The rock carved cave temples dedicated to Shiva and Shakti

The island was not always called Elephanta. The inhabitants refer to this island as Gharapuri, which may mean 'city of priests'. Elephanta was a name given by the Portuguese. In 1534, the Portuguese took over the island from the Gujarat Sultanate, and somewhere at the entrance to the island, they found a life-size stone statue of an elephant. The Portuguese used the structure as a landmark to dock their boats and to also tell it apart from the other, smaller islands in the Arabian Sea. Thus, they called it ‘Ilha Elefante’ or ‘Elephant Island’.

While experts are still debating when the caves were first excavated, it is generally believed that they were built between the 5th and 8th centuries, based on the dating of similar caves in the Deccan region. But the island had been home to early communities well before the caves were constructed and human occupation of the island can be traced back two millennia.

Its location plum on the west coast of India, at the mouth of what is now the Thane Creek, made this small island an important pit stop for traders as far back as the 2nd century BC. Archaeological remains of Roman amphorae dating to these times have been found on the island, suggesting that this small port offered sailors a chance to rest and refill supplies of freshwater.


The Elephanta Caves visiting hours are between 09:30 am and 05:30 pm. The first ferry leaves the Gateway of India jetty at 09:00 am and takes you to the Elephanta Island in about an hour. A ferry leaves every half hour from the Gateway of India for Elephanta, with the last one leaving at 02:00 pm. The first ferry returns from Elephanta at 12 noon and the last one at 05:30 pm. The return boats too ply every half hour. When you board a ferry from the Gateway of India, bear in mind that after the one hour ride, you have a 30 minute trek up to the caves site, and another hour at least to explore the caves before you begin your descent to the jetty, which will take an additional 30 minutes. Plan your trip in a way that you do not miss the last boat back to Mumbai.

The caves themselves were built much later. Recent studies on their architectural style suggest that they were constructed by King Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri Dynasty in the mid-6th century, and tens of copper coins of King Krishnaraja have been found at Elephanta.

The Kalachuris ruled from Mahishmati (present day Maheshwar) in Madhya Pradesh. They were great devotees of Shiva and were followers of the Pashupata cult of Shaivism. The Pashupatas are considered the earliest Hindu sect to worship Shiva as the supreme deity and are believed to have been established around the 2nd century by a wandering monk named Lakulisha. He is believed to be the 28th and final incarnation of Shiva. The Elephanta Caves are one of the three main sites of the Pashupata cult in Mumbai, the other two being the Jogeshwari Caves and Mandapeshwar Caves. All three cave complexes are within a 50 km radius of each other.

There are just seven caves at Elephanta spread across two hills. One set of caves to the west and the other to the east. The most astounding is Cave No 1 or the Main Cave on the western hill and is considered an excellent example of Indian rock art. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it celebrates his various forms and legends.

While some of the sculptures at Elephanta have survived through the centuries, most of them have been ruined. Scholars blame various sources. Some say the rulers of the Gujarat Sultanate had defaced the figures while others say that Portuguese soldiers used the caves as a firing range and used the sculptures for target practice. The Elephanta Caves were an active site of worship till the advent of the Portuguese. The Marathas have also been blamed for hastening the impending doom of the caves by deliberately damaging the artwork here in the 17th century.

But still, the worshipper at Elephanta Caves is brought into different complex, as the world of passionate confrontation of opposing force, the violent and dissonant force; all of it is masterly displayed in the sculptures. Some of the panel figures appear to be stationary and independent of one another, but at the same time each of this figure is performing different functions simultaneously and each can take its place in a group which is itself non-static.


MAP: 8

The first sculpture, on the right side of the main entrance is Nataraja, depiction of the God Shiva as the Lord of Dance or Cosmic Dancer, who performs the Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss), the dance in which the universe is created, maintained, and dissolved.

The badly damaged relief panel is 4 m (13 ft) wide and 3,4 m (11 ft) high and set low on the wall. His body and arms are shown as wildly gyrating in the lalita mudra, a symbolism for occupying all of space, soaring energy and full bodied weightlessness. His face here resembles the Tatpurusha, or the manifested form of Shiva that preserves and sustains all of creation, all of creative activity. This is an eight-armed depiction of Nataraja. The parts of the panel that have survived suggest that he is holding an axe, a coiled serpent is wrapped around its top. In another he holds a folded cloth, possibly symbolic veil of maya.

