to be dismantled and redone as cracks have developed. Additional resources (technical specialist advice) and funding are required to conserve this site and protect the archaeology.
Located approximately 7 km from the shore of Mumbai is the Elephanta Island, popularly known as Gharapuri. This green island attracts visitors with its unique rock cut caves dating back to 6th to 8th centuries – the Elephanta Caves. These caves are grouped into two – 5 Hindu caves forming a larger group dedicated to Lord Shiva and another group constituting two Buddhist caves called the Stupa Hill. Elephanta Caves have also been declared as the UNESCO World Heritage Site and is being maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The Elephanta Caves are truly like an expression of art. The main cave or the Shiva Cave has a pillared mandapa (hall), open porticoes and an aisle. Each wall is adorned with carvings of the deity and the central, three-headed idol or the Trimurti is an iconic attraction of the cave. The three faces incarnate three forms of Shiva – Bhairava or the destroyer towards the east, Vamadeva or the creator of joy towards the west and Tatpurusha or the master and preserver of harmony in the center.
There is also a mini train that will take you from the dock side to the entrance of the caves at a nominal charge of Rs 10 per head, or else you have to traverse 120 odd steep steps to reach there. Apart from four or five larger caves, other caves are not maintained and can be avoided. Also, if time permits and you are comfortable trekking further, you can climb up to the Cannon Hill which gets its name because of an old cannon lying there.
The journey to reach the caves is in itself like a joy ride. It takes around and hour to reach the Elephanta Island by boat from Gateway of India. Cool weather and the views of the Arabian Sea make the place worth visiting.
Beware of monkeys and do not feed them.
Hire a guide for the best of information about the site.
Carry safe drinking water with you.
Avoid buying overpriced souvenirs from the island. Better stuff is available in Mumbai.
Wear comfortable footwear as you will have to trek up to reach the caves once you are at the Elephant Island.
There are some restaurants too where you can eat out.
Timings: 9 am to 5 pm (closed on Monday)
Located close to the concrete jungle of Mumbai, the Elephanta Caves lie just off the coast of the Arabian Sea, situated at a 10 km radius from the bustling metropolis. One of the oldest rock cut structures in the country, the Elephanta Caves are the perfect expressions of archaic Indian art associated to the cult of Lord Shiva. Primarily believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, the Elephanta Caves are an epitome of Hindu Cave culture and are a unique testimony to a bygone civilization. The origins of the Elephanta Caves have been debated time and again, though the sculptures and the art speak volumes about the time from when they could have been popular-6th or the 8th century. The island on which the caves are built was originally known as Gharapuri, and the Portuguese retitled it as Elephanta Island when they discovered a large stone structure of an Elephant on the island. The temple was primarily built for the worship of Lord Shiva and ‘Shivaism’. However, it is believed that the Portuguese destroyed many other structures and even used the idols of Hindu Gods within the caves for target practice. Today, the site is a popular tourist hot-spot.
Elephanta Caves – UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Elephanta Island is a quiet and picturesque island with green foliage and harmless primates scampering about. One of the main places to see on this island would be the Elephanta Caves. Upon entering the caves, a massive hall supported by large pillars and a large ‘Mahesamurti’ statue will greet you. This remarkable, three-headed Shiva sculpture is the main attraction of this island. Other sculptures of Shiva, in the ‘Shiva Nataraja’ and ‘Ardhanarishvara’ forms, can also be seen here. The entire cave complex is about 60,000 sq. feet and is made out of natural rock. If you are looking to capture beautiful pictures with the Arabian Sea in the background, head out of the caves and you will come upon the beautiful Elephant-shaped rock structure. Those wishing to laze around and soak in the nature can spend the evening exploring the island with a guide or walk up the Cannon Hill or just relax on the beach.
A small island just off the coast of the Arabian Sea may be the least expected place for shopping for souvenirs, but get ready to be pleasantly surprised with the collection of local Elephanta souvenirs that you can take back home. Once you are on the island, a short walk uphill will bring you to the local flea market. A paradise for women, this little market offers sculptures made of marble, jewelery, clothes, paintings of Lord Shiva and many amazing items of wood work. If you are collecting Indian artifacts, then there is no better place to shop for souvenirs than the Elephanta Caves. While the prices are a bit exorbitant, it always helps to know the basics of bargaining in the world of barter-especially at unique and beautiful places like the Elephanta Caves.
If you are interested in local Indian food, an MTDC run resort offers a fine local spread at a reasonable cost. There are other local food vendors at Cannon Hill and outside the caves selling wild berries, tea, coffee and other refreshments if you are just looking for quick snacks.
Overnight stays on Elephanta Island are not permitted. However, if you want to rest during the daytime, the MTDH (Maharashtra Tourism Department Hotel) is a good place to take a quick siesta! This hotel also serves food and drinks. The check-out time at this hotel is at 5:00 PM.
How To Reach
To go to Elephanta Caves, one will have to go to the Gateway of India in Mumbai and take a boat/ferry ride from there. The journey takes one hour by sea. Tickets for a deluxe boat are Rs. 140 for adults and Rs. 90 for children. Economy boats charge Rs. 20 less on both tickets. The first boat leaves at 9:00 AM and the last boat from the island leaves at 5:00 PM.
The Elephanta Caves is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai metropolis. This trip to the caves will take you back in time, when faith, religion, hard labor, art and romanticism served as a base for everyday living. The Elephanta Caves are a glorious testimony to the aesthetics of a forgotten world and stand as one of the most popular tourist destinations, along with being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.