Elephanta Caves. Cave in Maharashtra, India

Elephanta Caves

Cave in Maharashtra, India

Elephanta Caves Photo © Mark & Gideon

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Elephanta Caves

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Ardhanarishvara - Elephanta Caves
Ardhanarishvara - Elephanta Caves. Photo by Elroy Serrao
The Elephanta Caves are on an island called the Elephanta Island, in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Maharashtra in India. About 10 kilometers (6.25 nautical miles) from Mumbai harbor, the island has seven caves, five of which are distinctly Hindu, and the other two, Buddhist. The island has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, citing that they “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius” and “bear a unique, or at least exceptional, testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”. The site is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.


In the local Marathi language (spoken widely across Mahashtra), Elephanta Island is called Gharapurichya Lenee, meaning a “City of Caves”. The Portuguese signed the Treaty of Bassein (Wikipedia Article) with Sultan Bahadur Shah, the then ruler of the Sultanate of Gujrat, and got possession of seven islands off the boast of Bombay (Bombain to the Portuguese), one of which was the Elephanta Island. Known as gharapuri to the locals, the Portuguese named it Elephanta Island upon seeing the huge statue of an elephant at the entrance to the port. The statue has now been shifted to the garden outside the Bhau Daji Laad Museum at the Jijamata Udhyan (previously called the Victoria Gardens) at Byculla in Mumbai.

	Elephanta Caves
Elephanta Caves. . Photo by Hannah Swithinbank


The Elephanta Island is shallow on the shores. The result is that the island is about 10 square kilometers in area at high tide, and 16 square kilometers at low tide. A ravine running from the north to south divides the 1.5 kilometer long island and separates two hills. The hills are covered with tropical plants like mango, tamarind, Indian beech, and coconut palms. The hill on the west rises to a height of 173 meters in a gentle slope from the sandy seaside beaches. A valley dotted with paddy fields can be seen in between the two hills. The hill on the Eastern side is about 150 meters in height.

Large art - Elephanta Caves
Large art - Elephanta Caves. Photo by unknown
The western hill has five caves cut out of rock in a distinctive Hindu architectural style, while the eastern hill has two caves and several cisterns carved in it with a stupa at the top. The latter hill is called the Stupa Hill, and the caves are carved in Buddhist architectural styles. The island is protected by the Government of India; vide a notification issued in 1985. An area stretching one kilometer from the shores of the island has been designated a ‘prohibited area’.


The caves have been classified as ‘of unknown date and attribution’ because of the lack of any inscriptions on the island. Historians and archaeologists concur that the caves were hewn from solid basalt rock between the 5th and the 8th centuries. Local legend has it that the caves were not carved by human hands. Originally painted, only small traces of the paint remain today. A few coins from the Satrap era in the Konkani, spanning the first three centuries of the first millennium, were discovered by archaeologists. The Satrap kingdom was utterly destroyed, first by the Emperor of the Satavahana dynasty, and later in the 4th century, by Chandragupta II of the Gupta dynasty.

With so many dynasties having ruled the Elephanta Island in the first few centuries of the millennium, views and speculations abound in who actually carve out the caves, which even today is considered a super human effort. The caves bear a very close resemblance to the Kailashnath Temple at Ellora. The island was later ruled by the Chalukya Dynasty and by the Gujarat Sultans who signed over the island to the Portuguese.

It was the Portuguese who named the island Elephanta, because of the mammoth rock statue of an elephant they first saw upon reaching the island. They ruled the island from 1534 to 1661, when King John IV of Portugal gave away the seven islands as a dowry to Charles II of England, who married the king’s daughter, Catherine of Braganza. During their reign, which saw the enforcement of the infamous Goa Inquisition, the Portuguese earned the dubious distinction of having caused extensive damage to the caves, up to the extent of reliefs in the cave being used for target practice by the soldiers. They are also accused of removing an inscription which could have shed light on the origin of the caves. There was a marked decline in the Hindu population during the Portuguese rule and the caves were abandoned as places of worship. Mahashivratri (Great Night of Lord Shiva) has however been celebrated regularly in the Shiva cave over the centuries and is still celebrated with great ceremony.

Cave Shrine, Elephanta Island, Mumbai Harbor, Mumbai, India, 2010 - Elephanta Caves
Cave Shrine, Elephanta Island, Mumbai Harbor, Mumbai, India, 2010 - Elephanta Caves. Photo by Terry Feuerborn

The Caves

On the western hill are five caves hewn out of solid basalt, covering an area of 5,600 square meters. It is a complex of temples of which the main cave is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and is called the Shiva Cave.