There are fewer gods, goddesses and observers in this panel than others in this cave, with Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati are visible and have a facial expression of being spellbound. Also present are his sons leaping Ganesha and Kartikeya holding Shiva's staff, as well as an ascetic and a rishi, thus weaving the family life and the ascetic monastic life, the secular and the spiritual tied in through metaphorical symbolism of dance within the same panel. 

Nataraja, the dancer and destroyer aspects of Shiva are clustered in the northwest part of the cave, in contrast to Yogishvara, yoga and creator aspects that are found on the opposite side of entrance, in the northeast parts. 


MAP: 7

The second sculpture, if you walk counter clockwise around the cave, depicts the Andhakasura legend. It shows Bhairava, a ferocious form of Shiva killing the demon Andhaka (literally “He who darkens or blind"). The relief is carved to give it a three dimensional form, as if the ferocious Shiva is coming out of the rocks and impaling Andhaka with his trident.

Bhairava's facial expression shows anger, conviction of something he must do, and one in the middle of action. His headgear has a ruff on the back, a skull, and cobra over the forehead, and the crescent high on the right. The legs and five of the eight arms are broken, attributed to Portuguese vandalism. In his right hand is depicted a symbolic mythological weapon with which Shiva killed the destructive elephant demon. Another hand holds a bowl to collect the blood dripping from the slain Andhaka, which legend states was necessary because the dripping blood had the power to become new demons if they got nourished by the ground. 

Heavily destroyed relief shows the smaller broken sculpture of Andhaka under the Bhairava's figure, surrounded by ruined parts of a male and two female forms, figures of two ascetics, a small figure in front, a female figure, and two dwarfs. The uppermost part shows flying apsaras bringing garlands. The panel is 3.5 m (11 ft) high.


MAP: 16

The powerful Shiva Lingam is protected in the central shrine in the middle of the main Cave Temple. The shrine has a square shape with entrances on each of its sides, Each door is flanked by two Dvarapalas, the Gate Guardians carrying weapons, each 4.6 m (15 ft) high. All are in a damaged condition except those at the southern door to the shrine. Inside the shrine, where 1.8 m (5 ft 11 in) high Shiva Lingam raise from the platform, lead six steps. The temple and all the pillars are laid out to lead the pilgrim's view towards it, the shrine is visible from any point inside the cave and its most significant progression.

Shiva Lingam is the abstract unmanifest symbol of Shiva in union with the Yoni, and the symbol of Parvati together symbolising the creative source and the regenerative nature of existence. 

Read more: SHIVA LINGAM & YONI >>


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The relief carved on the southwest wall, near the Shiva Linga Shrine is the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. The couple are often depicted performing the panigrahana ("accepting the hand") ritual of a Hindu wedding, where the groom accepts the bride by taking her right hand in his. The legend is called the Kalyanasundara, literally "beautiful marriage".

Parvati is seen standing to Shiva's right, the customary place for a Hindu bride at the wedding. The carvings are substantially damaged, but the ruined remains of the sculpture has been significant to scholarly studies of Hindu literature. In many surviving versions of the Puranas, the wedding takes place in King Parvata's palace. However, in this Elephanta Cave panel, the narrative shows some earlier version. Here King Parvata standing behind Parvati gives away the bride to Shiva while Brahma is the priest in the grotto relief.

The groom Shiva is shown calm and young, while Parvati is depicted as shy and emotional. Her head is tilted towards him and her eyelids joyfully lowered, while his hand (now broken) is holding hers. Their dress reflect the Hindu customs. He wears the sacred thread across his chest, she the customary jewellery. The other characters shown in the wedding carry items or are shown holding items that typically grace a Hindu wedding. Chandra (moon god), for example, holds a traditionally decorated water vessel (kalash). Brahma, the priest, is squatting on the floor to the right tending the yajna fire (agni mandapa).

Gods, goddesses and celestial apsaras are cheering witness to the wedding. Vishnu is witness to the marriage, standing tall behind the sitting Brahma on the right side of the panel. Just above the main images rishi (sages) and a few characters hanging from the ceiling are seen blessing the wedding.



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The Trimurti Shiva is flanked on its left by Ardhanarisvara (a half-Shiva, half-Parvati composite) and Gangadhara legend to its right. 

