Elephanta Caves: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
10 km away from the coast of Mumbai is a UNESCO world heritage site, declared to be of "Outstanding Universal Value". Over the years I have visited the place many times, and that's what led me to document the changing face of these rocks.
If you're interested in rock sculptures, larger-than-life Shiva statues, or are simply looking for a way to spend your day out - the Elephanta Caves are a great place to be - provided the sky is clouded and you choose a weekday.
Elephanta Caves, Gharapuri Island
A 60 mins ride, with the city melting away in the distance, and curving around several patrol ships later, the Elephanta Island arises into view.
The ferry ride itself is quite enjoyable with many double decks and smaller ferries. The ferry drop point at the island and the actual Elephanta Island are connected by a rocky pier.
After being dropped off, you can walk or take a toy train to the base of the island. We made the mistake of visiting on a weekend - and were swarmed on all sides by people, shops, monkeys, and birds.
120 steep steps later, flanked on both sides by shops selling everything from intricate artifacts, K-pop figurines to sea pearls, we reached the top entrance of the caves. Industrialization really has reached every corner if sellers at Elephanta caves are now selling K-pop keychains rather than vernacularly made items, I randomly thought.
The main cave (Cave 1) is the largest and contains various large reliefs of Shiva (over 5m in height) in various avatars, dating to the Gupta period. Most of it is now in ruins. Large pillars support the caves and the interior is cool and dry.
While predominantly a Hindu cave, dedicated to Lord Shiva, Elephanta contains a combination of both Hindu and Buddhist imagery and elements. There are a total of 5 Hindu caves and several Buddhist stupa mounds. Hewn into the solid basalt mountain, the caves are supported by large pillars and follow a traditional mandala layout.
The top has an excellent view of the harbor below and along with the caves on the right, you get the company of many (sometimes aggressive) monkeys, on the prowl to steal your food.
If you find yourself wondering (as I did) why the Elephanta looks barer than other rock-cut caves (think: Ajanta) - it's because many of its displays no longer remain on the island. The large stone elephant statue (from which the name Elephanta is derived) is no longer there but is kept at the entrance of Jijamata Udyaan.
Similarly, various other artwork and artifacts are now placed in museums around the world. The Portuguese rulers also defaced and lost some inscriptions and statues while transporting them overseas.
Over the years, the cave suffered damage from various rulers and finally from Portuguese invaders, after being restored in the 1970s. In 1987, it received its UNESCO status.
A separate pathway from the entrance leads to the top - Canon Hill - where an old military outpost is present. The cannons placed here were used to protect the island from pirates.
The history of Elephanta is mostly unknown as no records exist in either Hindu or Buddhist texts. We know that the caves were built in the 5th or 6th century and that the island was once occupied by a mix of people. The Island was also used by the British for docking boats. Post the 1870s, Elephanta was a central place of worship. In the 1900s, petitions to preserve it arose and the island was isolated and protected from industrial work.
First and Last Impressions
I have visited the place 3 times over a period of 20 years, and every time I have seen the island with wholly new eyes. The first time was back in 2002 when the Island was simply an island, untouched by impressionable hands. It was quiet, far away. The sea had fewer vessels, the island had fewer people, there were no shops (NONE) and the grass was (nostalgia?) greener. There was also no running water, electricity, or entry fee.
The next was in 2017. The ferry point was still empty, shops had sprung up and a few dhabas that offered food. The crowd was manageable, but the place wasn't sheltered by tarps. A sunny day there could suck the energy out of you.
Most recently, in 2022 the island is chock-full of people trying to make a living. The most notable change is the addition of a toy train. The stairs leading up to the hill too are full of shops, people, monkeys, and most importantly - COWS. Not all is bad - there is running water, public toilets, and a drinking tap.
If you're visiting on a sunny day, make sure to carry a water bottle and sunscreen. The Island can be a relaxing place for those who are looking to enjoy a day out and observe the work of artisans from centuries ago.
The caves are open from 9 AM to 5 PM every day except Mondays. The ferry takes an hour from either end.
There are many restaurants on the stairs and at the top with bars being the latest addition. Seafood is found aplenty and you can enjoy a veg thali for just 120 INR. There are also juice and snacks stalls. Though after 3 PM, most restaurants exhaust their supply and only some leftovers dishes are served. As for the food, it is unmemorable and standard.
The Island can be reached by a 1-hour ferry ride from the Gateway of India. Tickets can be found at the counter and from roaming sellers.
Ferry Ride: 60 mins - 230 INR (From Gateway of India to Elephanta Island)
Toy Train: 10 INR (From Ferry Point to Island Base)
Entry Fee: 5 INR (Panchayat maintenance)
Entry Fee: 40 INR (For ASI)
Best time to visit: NOT a sunny day