The Elephanta Caves and Gharapuri Island are just an hours ride from Mumbai in a ferry. UNESCO has declared Elephanta Caves a World Heritage site. And the Gharapuri Island is where they are located.
How to Reach Elephanta Caves?
It is best to approach Elephanta Caves from Mumbai city. When in Mumbai take a train to Churchgate railway station. Once you reach here, head to the Gateway of India. It is a 20-30 minute walk to reach here. You can walk along the scenic Marine drive or just take a Taxi (Cab). Or you can straightaway take a bus to the Gateway of India. I just walked all along the Marine Drive, which is by the way rightly named the ‘Queen’s Necklace’ and reached Gateway of India.
Ferry to Elephanta Island
When you reach the Gateway of India, you will first admire the Hotel Taj. There are two of them one is Old Taj and the other is new Taj. Opposite to them is the Arabian sea and the Arch of Gateway of India. After taking some good pictures here walk towards the jetty. There you will find the boats that will ferry you to the Elephanta caves. The ferry ride from Mumbai’s Gateway of India to the Elephanta caves and Gharapuri Island lasts around one hour. There are ferries from here every half an hour from 9 am to 2 pm. You can buy the tickets on the spot for INR 120 ($3).
I really enjoyed the ride through the waters of the Arabian sea. The waters were full of seagulls. So when someone from our boat started throwing out snacks, a very big flock followed us all the way. And then, suddenly I noticed the Gharapuri Island full of green trees and mountains occupying the sea.
On a clear day, this Island can be easily seen from the jetty at Gateway of India. This island is full of vegetation and has a mountainous terrain. But the name Gharapuri literally means ‘A city of caves.’ This is such a perfect one because the island has 11 caves. The occupation here is mainly tourism and fishing.
After you get down from the ferry, there is a toy train that takes you inside the Gharapuri island. You can take the train or just walk all the way. The toy train costs INR 5 only for one way. As I made my way along the tracks, I could hear the sea constantly crashing against the rocks on the island. Yes, I decided to walk again and take some good pictures.
After you reach inside the Gharapuri Island, a great shopping area starts. There are some stairs that you have to climb over to reach the caves. All along these stairs, there are shops for buying amazing souvenirs. The caves are accessible by wheelchair. As there is a facility of Palanquin/Doli, for those who cannot climb. This area is also full of monkeys which can steal all/any of your belongings for food. So I kept a close eye all around.
Elephanta Caves gets the name from the giant Elephant carved out of a single stone that stood here. Unfortunately, some stupid Britishers thought of cutting it and transporting it to their country. They couldn’t, of course, take it but it was broken to pieces and now the reassembled one stands in Jijamata Udyaan.
There are 11 caves here which some historians and scholars believe are built in the 5th and 6th century. A hypothesis says that these are linked to Ellora Caves from Aurangabad, Maharashtra which is from the 7th century. Some caves have Buddist Stupas and depict the Hindu god Shiva. This shows that these caves were occupied by Buddhists and later by Hindu Brahmins. The half-finished cave can give you a fair idea of how the work-in-progress looked like. Two of the caves are on the eastern side of the island and not very frequented by the tourists.
I was completely astounded by the scale when I walked into the caves. They have built these caves in such a way that the main temple and the others around it form a mandala or a pattern. The scale and perfection are really admirable.
The Story of Elephanta Caves
Most of the temples depict the Hindu God ‘Shiva.’ Shiva is the God in Hindu mythology with a lot of talents. But he is also very innocent and sometimes gets very angry. There are various faces (Roop) for him. The ‘Linga’ also represents Shiva. He is the Lord of Dance and the Yogi and he marries Parvati who wins him after a lot of tapas (rigorous spiritual and yoga exercises). The caves encompass Lord Shiva in all his forms (faces).
The artwork in some places is defaced or destroyed, which is a shame for such beautiful sculptures. Still, it is easy to make out these massive sculptures and their meanings. The main cave consists of many large pillars carved out of stone. The floor is more or less flat and the design is very symmetrical.
The Lost History of Elephanta Caves
- Trimurti: The Trimurti depicts the three faces of Lord Shiva, representing three aspects ‘creation, protection and destruction’
- Gangadhara: The Gangadhara is on the left of Trimurti. This sculpture depicts the story of how Shiva brought the mighty river Ganga to earth.
- Ardhanarishvara: This is a sculpture which depicts the interdependence of feminine and masculine aspects in life. Here the Shive idol is feminine on the right (Parvati) and masculine on the left (Shiva)
- Shiva slaying Andhaka: Shiva slaying Andhaka depicts God’s angry side. The expression on the face is really ferocious.
- Wedding of Shiva: As mentioned earlier, Parvati who was totally in love with Shiva, wins him. They both then marry and according to the mythical tales, Parvati stabilizes Shiva and cools him down when angry.
- Yogishvara: Shiva is the Lord of Yoga and he performs the most rigorous yoga and spiritual exercises. Humans cannot perform these tapas.
- Nataraja: Shiva is the Lord of Dance. In mythology, he dances when he is angry. Such a dance is called ‘Tandav Nrutya’, a dance which will destroy the universe.
- Mount Kailash and Ravana: This sculpture depicts the legend when the demon King Ravana wanted to lift up Mount Kailash, the residence of Shiva and Parvati.
- The Linga Shrine: Inside the main cave in the centre is this cell and inside the shrine is the ‘Shiva Linga.’
The place left me visualising how the caves would have been in ancient times.
Best Time to Visit Elephanta
The best time to visit Elephanta Caves and Gharapuri Island would be when the sea is cool and calm. The Elephanta Caves are open on all days except for Mondays.
Here are some guided tours with a pickup facility from anywhere in Mumbai.