A one-hour ferry boat ride from Mumbai can take you to the Elephanta caves located on the Elephanta or Gahrapuri Islands or the City of Caves. Away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis, one is metaphorically transported back in time to 600 A.D. when these Hindu caves devoted to lord Shiva were constructed. The highlight of these caves is the Trimurti or three-faced Shiva statue which is seen on the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) logo. Read on to know how we went about exploring the Elephanta caves, which have the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ferry Ride to Elephanta
It is around 10:30 in the morning that we reach the Apollo Bunder near Gateway of India. We purchase tickets for the ferry that will take us to the island. We head to the ferry, almost entirely occupied by tourists making the most of the summer vacation. The engines rev up as the ferry slowly leaves the harbour and sails in the Arabian Sea. We see families, couples, youngsters and even senior citizens enjoying the ferry ride. Soon there is a frenzy to click selfies with the Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in the background. Soon families have the customary snacks (read dhoklas and theplas) being doled out on paper plates.
Toy Train Ride
We soon arrive at the Gahrapuri Island, consisting of hillocks and mangroves. We alight at the jetty and walk towards the village. One can walk towards the foot of the hill on which the caves are located or alternatively take a 4-5 minute toy train ride. We decide to take the toy train ride to save some time as it was too hot and humid and to keep the child in us alive.
Hundred Steps to the Caves
We alight from the toy train and purchase entry tickets to the caves. Soon a flight of more than a hundred odd steps are waiting for us to be scaled. Thankfully the steps are covered by shade, and shops selling crystals, paintings, toys, and knick-knacks line on either side of the steps keep you distracted from the arduous climb. I curse myself for not wearing my walking shoes and continue climbing the stairs. Age is catching up as I puff and pant, pausing every few steps to sip on water and catch up on breath.
History of Elephanta Caves
Who exactly built these caves is obscure, but different dynasties ruled over the islands. When it was in the hands of the Portuguese, they discovered an elephant sculpture here and named it Elephanta. Here is a spoiler you won’t see the elephant sculpture here. For that, you will have to visit the Jijamata Udyan in Byculla, just outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Cave No. 1
Soon we arrive at the top of the hill, where a signpost and plan of the caves welcomes us. The island has seven caves, of which Cave No. 1 is the main cave. As we enter the cave, we see several sculptures carved on its walls. A guide patiently explains to a class of dance students the details of each sculpture. I refer to my guidebook and closely observe each sculpture as my husband Rafiq goes click happy with his camera.
An Ode to Shiva
The sculptures are an ode to Lord Shiva. Mahayogi Shiva is a sculpture where one can see Shiva sitting on a lotus, deep in contemplation. Shiva in dance posture, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Shiva destroying a demon, and the descent of the river Ganga from heaven are all depicted in the sculptures. The sculptures are defaced, and my guidebook tells me that it was due to the Portuguese soldiers who used the caves for firing to test the echoes!
Trimurti, the Magnum Opus
We next spot the Trimurti statue, a masterpiece depicting Shiva with five faces, of which three are visible. The left face is Bhairava, depicting fear and the terrifying aspect of Shiva. The right face is Vamadeva or the feminine part of Shiva. The central face is Mahadeva which depicts Shiva with closed eyes exuding calmness. This magnum opus is not to be missed; one can spend hours admiring it. This sculpture is also known as Sadashiva and Maheshmurti.
Shiva Statues Galore
We next see the sculpture of Shiva as Ardhanarishwara, half male and half female. This androgynous form of Shiva has often been cited in LGBTQ discussions for how ancient Hindu culture, too, has references to diverse sexual orientations. Another panel has Shiva and Parvati surrounded by various celestial creatures, gods and goddesses.
A Shiva temple with a shivling is located within the cave near the west court of the cave. We see a sculpture of Ravana, the demon, shaking Mount Kailash, terrifying the inhabitants. Lord Shiva presses Ravana’s toe, thus imprisoning him. Another sculpture has Shiva and Parvati playing a game of dice. Paravti is upset as Shiva wins the game as celestial beings watch over them.
There is another Shiva temple/shrine near the East court of Cave No.1 with two lions on either side of the doorway. There are statutes of Kartikeya, Ganesha and Dvarpala/gatekeeper.
We exit the Cave No. 1 complex and walk towards the other caves when we see a troop of mischievous monkeys. They are thirsty and fearlessly grab my water bottle, leaving me flabbergasted. A local advises us to carry some pebbles and pretend to throw them at them should they try and come closer.
There are smaller caves, but they are not much of interest as they do not have the rich ornamentation and detailing of Cave No. 1. Cave No. 2 has some water bodies. Cave No. 3 has six pillars with the doorway flanked by dvarpalas or gatekeepers. The Cave No. 4 has cells where the monks perhaps meditated, and the sanctum houses a shivling. While Cave No. 5 was out of bounds and barricaded.
Exiting the caves complex, we see a signage for Canon Hill that is 500 metres away. The road is in bad shape, and the heat is unbearable with the afternoon sun over our heads. As my husband Rafiq decides to explore, I sit near the MTDC Chalukya restaurant. It has two canons left behind by the Portuguese. The hill also provides a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea, Navi Mumbai coastline and JNPT.
Elephanta Caves a UNESCO World Heritage Site
It’s almost two and a half hours since we took the ferry from Gateway of India. The Elephanta Caves were on my wish list for long. Ironically, while I lived in Mumbai for more than four decades, I never visited it. We are glad we finally managed to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Elephanta caves are a testament to the craftsmanship and skill that the craftsperson centuries ago possessed. They have captured the beauty and grandeur of Shiva, the Creator, Destroyer and Persevere brilliantly in stone.
Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport at Sahar in Mumbai is the nearest airport. The closest railway stations are Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) on Central Railway and Churchgate on Western Railway. You can take a bus or taxi ride to Gateway of India, Apollo Bunder, from where ferry boats are available to Elephanta Caves. Ferry rides are also available from Belapur Jetty in Navi Mumbai.
Where to Stay:
There are no hotels to stay on Elephanta Island due to its proximity to Mumbai. We stayed at the President hotel, visited the caves in the morning and returned by the evening ferry.
Timings and Best Time to Visit Elephanta Caves:
The Elephants Caves are open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The caves are closed on Mondays. The best time would be from October to March. Summers can be hot and humid due to the coastal weather. The ferry services are suspended in the rainy season, and everything almost shuts down from June to September.
Entry Fees to Elephanta Caves:
The Archaeological Survey of India charges Rs. 40 for Indians and SAARC Nationals and Rs. 600 for others. Children below 15 years are free. Still photography is free, but for video photography, you need to shell out Rs. 25. A Village Panchayat Tax of Rs. 5 per head will be charged. If you take the toy train from the jetty to the foothills of the cave, it will cost you Rs. 10 for the return fare per head.
Ferry ride to Elephanta cost:
The deluxe class return ferry ride from Apollo Bunder, Gateway of India, cost us Rs. 260 per head. The first ferry leaves Gateway of India at 9:00 am and the last at 2:00 pm. The last ferry from Elephanta Caves leaves at 5:30 pm.
Please carry a water bottle and do wear a hat/ sunglasses. The 120 steps can be exhausting if you are on the other side of forty. Do wear comfortable walking shoes and ditch those chappals or sandals. If you have seasickness, pop a pill half an hour before the ferry ride.