Darya Firasti

Elephanta- Poetry in stone


The grand elephant at Gharapuri – recreated by Amol Thakur

The monsoon has lingered a bit longer this time and we are yet to experience the moderate nippy Konkan winter. So I guess the long ride along the coastline is about 4-5 weeks away. However, Mumbai city is very much inside the Konkan belt and there is a lot to explore here too. Whether it is the rock cut cave architecture or the British era gothic buildings … many monuments to time travel. Mumbai or Bombay was once called Heptanesia in Greek by Ptolemy, because it was then a city made of seven islands.  A few miles away in the sea was an ancient trading hub known as Shripuri. For several centuries boats coming into this port were welcomed by a mammoth Elephant statue signifying wealth and prosperity. We can visit this island even today … it is a world heritage site known as Gharapuri or Elephanta; famous for its rock cut Hindu-Shaiva caves. Let us take the first boat out of Mumbai port from the Gateway jetty.

elephanta island

Elephanta seen from ferry

Elephanta was built perhaps 50 years after Jogeshwari caves were excavated; which means around the beginning of the sixth century. (Stories in Stone – Dr. Suraj Pandit)  It was an important trading centre from the Satavahan and Vakataka era.  It was the capital of North Konkan territory later. Basis the Roman Amphorae and other relics found here it is deduced that Roman ships were coming into this harbour for trading around 1-3rd century BCE. Seagulls gave us company throughout the boat ride. We were extremely fortunate because among many huge ships anchored around Mumbai harbour, we also saw INS Virat … An Indian navy aircraft carrier soon to be retired.

elephanta seagull

elephanta virat

INS Virat

After about 75 minutes in boat we reached the Gharapuri island jetty. The island is encircled by mangroves. There are two hills on the island … the western hill is also known as the gun hill and the main caves have been excavated at the base of this cave. We have to climb up about 200mtrs in height; which is a 15 minute walk through a tiny touristy market to reach the main cave.  About 1200 people from the Koli community live today on this island… tourists are not allowed to stay overnight here. Sometimes when you land into Mumbai, you can spot the island next to the JNPT port.

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elephanta jnpt aerial

Elephanta and JNPT port, clicked from a flight about to land in Mumbai

Which dynasty sponsored the excavation of Elephanta is not yet fully clear. A few historians have credited this monument to the Konkan Mauryas. Historians like Karl Khandalavala and Hiranand Shastri are proponents of the Konkan Maurya theory.  Whereas researchers like Walter Spink opine that Konkan Maurya did not have the capacity to sponsor a mammoth excavation of this scale. Kalachuris who excavated Jogeshwari caves are benefactors of Elephanta too according to Spink.  We will revisit this interesting debate between Spink and Khandalavala later in this blog.  Though there is a Garbhagriha and linga in the main cave, the whole layout is more like a rectangular museum gallery. Each sculpture has a specific panel like space as if an exhibition has been designed on Lord Shiva. In the medieval times when the Europeans first saw this monument they were astonished. Dom Joao De Castro says that this fine Hindu monument appears to be beyond human capacity.

elephanta main cave

The main cave at Elephanta has striking similarity with the Dumar lena at Verul (Ellora) caves too. According to M N Dhavalikar the sculptural style at Elephanta belongs to the Vakataka-Gupta tradition and has influences of Gandhar style too especially the square stupa base at Mirpur Khas. Considering Kanheri had links with Sindh, this seems probable.

elephanta column ganesha

Elephanta column

Fluted columns with cushion capitals

elephanta columns

The geometric balance of the columns and the rhythm they create in the main cave is beyond verbal description. They hold a striking similarity with the columns at Jogeshwari caves … who knows the same artisans worked on both sites. We start with square shafts and then round carved section and then cushion capitals. Ganesha murtis on the corners add a refreshing flavour to the structure.



Sadashiva – the eternal Shiva

The Mahesha trimurti, which is also the logo of the Maharashtra Tourism Development corporation is perhaps the most celebrated sculpture of this cave.  Many have confused this with Bramha Vishnu and Mahesh but this is a Shiva-Trimurti – meaning three forms of Shiva together. If you see from the viewer’s perspective; the left Murti is Bhairava the destroyer, the central image is that of meditative and calm Tatpurusha and the one on the right hand side is Vamadeva or supporter of life. The fourth form is not carved because it is on the opposite side and the fifth one is beyond the sensorial ability of mortal humans.

dvarapala dwarfs

Door keepers with dwarfs

The doorkeepers are more than 12 feet in height. The dwarfs we see next to them are known as Ayudhapurushas. When the weapons take a human form, they are called Ayudhapurusha.

