One of the most popular tourist attractions in Mumbai isn’t in the city but on a small island in Mumbai Harbor, approximately 11 kilometers from the monumental Gateway of India archway and the Taj Mahal Hotel.
Originally called Gbarapuri Island, it was renamed Elephanta Island by the Portuguese in the 1700s after they had discovered a large stone elephant near where they landed. Further exploration of the island revealed hidden caves housing what has turned out to be some of the oldest Hindu cave carvings in India.
No one knows for sure who carved the 7th century cave temples on Elephanta Island. But it’s very clear that the worship of Shiva is what inspired this amazing collection of carvings and temples.
Carved out of the basalt hillside, the main temple or cave opens with a large columned veranda 30 feet wide and 6 feet deep, guarded by sculptured elephants. Inside the temple, every wall is covered with carvings related to Shiva, including an 18 foot triple image highlighting the three contradictory aspects – creator, protector, and destroyer – of the Great Lord Shiva.
Throughout the temple, Shiva is portrayed as a dynamic, multifaceted personality, at times carved as Yogisvara (Lord of Yogis) and Nataraja (the many armed cosmic dancer).
Those looking for the colossal stone elephant the Portuguese first discovered may be disappointed for it is no longer on the island. The Portuguese tried to take it home but managed to drop it in the sea instead. Recovered, it later moved to the Victoria and Albert Museum (now the Dr Bhau Daii lad Museum in Mumbi.
But the lack of the giant stone elephant doesn’t deter visitors from coming to the island and seeing all the carvings and temples.
Landing at the small jetty, visitors either take a short ride on the narrow gauge train or walk to the main entrance where a small entrance fee is collected (10 Rs for Indian visitors; 250 Rs for foreign nationals).
From there it is a 120 step climb to the caves. Along the way, you pass vendors intent of selling their wares, street-smart monkeys grabbing at water bottles and food, and sacred cows who nonchalantly wander at will.
The Elephanta Caves were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.