A Visit to Shiva’s Fortress City

On the quay beneath the Gateway of India, my friends and I boarded a boat. No, we weren’t sailing home like the British regiment – a flight later in the evening would get us home much quicker. Rather, the boat took us just across the bay.

During the journey, we passed an island that looks like Alcatraz but is in fact a military barracks. Further on, we cruised along pipe racks that stretch far out over the water, connecting the tanker terminal with nearby refineries. The tankers themselves were scattered across the bay at anchor, awaiting their turn to enter the port. But they weren’t the only ships in sight – there were also warships, and if you looked carefully, you could make out the conning towers of submarines on the horizon, preparing for a naval exercise.

Most passengers were not interested in the military-industrial scenery, though. They entertained themselves with the flocks of begging birds diving after potato chips until the boat docked an hour later at the end of a long pier jutting out of a mangrove.

The island we stepped onto is called Gharapuri, which means “fortress city” in Hindi, a nod to its past prominence. But most people know it by a more generic name. The Portuguese colonists took one look at an ancient elephant statue on the island and, perhaps not realizing that such sculptures are a dime (or rupee) a dozen in this part of the world, named the island Elephanta.

Mangrove Shoreline, Elephanta Island, Maharashtra, India

Less than one thousand people live in the scattering of villages on the island. They depend on boats from the mainland for supplies, and visitors for income. So when a local guide approached us on the pier, we accepted his offer to show us around the World Heritage Site. He led us up the hill through a familiar-looking gauntlet of souvenir stalls and past monkeys sprawled out in the midday heat, until we reached the entrance to a cave.

This cave is hand-carved, an impressive feat considering the size and number of such caves that riddle the hillside. The rock-cut Buddhist cave temples at the nearby hill station of Lonavala are soaring cathedral-like chambers. In contrast, the caves on Elephanta, the caves are wide and cistern-like, with flat ceilings held up by a grid of thick columns. Light streams into the main cave from openings on three sides, illuminating the Hindu deities inside.

Cave Temple Entrance, Elephanta Island, Maharashtra, India

The primary devotion is to the god Shiva, and he makes many appearances. Our guide explained the eight monumental stone figures who stand guard around the central shrine that houses the linga pillar, a representation of Shiva in phallic form.

Shiva takes on other forms in the apses that line the cave’s walls. As Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, he maintains his pose despite missing five of six limbs. As Yogishvara, the meditator, he sits peacefully on a lotus flower, resembling Buddha. In the form of Bhairava, an angered Shiva with a demonic glare wields a sword in one hand and a bowl to collect his enemies’ blood in another. As Ravananugraha, the benevolent incarnation of Shiva sits atop a mountain supported by imprisoned demons.

Shiva’s wife Parvati is also present, notably in the Kalyanasundara or wedding scene, and the Ardhanarishvara, a half-male, half-female mélange of Shiva and Parvati.

Amazingly, the sculpture most spared from the effects of erosion and colonial vandalism is also the most monumental. Sadashiva, a three-faced form representing a trinity of Hindu concepts – creation, preservation, and destruction – stands over twenty feet tall, his trio of gazes directed at all corners of the cave simultaneously. According to our guide, the Sadashiva survived desecration by the European colonists thanks to a wooden barrier that concealed the apse at the time.

Sadashiva Carving, Elephanta Island, Maharashtra, India
Sadashiva – three-faced representation of Shiva’s creative, protective, and destructive aspects

As a protected historical site on an island, the Elephanta caves are a pleasant way to escape the city for a day. The easy access means that a constant stream of visitors comes and goes throughout the day, but the crowds are not like those back at the Gateway. Nor do the crowds seem to bother the cow flicking its tail as it ambles down the pier, or the troops of monkeys making use of the caves and paths to stage wrestling matches and hold grooming sessions.

And yes, it may be clichéd, but I did buy an elephant souvenir on Elephanta Island!

Monkey, Elephanta Island, Maharashtra, India

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