Shiva Parvati marriage


This is the spectacle of Shiva-Parvati wedding. King Himavana is getting the coy bride ready for the union and Bramha is officiating the wedding.



Ardhanarishvara … the idol is 16 feet 9 inches … composite of male-female form … exaggerated hips … full breasts … delicate left hand … balanced by strong robust rigid male form reclining gently on Nandi. Many other gods are depicted here with the Ardhanarishwara … Vishnu on Garuda .. Bramha on lotus … Indra on Airavat … holding his Vajra or thunderbolt .. Ganesha … Kartikeya and several other celestial figures … convinced Bramha that need for female form is necessary to pro create.



16 feet high Shiva in Gangadhara form … Shiva receiving Ganga through jata … Parvati piqued head turned away … Shiva extending an arm to assure her … Parvati 12 feet 4 inch high … King Bhagirath seen kneeling here.


Andhakasura Vadha

Shiva as Bhairava 11.5 feet in height … Andhakasura Anugraha Murti … boon from Bramha that every drop of blood fallen will give him a new life … holding a bowl and Chamunda is drinking the blood … skull and cobra on the headdress … crescent moon is iconographic feature … especially in Pashupata tradition … Soma and Rudra implored together … Rigveda .. skull rosary hung over left shoulder … out of 8 hands 5 are now broken so are the legs .. one has sword about to slay the demon … bell for warning … bowl to collect blood … another has head of Nila … elephant friend of Andhakasura



dancing Shiva 10 foot 8 inch in height … tandava … 6 feet 9 inch tall parvati watching the dance in admiration.



Ravananugraha … Kailasa shaken in arrogance by Ravana … sovled the fight between Shiva and Parvati … Ravana blessed by Shiva…. Another version Ravana was pinned down by Shiva under the mountain …

elephanta kartikeya ganesha

Kartikeya & Ganesh

elephanta old fortificationelephanta rock sectionelephanta rock through

If we walk past the eastern court we see Kartikeya, Ganesha and Matruka sculptures. IN most of the caves the columns are standing strong… in some the rock has been exposed. Ancient fortifications have been discovered too.  Shiva is Lakulish form gives us a clue about who sponsored the caves.

1 lakulisha

We see the lord Shiva sitting on lotus supported by two nagas just like Bhagwan Buddha.. he is in meditative pose. This Lakulisha form is the speciality of the Pashupata sect. Considering Kalachuris were Pashupatas Walter Spink’s theory gains credence. As per the copper plate found in Abhona, Kalachuris (King Krishnaraja) were Pashupat sect followers. Krishnaraja’s Krishnaraja rupaka a copper coin was found in large numbers on the Elephanta cave. According to Shobhana Gokhale these coins were minted to pay remuneration to the artisans building these caves. Walter Spink dates the caves to the first part of the 6th century and the Kalachuris ruled the region till chalukya overpowered them in the 7th century.

elephanta canon

Canon on West Hill

elephanta british fort2


The Portuguese occupied this cave in 1534CE. They destroyed, vandalized, desecrated many sculptures… which were used for firing and target practise. John Fryer and Ovington have documented this. De Coutto has also validated the authenticity of this vandalism by the Portuguese. They tried to convert cave no.6 into a church (something they did at the Mandapeshwar caves) According to Garcia Orta he found waterlogging and grazing cattle here in 1550CE. According to some Shivaji and Sambhaji visited the island in the 17th century.

elephanta british wall

elephanta hill view

View from Gun Hill

We saw two huge cannons on the gun hill. We can see Raj Bandar and puri village from this high point. We can also spot the massive cranes at the JNPT port and the ancient water stream that flows through the ravine between the east and west hill. Under the canons there is something mysterious to explore.

elephanta bhuyar2

opening for light

elephanta bhuyar1

Passage under cannon

Perhaps these underground passages were used to move ammunition between two posts. This island was used to keep a watch on the naval traffic in the region. We can get some understanding of the medieval Elephanta through some British paintings.

elephanta painting2

Drawn by Sir Harry Francis Colville Darell

colvile darrell

Elephant at Raj Bandar

elephanta elephant

The elephanta that once stood magnificently at the Raj Bandar was broken while it was being taken to Europe. It is now assembled together and kept outside the Bhau Daji Lad museum.

So our time machine is in the early sixth century … Mandapeshwar and Jogeshwari will take us back into fifth century and Kanheri will make us travel to the first century BCE. When we visit the Banaganga lake we will come back in time to the Silahara era. Lots to explore … keep watching this space.


भारताचे संस्कृती वैभव – शोभना गोखले,

Stories in Stone – Dr. Suraj Pandit,

Cultural Heritage of Mumbai – Dr. M K Dhavalikar,

Elephanta – George Michell

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