Monday, February 28, 2011

Elephanta Caves - Rock-Cut Brilliance

Past rusty-looking ships, massive oil rigs and tiny fishing boats, ten kilometers off the shore of Mumbai, is Elephanta Island, home to ancient rock-cut architecture in the Elephanta Caves, which dates back to the 6th century A.D. The stone sculpting has withstood the trials of time, albeit with a little recent help from UNESCO, and remains awe-inspiring.

To get to the caves, you must take a ferry from the Gateway of India (Rs.130/-, plus Rs.10/- to sit on the upper deck), which will get you to the Elephanta Island jetty in just under an hour. The ferries - colourful boats capable of seating around 50 people each, start at 9am, and have a frequency of 15 to 20 minutes. It's best to go as early as possible, to avoid droves of tourists, and enjoy a peaceful morning out.

Once there, you can choose to walk along the jetty, or take a cute 20-seater coal-engine train to the main entrance, to enter the island proper. Stock up on water or snacks from the provision stores here, for there is a fair amount of walking and exploring to be done, starting with a climb up intermittent flights of stairs, extending around half a kilometer.

If you've been shirking your gym visits, you'll probably be puffing and panting in a while, as you make your way up to the caves. The stairs are lined with all manner of small stalls, selling souvenier t-shirts, guides, junk-jewellery, and other quirky locally made artifacts like painted betel leaves. If you're hungry, you can grab a vada pav (advertised as an “Indian Burgur”) on the way up, but beware of the monkeys, who have no qualms about making a meal out of a half eaten-sandwich snatched from your hands.

Pay the final entry fee at the cave entrance (Rs.10/- for Indians and Rs.250/- for foreign nationals), and you're free to roam through the stone corridors for as long as you please. Local guides will try to convince you that you will not appreciate the caves without knowing the entire history surrounding them, and offer to give you a detailed tour for a fee. You can haggle with them, and settle at a price of around Rs.100-150/-, if your curiousity must be sated.

All the intricate sculpture is dedicated to Lord Shiva, with architecture detailing his various forms and scenes from his life. To the right, just as you enter, Shiva is depicted is his “cosmic dancer” avatar (Nataraja), while, the masterpiece in the center, Trimurti, depicts the three main forms of Shiva – creator, preserver, and destroyer. The attention to detail is astounding, and does make one wonder if there's more to the folklore stating that the sculptures are not made man-made.

In addition to carvings on the wall, there are several shrines (Lingas), the grandest of which is just to the right of the main entrance, in a small room with towering stone guardians (dvarapalas) flanking the openings. That several limbs of statues and carvings have fallen away over time, or been destroyed centuries ago by colonists using them for target practice, does not detract from the overall grandeur.

You can expect to see a large number of tourists, particularly foreigners, concentrated within the first cave, marvelling at their surroundings, taking pictures and guided tours. To the left of the main entrance is another small cave with stone pillars at the entrance, just ahead of a courtyard with a pedestal that was probably used for ancient dance and rituals. In here is another shrine, which you must enter barefeet. Several visitors leave behind flowers and money as offerings, which may sometimes be picked off by security guards looking to make a quick buck. The shrine is flanked by two stone lions, a trademark of the Chalukyan architecture.

Beyond the main caves, along a pathway to the left, are caves numbered 2 to 5, which have few or no sculptures, but resemble some form of ancient housing plan, with each cave comprising of several empty rooms of various sizes. Caves 3 and 4 make for some great photo opportunities if you're innovative enough - particularly a shrine exposed by a hole in the wall, flanked by fading rock guardians. Monkeys roam around the railings on the hill, and swing across trees, occasionally swooping down to grab an interesting trinket.

For all the splendor in the architecture, and the efforts being made to maintain it, it is rather sad that many visitors, locals in particular, seem to treat Elephanta Island and its caves with disregard. Discarded water bottles and wrappers can be seen almost everywhere you look, and it's disappointing that people would choose not to care about their own heritage.

Once you've explored to your heart's content, make your way back down the stairs, and do not be fooled by women standing around requesting their photographs to be taken. They will pester you for money after you click. Browse through souvenirs if it pleases you to do so, or head to the restaurant at the bottom of the stairs for a chilled beer and some very good fried fish before you take the ferry back to the shores of Mumbai.

The island locals would have you believe that the caves are not man-made, but were created by Pandava, and Banasura, ancient, super-human characters from the Mahabharata, and at times, it's easier to believe that side of the story than fathom that mere men could make walls of rock come to life in such a wondrous manner.

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