Elephanta Island Mumbai-The Glory of Shiva

Jun 2015

About an hours ride from the famous Gateway to India is Elephanta Island in Mumbai harbor. The Unesco World Heritage Centre of Elephanta Caves is quiet and very picturesque, a welcome respite from the hectic center of all things chaotic in Mumbai. The area is most famous for its unique cave temple, whose massive Shiva sculpture is one of the best examples of Hindu architecture you’ll find, the glory of Shiva, exalted in various forms and actions.

elephanta island
Once known as Puri or Gharapuri, Elephanta Island was the powerful capital of a coastal kingdom. The origins of the temple caves are thought to date from the 7th century. It was named Elephanta by the Portuguese, who took possession of it several centuries later, and found a large stone elephant near the place they first landed. Today Elephanta is a World Heritage Site, showcasing legends of Lord Shiva carved in rock cave temples. The complex is a collection of shrines and courtyards arranged in the unique symmetry of Indian rock-cut architecture, and filled with massive stone sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.

Gateway to India ferry to Elephanta Island
On a clear day, you can see the island from the Gateway to India, about 7 miles off shore. I found the ferry ride a welcome relief from the heat of the city, and the boat filled with just as many locals as tourists. The round trip ticket was under US$5.00, and you pay a bit more to be on the top deck where you’ll have a better view, but very little shade. Typically the schedule has a boat leaving every 30 minutes. There are also sightseeing boats parked at the Gateway to India, so make sure you board the correct one.  If you like to be on the water and are short on time, I’d recommend packing a lunch and taking a ride just to get another perspective of the landscape and the city. The historic Taj Hotel stands command of the vista and skyline.
Once on island, a short train ride takes you to the start of the temple walk, under a mile away. You may also choose to walk along the pier.
There are two options for getting up the imposing set of stairs to the temple. Walking will give you some good exercise and a chance to burn up some of the naan you’ve no doubt been eating. It also offers ample opportunity to sharpen your skills bargaining or avoiding the hawkers from the stalls that line the path of 120 steps. Alternatively, hitch a ride with local transport or palanquin service, hang on, and make sure you have someone along who can capture your picture!
Vendors provide local refreshment and snacks {no I’m not that brave}. Remember peel it, boil it or forget it! The island is filled with monkeys so avoid having any food on you if they make you nervous. I put my water bottle down for a second to adjust my camera and it was gone in an instant!
Shortly before the temples were created here, Bombay had experienced quite a golden age. Sanskrit had flourished and writers had helped create a Hindu religious revival under the court of the Guptas. Although this period was not characterized by enormous wealth, it was defined by creativity and polished literature. Shaivism, the worship of Shiva, inspired the construction of the temples.
Inside, the massive columns carved out of solid rock lead you through a dizzying array of tributes to Shiva, one of the most important gods of the Hindu religion. Shiva represents the Supreme Being that continuously dissolves to reconstruct the cyclical recreation of the universe. As the third member of the Hindu Trinity (along with Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu) Shiva sustains the delicate balance between opposing forces of good and evil. When the world becomes unbalanced, Shiva dissolves and reassembles the next cycle of life. The analogy of the necessity of night to follow into morning or winter into spring is often used to explain the role of Shiva in the universe. The tasks of Lord Shiva are numerous and thus you will find him symbolized in many different forms.
Apparantly, the Portuguese used the sculptures for target practice which along with neglect, accounts for much of the damage you’ll see at the site. It’s difficult to get a sense of the massive size of the caves and sculptures, but they are enormous. This eighth century Unesco World Heritage site is an excellent historic structure in Mumbai  to walk back into another century and imagine times gone by.
Anchor on the ferry to Elephanta Island in Mumbai India.

I find the contrasts in India one of the things I love most about it. Riding back on the ferry, I caught this visual of a primitive anchor on the ferry surrounded by recycled plastic railing. Looking like barbed wire, I’m not sure it would keep you from going overboard, but certainly made you think twice about approaching it. Close by was the captain, talking away on his shiny new cell phone, listening to music from Rihanna. A perfect example of the many centuries still at work in everyday India.

Arrive from Elephanta Caves in time for sunset in Mumbai harbor.

The Elephanta Dance Festival is held every year in February, which is a great time to travel to India. Renowned dancers and musicians perform outside the caves, beneath a star-studded sky, in a memorable performance. Other times of year, an insider tip would be to time your return from Elephanta Island to coincide with sunset in Mumbai harbor. Take a minute to process the legend of Lord Shiva in what will surely be the last bit of calm before stepping off the boat to return to the city proper and all it’s wonderful mayhem.

  1. noel says:

    what a beautiful place, I would love to visit this amazing place.

    • alison says:

      I’d love to see the photos you would capture here Noel. I struggled with the light a bit, and I’m sure your skills could do it justice far better than myself.

  2. Before a visa complication nixed an extended stopover in Mumbai earlier this year, I’d planned that we would visit Elephanta Island. How fun to see your post. You confirmed all the reasons to keep it on the list.

    • alison says:

      I remember you talking about that mishap Betsy. I hope you get back, Mumbai is a wonderful city, especially for intrepid travelers like you and Peter!

  3. Sue Reddel says:

    What a wonderful adventure. Love the photos. Especially you on the palanquin. Priceless.

  4. Shelley says:

    I hear such varied responses from visitors to India, love it or hate it, but I want to go some day to see it for myself. Elephanta Island looks like a nice break from the Mumbai bustle. Great photos!

  5. What a beautiful sunset! Some of the architecture and carvings remind me of Angkor Wat – there are thieving monkeys there too, haha!

  6. Rachel says:

    Just the kind of place I’d want to visit: I can’t stay in a big city for too long, and this sounds like a great way to escape the throngs. And the artwork looks fascinating! Is it still used as a place of worship?

  7. You have done an amazing job capturing such a vibrant place

  8. I’m green with envy. I hope to visit the Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island in Mumbai harbor someday. A favorite restaurant here in Berkeley decorates with reproductions of cave paintings. http://berkeleyandbeyond.com/Berkeley/Restaurants/Ajanta/ajanta.html

  9. Natasha Amar says:

    These are some great photos Alison. I visited the caves many years ago when I lived in Mumbai for a while. Too bad I didn’t time my visit during sunset- that is a gorgeous shot 🙂

  10. Kate says:

    This looks fantastic! I would love to visit Elephanta Island when I’m back in India. Great photos and information. I bet the dance festival is stunning. Thanks for sharing

  11. Tami says:

    The more exotic and remote the location, the more interesting the stories. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Jessica says:

    What a beautiful temple! I feel there is so much I need to learn before a trip to India in regards to history and religion so I’m not left feeling overwhelmed by each place I visit! Noting this for future reference!

  13. Ana says:

    Wow, I cant wait to visit India and this is a place I will definitely add to my Indian bucket list! Beautiful post 🙂