The Gangadhara image to the right of the Trimurti show Shiva and Parvati standing. Shiva brings the River Ganges down from the heavens to serve man, and her immense power is contained effortlessly in Shiva's hair as she descends from heaven. The artists carved a small three bodied goddess up high, a symbolism for Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati. The mother goddess Parvati stands tall next to Shiva, smiling. The carving is 4 m (13 ft) wide and 5.207 m (17.08 ft) high.

The Gangadhara image is highly damaged, particularly the lower half of Shiva seen seated with Parvati, who is shown with four arms, two of which are broken. From the crown, a cup with a triple-headed female figure (with broken arms) to depict the three major rivers in Hindu texts. An alternative interpretation of the three-bodied goddess in Gangadharamurti panel here and elsewhere is that it represents the regenerative powers of rivers in the form of Mandakini, Suradhani and Bhagavati.

 In this grotto scene, Shiva is sculpted and bedecked with ornaments, while gods gather to watch the cosmic source of earthly abundance. The gods and goddesses shown are identifiable from the vahana (vehicle) and icons, and they include Brahma (left), Indra (left), Vishnu (right), Saraswati, Indrani, Lakshmi, and others.

Wrapped on one of the arms of Shiva is his iconic coiling serpent whose hood is seen near his left shoulder. Another hand (partly broken) gives the semblance of Shiva hugging Parvati, with a head of matted hair. A damaged ornamented drapery covers his lower torso, below the waist. Parvati is carved to the left of Shiva with a coiffured hair dress, fully bedecked with ornaments and jewellery. Between them stands a Gana (dwarf jester) expressing confused panic as to whether Shiva will be able to contain the mighty river goddess. In the lower left of the panel is a kneeling devout figure in namaste posture representing the heroic mythical king Bhagiratha who worked hard to bring the river of prosperity to his earthly kingdom, but unaware of the potentially destructive forces that came with it.


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The main masterpiece of the cave represents Sadashiva (Maheshmurti) or Panchamukha Shiva, who is represented with five heads, each depicting a different avatar or element of the nature. It is often misunderstood as a Trimurti as only three of the five heads are visible. The sculpture is 6 m (20 ft) in height. 

  • Brahma – Satyojata – Earth – Creation
  • Vishnu – Vamadeva – Water – Protection
  • Rudra – Aghora – Fire – Destruction
  • Maheshwara – Tatpurusha – Air – Delusion
  • Sadasiva – Ishana – Ether – Liberation

The visible three heads represent three essential aspects of Shiva: Creation, Protection, and Destruction. The right half-face (west face) shows him holding a lotus bud, depicting the promise of life and creativity. This face is symbolism for Brahma, the Creator, the feminine side of Shiva and creator. The left half-face (east face) is that of a moustached young man. This is Shiva as the terrifying Aghora or Bhairava, the chaos creator and destroyer. This is also known as Rudra Shiva, the Destroyer. The central face is blissful Vishnu as Vamadeva, This is the Shiva form as the "master of positive and negative principles of existence and preserver of their harmony". 

The two heads, which are not visible are the one on the back side and on the top. On the back side is benign and meditative Tatpurusha, resembles the preserver Vishnu and the one on the top represents the power of creation, Sadashiva. 


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On the wall to the east of the Trimurti is a damaged four-armed Ardhanarishvara carving.

Ardhanarishvara symbolizes that the male and female principles are inseparable. The composite form conveys the unity of opposites in the universe. The male half of Ardhanarishvara stands for Purusha and female half is Prakriti. Purusha is the male principle and passive force of the universe, while Prakriti is the female active force; both are “constantly drawn to em. brace and fuse with each other, though separated by the intervening axis”. The union of Purusha (Shiva) and Prakriti (Shiva’s energy, Shakti or Parvati) generates the universe, an idea also manifested in the union of the Linga of Shiva and Yoni of Devi creating the cosmos.

The relief, which is 5.11 m (16.8 ft) in height, shows a headdress (double-folded) with two pleats draped towards the female head (Parvati) and the right side (Shiva) depicting curled hair and a crescent. The female figure has all the ornamentation (broad armlets and long bracelets, a large ring in the ear, jewelled rings on the fingers) but the right male figure has drooping hair, armlets and wristlets. One of his hands rests on Nandi bull's left horn, Shiva's mount, which is fairly well preserved. The pair of hands at the back is also bejewelled; the right hand of the male side holds a serpent, while the left hand of the female side holds a mirror. The front left hand is broken, while a large part of the lower half of the panel was damaged at some point.