Also called the Great Cave, the main cave has four doors at the entrance. The main entrance is to the north, and is approached by a flight of 1,000 steps. At the entrance are two panels, one on each side, depicting Shiva as the Lord of Yoga and as the Lord of Dance. Inside several rows of six pillars, each divide the hall into a series of chambers. The Lord Shiva shrine is located in the right section of the main hall and has four entrances. Raised 6 meters above the floor is the Linga, a symbol of Shiva, in union with Yoni, a symbol of Parvati, Shiva’s consort. Carvings of Shiva in his various forms, each on panels of more than 5 meters in height, adorn each of the temple walls. Among the notable panels in the main cave are Andhakasuravada Murti (Idol), Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailash, Shiva as Lakulisa, Shiva as Natraja performing the Tandava (cosmic dance), Kalyanasundara Murti, Ravana shaking Mount Kailash, Shiva slaying the demon Andhaka, and Gangadhara Murti.

On the east wing of the main temple, a 17 meter wide courtyard is reached by climbing a flight of nine steps. On the southern wall of the court is a well preserved fresco, and a pedestal in front of Shiva’s shrine is supposed to be the seat of Nandi, the bull, Shiva’s mount. Carvings on the walls of the cave temple depict Ashta-Matrikas (eight Mother Goddesses), some with either their children or others with their mounts like the swan, the peacock and the mythical Garuda (Wikipedia Article). The carvings of the Goddesses are flanked by Kartikeya and Ganesha, the sons of Shiva.

The passage to the west wing from the main cave leads to a small chapel within a pillared cave which is believed to be Buddhist. Carvings of Shiva in a yogic posture, of the three-faced Brahma and several other figurines can be seen on the walls of the shrine on the west of the courtyard. On the southern side of the door, among other statues, is one of Shiva with six arms and a third eye in the middle of the forehead. There are also statues of Lord Indra, Lord Vishnu and various other deities within this cave temple.

Among the other caves are one to the south-east of the main cave and one to the south. Both the caves are in various stages of dilapidation due to neglect, erosion due to the dripping water and damage done by humans. Above these caves is the sculpture of a tiger suggesting that the tiger Goddess, Vagheshri, was worshiped within. A mound resembling a Buddhist stupa is seen at the top of the main hill. There is also a dry pond with large artificial boulders and Buddhist cisterns along its bank.

Monkeys at Elephanta Island - Elephanta Caves
Monkeys at Elephanta Island - Elephanta Caves. Photo by Christian Haugen


UNESCO along with the Archaeological Survey of India have contributed substantially in the restoration of the damaged portions of the caves, and by propping up ceilings whose columns have been damaged. The threats to the site stems from the developmental pressures of a growing population on the island and the industrial development of the nearby ports. The Indian Government has, through various acts and rules, tried to protect the island and its caves. The entire island and one kilometer of the sea around the shore of the island, has been declared a prohibited area. Tourist facilities and accommodation are unsustainable on the island, leading to a limitation in revenue collection from that source.

Visiting the Elephanta Island

The island is nine nautical miles from the Gateway of India in Mumbai. Day trips to the island are organized each day and leave from the Gateway except on Mondays, when the temples remain closed. MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation) runs the Chalukya Restaurant on the island. There are no facilities for staying overnight on the island and visitors are required to depart by 5 PM. Over 25,000 tourists visit the island monthly.

Mumbai is one of the largest cities in India, and is known as the commercial capital of the country. It is well connected with all the major cities in India and throughout the world. The airport is 20 kilometers away from the Gateway of India, which is the boarding point for the ferry to the Elephanta Island. Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (earstwhile Victoria Terminus) are the closest two railway stations to the ferrying wharf.

Mumbai itself is one large treasure trove for a sight-seer. The Gateway of India, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Haji Ali Dargah, Prince of Wales Museum, Siddhivinayak Temple, Mount Mary Church, Rajabai Clock Tower, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum (erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum) and Jahangir Art Gallery are but a few places that are a joy to visit.

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Author: jackmartis. Last updated: Dec 13, 2014

Pictures of Elephanta Caves

Elephanta Caves, Mumbai  - Elephanta Caves
Elephanta Caves, Mumbai - Photo by Sona Shah


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