Elephanta Caves

There are six cave temples on the small island not far from Mumbai. They were carved out of the rock by monks in the 6th century and were once an important Shiva shrine. The sculptures are among the outstanding examples of early Hindu art. The highlight of the complex is the monumental bust of the three-headed Shiva.

Elephanta Caves: Facts

Official title: Elephanta Caves
Cultural monument: “Residence” of Shiva carved out of the basalt rock, among others. the 48 m² main temple, the sanctum flanked by two gatekeepers and the three-headed Shiva as creator, preserver and destroyer of the world, as well as reliefs depicting the wedding of Shiva with Parvati, the descent of Ganga from heaven to earth and Saptamatrikas, the seven mothers, show; In addition to the main temple, there are two other, heavily destroyed cave cult sites
Continent: Asia
Country: India, Maharashtra
Location: Gharapuri (Elephanta), island northeast of Mumbai (Bombay)
Appointment: 1987
Meaning: The special expressiveness of the Shiva cult is reflected in impressive high reliefs

Elephanta Caves: History

6-7 Century Planting the rock shrines and cave temples
1534 Portuguese acquire the Bombay trading post
1864 under the English colonial rulers, the colossal figure of the elephant was transported to the mainland

A palace for the lord of the world

From the “Gateway of India”, where the British majesties once went ashore, the boats start their short crossing to Gharapuri Island in the Bay of Thane. Although there are only a few kilometers between the lively metropolis of Mumbai, better known in this country as Bombay, and the peaceful island, worlds seem to open up between these places.

Today’s visitor reaches the main temple, the Mahesha Temple, carved into the rock at a height of 60 meters, via a steep stepped path. Through the entrance in the north you enter the famous Shiva sanctuary, whose radiance immediately captivates everyone: light falls from three sides into the large hall, which is divided by massive, grooved columns, grazes the larger-than-life doorkeepers and their little companions and just reaches the large Mahashiva on the back wall.

This three-faced half-length portrait of the great Shiva as the highest being and lord of the world is one of the most impressive creations of Indian sculpture. According to extrareference, it varies the view of the sacred books of India, which ascribe the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe to an all-encompassing deity. The middle apparition of the highest god with a richly decorated tiara above the hair braid crown shows classic proportions and exudes majestic calm. Shiva, on the other hand, looking to the left lies in the shadow, and the tough features of the “destroyer of the world” are crowned by a skull and a cobra. Looking to the right is the third face of God, expressing youthful beauty and joy and representing femininity and creation.

Masterfully crafted relief images, which not only flank the three entrances to the temple, show scenes from the Shivaite circle of myths: As Ardhanarishvara, Shiva reveals his male-female nature. The figure, over five meters high, leaning casually against Nandi, Shiva’s mount, is a slender young man on the right and a woman on the left with a strong, round chest and bulging hips. The dreamy face under the parted crown of hair impressively underlines the androgynous character of the sitter, who is worshiped by Hindu gods. Brahma sits on a lotus carried by wild geese and Indra, the king of the gods, on his sky elephant. Vishnu comes along on Garuda, the bird of the gods, and Varuna, the god of water, on a sea monster. Heavenly musicians, playmates and servants join them. Other reliefs, some of which are badly damaged, show the wedding of Shiva with Parvati and also Shiva as Lord of the Yogis, as a cosmic dancer or in battle with a demon. The fact that the damage was caused by target practice by the Portuguese, who had settled on India’s coasts in the 16th century, remains an unprovable claim.

In a square »pavilion«, which is accessible from all four sides, Shiva is venerated to this day in the form of the linga, the »phallus stone«. The sanctum and the pillars of the “Great Hall” as well as the replica of a wooden ceiling construction in stone give an idea of ​​what free-standing temples and palaces from the sixth to seventh centuries AD – built from perishable materials – might have looked like.

But who commissioned them, who created them, when were they created? Information about this could perhaps have been given by an inscription, of which Diogo do Couto reported in 1603 that it had been removed from the entrance and sent to the king in Portugal.

Time has passed over the multi-faceted stone Shiva and has left its mark: the stone elephant, from which the island owes its name, has stood as a guardian figure in the Victoria Garden in Mumbai for decades. And the island itself is today – especially on weekends and public holidays – the popular destination of numerous townspeople who enjoy picnics. While the elders in the temple respectfully pay their respects to the mighty Shiva, children play badminton in the cool courtyard – India’s gods are very tolerant!

Elephanta Caves