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Elephanta Caves

Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.[1][2][3] They are located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri (literally “the city of caves”) in Mumbai Harbour, 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to the east of the city of Mumbai in the Indian state of Mahārāshtra. The island, located offshore about 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) west of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, consists of five Hindu caves and a few Buddhiststupa mounds that date back to the 2nd century BCE,[4][2][5] as well as a small group of two Buddhist caves with water tanks.[6][7]

The Elephanta Caves contain rock cut stone sculptures that show syncretism of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and iconography.[5][8][9] The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. Except for a few exceptions, much of the artwork is defaced and damaged.[10] The main temple’s orientation as well as the relative location of other temples are placed in a mandala pattern.[2] The carvings narrate Hindu mythologies, with the large monolithic 20 feet (6.1 m) Trimurti Sadashiva (three-faced Shiva), Nataraja (Lord of dance) and Yogishvara (Lord of Yoga) being the most celebrated.[2][11][12]

The origins and date when the caves were constructed have attracted considerable speculations and scholarly attention since the 19th century. These date them between 5th and 9th century, and attribute them to various Hindu dynasties.[1][2]They are more commonly placed between 5th and 7th centuries. Most scholars consider it to have been completed by about 550 CE.[3][13][14]

They were named Elefante – which morphed to Elephanta – by the colonial Portuguese when they found elephant statues on it. They established a base on the island, and its soldiers damaged the sculpture and caves. The main cave (Cave 1, or the Great Cave) was a Hindu place of worship until the Portuguese arrived, whereupon the island ceased to be an active place of worship.[2] The earliest attempts to prevent further damage to the Caves were started by British India officials in 1909.[15] The monuments were restored in the 1970s.[2] In 1987, the restored Elephanta Caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).[8][9]

Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, is about 10 km (6.2 mi) east of the Gateway of India in the Mumbai Harbour and less than 2 km (1.2 mi) west of Jawaharlal Nehru Port. The island covers about 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi) at high tide and about 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi) at low tide. Gharapuri is a small village on the south side of the island.[5] The Elephanta Caves is connected by ferry services from the Gateway of IndiaMumbai between 9AM and 2PM daily, except Monday when the Caves are closed. Mumbai has a major domestic and international airport, as well as is connected to the Indian Railways.[16]

The island is 2.4 km (1.5 mi) in length with two hills that rise to a height of about 150 m (490 ft). A narrow deep ravine separates the two hills, and runs from north to south. On the west, the hill rises gently from the sea and stretches east across the ravine and rises gradually to the extreme east to a height of 173 m (568 ft). Forest growth with clusters of mango, tamarind, and karanj trees cover the hills with scattered palm trees. The foreshore is made up of sand and mud with mangrove bushes on the fringe. Landing quays sit near three small hamlets known as Set Bunder in the north-west, Mora Bunder in the northeast, and Gharapuri or Raj Bunder in the south.[5]

There are five rock-cut caves in the western hill and a brick stupa on the eastern hill. The eastern hill has two Buddhist mounds, and is called the Stupa hill. Close to the five western hill caves, are Cave 6 and 7 on the eastern hill. The most visited and significant cave is on the western hill and is called Cave 1 or the Great Cave, located about a kilometer walk up a steep graded uphill.[8][17] The Elephanta island is a protected monument area as per the requirements of UNESCO, A notification was issued by the Government of India in 1985 declaring a buffer zone that includes “a prohibited area” that stretches 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) from the shoreline.[18]


The ancient history of the island is unknown in either Hindu or Buddhist records. Archeological studies have uncovered many remains that suggest the small island had a rich cultural past, with evidence of human settlement by possibly the 2nd century BC.[8][1] The Elephanta site was first occupied by Hinayana Buddhists, before the arrival of the Brahmans to the island, to raise a large stupa to the Buddha with seven smaller stupas around it, probably around the 2nd century BCE.[19][4] Coins of the Kshatrapas (Western Satraps) dating to the 4th century CE were found on the island.[20] The regional history is first recorded in the Gupta Empire era, but these do not explicitly mention these caves.[1] This has made the origins and the century in which Elephanta caves were built a subject of a historic dispute. They have been variously dated, mostly between from late 5th to late 8th century AD, largely based on the dating of other cave temples in the Deccan region.[1] Colonial era historians suggested that the caves were built by the Rashtrakutas in 7th century or after, a hypothesis primarily based on some similarities with the Ellora Caves.[1] This theory has been discredited by later findings.[3][14]

The stone elephant that gave the name Elephanta. It used to be on south shore of the island, the British attempted to move it to England in 1864, it broke, the reassembled pieces are now at the Jijamata Udyaan(above).

