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Elephanta Caves
About Elephanta Caves

Elephanta Caves are a network of sculpted caves which are situated on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri ("the city of caves") in Mumbai Harbour, about 11 kms to the east of the city of Mumbai, Maharashtra. The island, situated on an arm of the Arabian Sea, comprises 2 groups of caves—the first is a large group of 5 Hindu caves and the second is a smaller group of 2 Buddhist caves. The Hindu caves include rock cut stone statues, depicting the Shaiva Hindu sect, devoted to the god Shiva.

The rock cut design of the caves dates between the 5th and 8th centuries, although the uniqueness of the original builders is still a subject of debate. The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. All the caves were also initially painted in the past, but now only traces remain.

The main cave (Cave 1, or the Great Cave) was a Hindu place of worship until Portuguese rule start in the year 1534, after which the caves suffered harsh damage. This cave was modernized in the year 1970 after years of neglect, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to conserve the artwork. It is presently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Overview of Elephanta Caves

The island has 2 type of caves in the rock-cut structural pattern. The caves are built from solid basalt rock. All caves were decorated a long time ago, but only traces remain. The bigger collection of caves, which has 5 caves on the western hill of the island, is famous for its Hindu statues. The major cave, which is known as Cave 1, is about 1 mile up a hillside and faces the ocean. It is a rock-cut temple compound which spreads over an area of 60,000 square feet, and comprises of a major chamber, 2 other chambers, courtyards, and auxiliary temples. It is 39 metres deep from the front access to the back. The compound of the shrine is the dwelling of Shiva, represented in broadly renowned carvings which disclose his various types and acts.

At the eastern side of the island on the Stupa Hill, there is a tiny collection of caves which has Buddhist monuments. This hill is named after the sacred Stupa monument that they reveal. From the caves, 2 caves are not fully completed, whereas the other includes a Stupa which is made up of brick.

History of Elephanta Caves

The history of the island is conjectural, at best. Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and Banasura, the evil spirit disciple of Shiva, both built the shrines or cut caves to live. Local customs depicts that the caves are not artificial.

Elephanta caves dates back to late 5th to late 8th century AD. Archaeological excavations have discovered a few Kshatrapa coins which dates back to 4th century AD. History of the caves dates back to the defeat of Mauryan rulers of Konkan by the Badami Chalukyas ruler Pulakesi II (609–642) in a naval war, in 635 AD. Afterwards the elephanta was called Puri or Purika, and become the capital of the Konkan Mauryas.

The Chalukyas, who beaten the Kalacuris and the Konkan Mauryas, are also considered by some to be builder of the main cave, in the middle of the 7th century. The Rashtrakutas are the last pretenders to the foundation of the major cave, which dates back to the early 7th to late 8th century. The Elephanta Shiva cave bear resemblance in some aspects the 8th-century Rashtrakuta rock-shrine Kailash at Ellora.

Afterwards, Elephanta was reigned by another Chalukyan dynasty, and then by Gujarat Sultanate, who surrendered it to the Portuguese in the year 1534. The Portuguese left in 1661 as per the marriage treaty of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal and Charles II of England.

Main Cave  

The main cave, also known as Cave 1, Shiva cave or the Great Cave, is 27 metres square in plan including a hall. At the access of the cave there are 4 doors, with 3 open doorways and a walkway at the back. Pillars, 6 in every row, split the hall into a sequence of small chambers. The roof of the hall has hidden beams supported by stone columns attached jointly by capitals. The entrance of the cave is linked with the north–south axis. The northern entry point of the cave, which has 1,000 vertical steps, is surrounded by 2 panels of Shiva which dates back to the Gupta period. The left section portrays Yogishvara (The Lord of Yoga) and the right demonstrates Nataraja (Shiva as the Lord of Dance). The main temple of Shiva is a separate square cell with 4 entry points, situated at the right part of the central hall. Some tiny temples are situated on the east and west part of the caves. The eastern sanctuary is the ceremonial access.

Each wall has statues of Shiva. The main Trimurti of Shiva is placed on the south wall.  

The central cave blend Chalukyan structural design such as huge statues of the religion, custodians, and square pillars with traditional capitals with Gupta artistic features, like the representation of clouds and mountains and female hairstyles.                                                   

Main Cave Temple   

The main temple is a separate square cell, with access on each of its parts. Each door is flanked by 2 ate keepers). The Linga, the sign of Shiva in union with the Yoni, and the sign of Parvati collectively represent the absolute unity that is deified by the temple.

East Wing 

Some courtyards to the east and west of the main cave are blocked, though there is a 17 m wide courtyard that is reachable by entering the eastern part and climbing 9 steps. A shrine on the southern wall of the court portrays a well-preserved murals. The circular base visible in the courtyard in front of the Shiva's temple close to the east end, in the open area, is believed to be the seat of Nandi, Shiva's mount.

West Wing

West Wing is in a semi-ruined shape and its entry point is from the main cave. It has a tiny chapel and a cistern together with the pillared cave, which is considered to be Buddhist. One other temple to the west of the courtyard, with an entrance, has statuettes of Shiva in a yogic pose seated on a lotus carried by “two fat, heavy, wigged statues”.  



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