July 11, 2012


The Elephanta Caves are the first underwhelming world heritage site that I have seen in India, having seen much better days. Although the island location of Elephanta adds some intrigue, they do not compare in any way to the diversity and scale of the sculpted caves found in Ajanta and Ellora. Nevertheless, the opportunity cost to visit it was low as it was a short boat ride away from my Bombay abode. I caught a ferry from near the Gateway of India, accompanied by a colleague from Teach For India who had recently relocated to Mumbai for the cause.

The most memorable structure is the great cave of Shiva, sprinkled with large pillars and sculptures of divine figures. There is no great buildup to the grand reveal. Visitors see the main cave as soon as they climb the staircases from the entrance and past the vendors peddling kitsch. The caves following it taper off in magnificence drastically, with many suffering from water damage. The six meter high Trimurti, a three headed figure set against the back wall of the cave, represents creation, preservation, and destruction.

The Portuguese gave the island the name of Elephanta in the 16th century, after finding a mammoth statue carved out of black stone. The complex was created well over a millennium ago, although it is hard to pinpoint the exact time period within which it was constructed. Much damage was done under Portuguese rule, which brought about an end to centuries of usage of the caves as a place of worship for the Hindu inhabitants of the island. The origins of the cave creators remain shrouded in mystery.


"Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage." ~ Morris West