Elephanta Island beckons

Elephanta Island beckons

Elephanta Island near Mumbai is where you can find stunning architectural remnants of an era gone by, writes Gajanan Khergamker

Elephanta Island caves near Mumbai in Maharashtra

A basalt sculpture of an elephant, once monolithic, stuck in a dozen places, stands awkwardly in an enclosure at the entrance of the only zoo in Mumbai, popularly known as Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo, and formerly Raani Baug after the erstwhile British name of Victoria Gardens. The story of the elephant is unique and almost symbolic of the line of stories and legends all along the west coast of India that harbours ruins and relics left behind by a belligerent Portuguese known to ‘leave behind a trail of ruins whenever they left a colony’.

Hop on the boat

Gharapuri was an ancient island popular in Hindu scriptures; it was renamed Elephanta Island by the Portuguese who found the monolithic basalt elephant at the base. And, as was their practice, they attempted to lift the sculpture and shift it but failed and the elephant sculpture fell and broke into a dozen pieces. It’s these pieces that were stuck together and relocated to the entrance of the zoo in Mumbai.

A visit to Mumbai would be incomplete without a trip to Elephanta Island that lies 10 km from its southeast coast. And, a trip to Elephanta Island would be incomplete without a sojourn at its three villages that lie obscure from view. To visit Elephanta Island, one must take a boat launch from Gateway of India that lies in South Mumbai, preferably early in the morning to give you enough time to explore the island by noon; it gets really hot and sultry later in the day. Incidentally, there is no vehicle to commute around on the island.

Lining up at the Gateway of India for the boat to Elephanta Island
Lining up at the Gateway of India for the boat to Elephanta Island

A two-way ticket to the island can be purchased from the Gateway of India, and a boat be alighted from 9 am onwards, the last boat to the island being available at 2 pm. The hour-long ride provides for myriad opportunities to click pictures of the Gateway of India along with the iconic The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in one frame. As the boat chugs along, you could look at a range of cargo ships and foreign vessels, Butcher Island, Cross Island, even a pod of dolphins if you are lucky.

As you approach Elephanta Island in less than an hour, you’ll first see a sprinkling of houses and a jetty at Elephanta’s largest village – Rajbunder - on the southernmost tip of the island. Once you reach Elephanta Island, you will alight at a jetty – a new one constructed following a surge of tourists to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that registers more than seven lakh visitors every year.

You have the option of taking a narrow-gauge toy train from the jetty area on the dock to the base of the steps leading up to the Elephanta Caves — about 600 m away — at a cost of Rs 10. If you opt to walk down the stretch, you will be greeted by hawkers selling souvenirs like necklaces, anklets, showpieces, hats and keychains.

Once you reach the base of the steps near an open area, you will find a string of shops lined all along selling artefacts, knick-knacks, eatables and drinks to pep you up before you embark on the 120-step climb to the caves. It’s recommended that you grab your snacks and beverages here before you embark on the climb. 

Now, those who are unable to climb up can avail a ‘dolly’ (yes, that’s how they spell it on a fixed signage) that comprises a palanquin-like contraption — where four men physically lift you seated on a chair tied to two wooden poles all the way to the caves at the top for a price of Rs 2,000 per person for a one-way trip.

All along the 120 steps are stalls selling stones, jewellery, artefacts, idols, rings and the usual touristy paraphernalia. Once you reach the top of the 120 steps, the going gets a lot easier. To enter the cave area, Indians need to pay Rs 10, and foreigners Rs 250.

Hidden wonders

The caves are rock-cut temples that cover an area of 60,000 sq ft and include a main chamber, two lateral chambers, courtyards, and a sprinkling of shrines. The 20-foot-high Sadasiva: Trimurti, associated closely with Elephanta Island itself, is the most important sculpture of the caves. 

The other sculptures depict Shiva crushing Ravana with his toe, Shiva’s marriage with Parvati, Shiva bringing the Ganges down to earth by letting her flow through his jat (locks of hair), and a dancing Shiva. On the western end of the temple is a sanctuary housing a linga, too.

Here, you will see that most of the sculptures lie damaged. History suggests that the Portuguese troops would use the sculptures for target practice and concurrently destroyed most of the cave temples.

Sculptures destroyed by Portuguese at Elephanta Caves
Sculptures destroyed by Portuguese at Elephanta Caves 

You must make it a point to walk down a stretch adjoining the entrance to Elephanta Caves. The road takes you all the way around the island, near a man-made water reservoir constructed to tackle a shortage issue for locals, down till Rajbunder village visible during the boat trip to Elephanta Island. Also, make it a point to keep your hands as free as possible while on the Island. Any food items or drinks in your hands will be perceived as an invitation to the hundreds of monkeys who will snarl, bare their fangs and threaten you into submission. Keep them in your bags, preferably a haversack, and away from view.