Around the Ardhanarishwara are three layers of symbolic characters. The lowest or at the same level as the viewer are human figures oriented reverentially towards the androgyne image. Above them are gods and goddesses such as Brahma, Vishnu, Indra and others who are seated on their vahanas. Above them are flying apsaras approaching the fused divinity with garlands, music, and celebratory offerings.



MAP: 2

Partly destroyed carving in the southeast corner of the mandapa depicts Shiva and Parvati in Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, It shows the Umamaheshvara story, the scene which includes rocky terrain and clouds layered horizontally. On top of a rock sit the four-armed Shiva and Parvati by his side. Nandi stands below her, while celestial apsaras float on the clouds above. There are traces of a crown and a disc behind Shiva, but it is all damaged. The scene is crowded with accessory figures, which may be because the eastern entrance was meant to have a devotional focus.



The panel facing the Mount Kailash panel towards the northeast corner depicts demon king Ravana trying to lift Kailash and bother Shiva, a legend called Ravananugraha. The upper scene is Mount Kailash, where Shiva and Parvati are seated. Shiva is recognizable with a crown, and other characters are badly damaged. A portion of ascetic skeletal devotee Bhringi relief survives and he is seated near Shiva's feet. Near Shiva an outline of what may have been Ganesha and Kartikeya are visible. Below the mountain surface is shown the demon-king Ravana is seen with a few arms, trying to unsuccessfully shake Shiva and Parvati in Mount Kailash. The rest of the details are blurry and speculative. 


MAP: 9

As we walk around the cave in the circle, we find ourselves at the end again in front of main entrance, where we have started, in front of the Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, who performs the Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss), the dance in which the universe is created, maintained, and dissolved. Opposite wild depiction of Nataraja is calm meditative sculpture of Yogishvara, called also Mahayogi, Lakulisa.

Yogishvara is the master of discipline, the teacher of Yoga arts, the master who shows how yoga and meditation leads to the realization of ultimate reality.

The relief is in a dilapidated condition with most of the arms and legs broken. He is seated in padmasana lost in his meditation. His posture is well formed and suggests that the 6th century artist knew this asana. He sits on a lotus with a stalk shown as if coming out of the earth, his legs are crossed symmetrically. Two Nagas flank the lotus and express their reverence with a namaste posture. The great yogi is being approached by various Vedic and Puranic gods and goddesses, as well as monks and sadhus, yet there is a halo around him that keeps them at bay, as if they admire it but do not wish to disturb his meditation.


MAP: 10-12

On the east side of the main hall is a separate shrine. It is a 17 m (56 ft) wide courtyard with a circular pedestal. It once had a seated Nandi facing the Shiva Lingam shrine, but its ruins have not been restored. To the south side of this eastern courtyard is the Shaktism shrine, with a lion, each seated with a raised forepaw as guardian. Inside the west face of this small shrine are Sapta Matrikas, or the "seven mothers" along with Parvati, Kartikeya (Skanda) and Ganesha. The smaller shrine's sanctum features a lingam and has a circumambulatory path around it. The sanctum door has Shaiva dvarapalas

The Shakti panel in the east shrine is unusual in that counting Parvati, it features eight mothers (Asta matrikas) in an era when Sapta matrikas were more common such as at Samalaji and Jogeswari caves. Additionally, the mothers are flanked on one side with Ganesha and the other with Skanda (Kartikeya) when typical artwork from mid 1st millennium show the Shakta mothers with Ganesha and Shiva. 

According to Sara L. Schastok, the Skanda in the east shrine is significant, just like the one found in Deogarh Hindu temple site, because he is depicted with regalia, weapons and icons similar to Shiva and he is surrounded by gods and goddesses. By portraying Skanda with Matrikas, he is equated with the Krittikas legend and thereby Kartikeya, and by showing him so prominently centred the artists are likely communicating the unity of Skanda-Shiva, that all these divinities are in essence the same spiritual concept, "all emanations of the lingam at the very heart of Elephanta", according to Schastok.


In 1534, the Portuguese at the entrance to the island found a life-size stone statue of an elephant. The Portuguese used the structure as a landmark to dock their boats and to also tell it apart from the other, smaller islands in the Arabian Sea. But this statue is no longer on the island. In 1864, the British tried to ship it to the United Kingdom. In the process, the crane broke and the statue shattered. The pieces were brought to the Victoria Garden (now Jijamata Udyan) in Mumbai and assembled. Today, you can see it in the garden’s premises, outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.






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