According to Archaeological Survey of India and UNESCO, the site was settled in ancient times and the cave temples were built between 5th and 6th century.[8][1] Contemporary scholars generally place the completion of the temples to the second quarter of the 6th century and as a continuation of the period of artistic flowering in the Gupta Empire era.[14][1][13] These scholars attribute these Cave temples to king Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri dynasty.[3][10] The dating to a mid 6th century completion and it being a predominantly Shiva monument built by a Hindu Kalachuri king is based on numismatic evidence, inscriptions, construction style and better dating of other Deccan cave temples including the Ajanta Caves, and the more firm dating of Dandin’s Dasakumaracarita.[14][21][22]

According to Charles Collins, the significance of the Elephanta Caves is better understood by studying them in context of ancient and early medieval Hindu literature, as well as in the context of other Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples on the subcontinent. The historic Elephanta artwork was inspired by the mythology, concepts and spiritual ideas found in the Vedic texts on Rudra and later Shiva, the epics, the Puranas and the Pashupata Shaivism literature corpus of Hinduism composed by the 5th-century. The panels reflect the ideas and stories widely accepted and well known to the artists and cave architects of India by about 525 CE. The mythology varies significantly in these texts and has been much distorted by later interpolations, but the Elephanta Cave panels represent the narrative version most significant in the 6th century.[23][24] The panels and artwork express through their eclecticism, flux and motion the influence of Vedic and post-Vedic religious thought on Hindu culture in mid 1st millennium CE.[25]

After the Caves completion in the 6th century, Elephanta became popular regionally as Gharapuri (village of caves). The name is still used in the local Marathi language.[26] It became a part of the Gujarat Sultanate rulers, who ceded it to the Portuguese merchants in 1534. The Portuguese named the island “Elephanta Island” for the huge rock-cut stone statue of an elephant, the spot they used for docking their boats and as a landmark to distinguish it from other islands near Mumbai. The elephant statue was damaged in attempts to relocate it to England, was moved to the Victoria Gardens in 1864, was reassembled in 1914 by Cadell and Hewett, and now sits in the Jijamata Udyaan in Mumbai.[27][28][29]

A sketch and a photo of the Elephanta Caves in 19th century.[30]

Scholars are divided who most defaced and damaged the Elephanta Caves. According to Macneil, the monuments and caves were already desecrated during the Sultanate rule, basing his findings on the Persian inscription on a door the leads to the grand cave.[26] In contrast, others such as Ovington and Pyke, link the greater damage to be from the Christian Portuguese soldiers and their texts which state they used the caves and statues as a firing range and for target practice.[26][31][32] Macneil concurs that Elephanta Caves were defaced and damaged during the colonial period, but assigns the responsibility not to the soldiers but the Portuguese authorities.[26] The colonial era British publications state they were “defaced by the zeal of Mahommedans and Portuguese”.[27] Yet a third theory suggests that neither Muslim rulers nor Portuguese Christians damaged the site, because they both plastered the artwork and caves. It was the Marathas who tried to remove that plaster, according to this theory which Wendy Doniger states is “possibly true”, and it was, therefore, the Marathas that caused damage to the artwork in the 17th century.[26]

The Portuguese ceded the island in 1661 to the colonial British, but by then the Caves had seen considerable damage. The Portuguese had also removed and then lost an inscription stone from the caves.[33][34] During the British rule, many Europeans visited the caves during their visit to Bombay, then published their impressions and memoirs. Some criticized it as having “nothing of beauty or art”, while some called it “enormous artwork, of extraordinary genius”.[32] The British relied on the port city of Bombay (now Mumbai), which led to it becoming a major urban center and migration of Hindus looking for economic opportunities. The Elephanta caves re-emerged as a center of Hindu worship, and according to British administration records, the government charged the pilgrims a temple tax at least since 1872. In 1903, the Hindus petitioned the government to waive this fee, which the British agreed to on three Shiva festival days if Hindus agreed. The Elephants Caves were, otherwise, left in its ruinous condition.[35]

In the late 1970s, the Government of India restored the main cave in its attempt to make it a tourist and heritage site. The caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 as per the cultural criteria of UNESCO: the caves “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius” and “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared”.[8]


Overview of Elephanta Caves site.

The island has two groups of caves in the rock-cut of wrong style. The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. The larger group of caves, which consists of five caves on the western hill of the island, is well known for its Hindu sculptures. The primary cave, numbered as Cave 1, is about 1.0 km (0.62 mi) up a hillside, facing the Mumbai harbour. Caves 2 through 5 are next to Cave 1 further southeast, arranged in a row. Cave 6 and 7 are about 200 m (660 ft) northeast of Cave 1 and 2, but geologically on the edge of the eastern hill.[8]

The two hills are connected by a walkway. The eastern hill is also called the Stupa hill, while the western hill is called the Canon hill, reflecting their historic colonial-era names, the ancient Stupa and the Portuguese era firing Canons they host respectively.[1]

All Caves are a rock-cut temples that cover an area of 5,600 m2 (60,000 sq ft), and they include a main chamber, two lateral chambers, courtyards, and subsidiary shrines. Cave 1 is the largest and is 39 metres (128 ft) deep from the front entrance to the back. The temple complex is primarily the abode of Shiva, depicted in widely celebrated carvings which narrate legends and mythologies of Shaivism.[8][18] However, the artwork reverentially displays themes from Shaktism and Vaishnavism traditions of Hinduism as well.[36][37]

Cave 1: Main, Great Cave[edit]

The main cave, also called Cave 1, Grand Cave or the Great Cave, is 39.63 metres (130.0 ft) square in plan with a hall (mandapa).[10] The basic plan of the cave can be traced back to the plan of the ancient Buddhist viharas, consisting of a square court surrounded by cells, built from about 500 to 600 years before in India.[38] The Cave has several entrances, the main entrance is unassumingly small and hides the grand hall inside. The main entrance faces north, while two side entrances face east and west. The cave’s main entrance is aligned with the north–south axis, unusual for a Shiva shrine (normally east–west).[8][18][1] However, inside is an integrated square plan Linga shrine (garbha-griya) that is aligned east-west, opening to the sunrise.[10]