Situated on Gharapuri Island which lies in the Arabian Sea to the south-east of Mumbai, the Elephanta Caves are a collection of two groups of sacred caves. While one group includes five Hindu caves with rock cut sculptures dedicated to Lord Shiva, the other consists of two Buddhist caves on what is known as Stupa Hill.
The Elephanta Caves have been hewn from solid basalt rock, but local tradition dictates that they were not man-made. The Hindu cluster on the island’s western hill is dominated by what is known as the Great Cave or Shiva Cave, a rock-cut temple complex which includes a main chamber, courtyards and shrines. Large carvings of Shiva in different representations adorn the cave, together with panels depicting Yogishvara, the Lord of Yoga, and Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. The most important sculpture in the cave is the six-metre tall Trimurti relief which has been described as a “masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art”. It depicts a three-headed Shiva who represents the aspects of creation, protection and destruction, with a rosebud in his hand symbolising the promise of life and creativity. Stupa Hill on the eastern part of the island is home to a cluster of caves which house a number of Buddhist monuments, and while all of the caves were once painted, only traces of colour now remain. The name Elephanta was given by the Portuguese in honour of a large black stone elephant statue which once stood near Gharapuri village on the island but is now located at Mumbai’s Jijamata Udyaan zoo.
The Elephanta Caves are accessed by passenger ferry from the Gateway of India in Mumbai, from where there are bus connections and rickshaws available across the city. Trains depart from the landmark Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus just to the north, with connections across the country.
While there are no inscriptions to indicate the date of creation or who was responsible for the caves, art historians believe they date from the late 5th to late 8th centuries AD. The Great Cave remained a Hindu place of worship until Portuguese rule in the early 15th century when it suffered extensive damage. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it was renovated and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to help preserve its artwork.