The Elephanta Island, locally known as Gharapurichi Leni or the city of caves, located 10 km east of Mumbai or Bombay in Maharashtra, is dotted with five Hindu caves containing a collection of rock art linked to the cult of Lord Shiva and two Buddhist caves, constructed around mid-5th to 6th century AD.
The island, as well as the caves, earned the name ‘Elephanta’ after the Portuguese invaders discovered the sculpture of a black-stone elephant on the island, now housed in Dr.Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The caves were badly damaged by the invading Portuguese, who even used the stone sculptures for their target practice. Although much of the artwork of the caves, hewn from solid basalt, is defaced and damaged, the few remaining structures are enough to give sufficient evidence of their past grandeur.
It is considered that before the arrival of the Brahmins, the island was occupied by the Hinayana Buddhist, probably around the 2nd century, who erected a large stupa, along with seven smaller stupas around it. However, the regional history of the island was first recorded during the days of the Gupta Empire, without the explicit mention of the caves. Nevertheless, according to the reports of the modern survey, the cave temples were built between the 5th and 6th centuries.
The 2`4 km long Elephanta Island contains two hills of about 490 feet (150 m) in height, separated by a deep, narrow ravine that runs from north to south. The hills rise gently from the sea on the west, and stretch east across the ravine, and rise slowly, but steadily, to the east to a height of 568 feet (173 m). The two hills are now connected with a walkway. While the eastern hill is now known as the Stupa Hill, the western hill is called the Canon Hill, reflecting the firing cannons of the Portuguese, who ceded the island in 1661 to the colonial British.
There are two groups of caves in the site of the Elephanta, the first is a large group of five Hindu caves, and the second one is a smaller group of two Buddhist caves. The larger group of Hindu caves on the western hill contains the stone sculptures representing the Shaiva Hindu sect, depicted in widely celebrated carvings that narrate legends and mythologies of Shaivism.
However, apart from Shaivism, the artwork also displays themes of the Shakti and Vaishnava cult. The elaborately hewn caves contain the main chamber, two lateral chambers, courtyards, and subsidiary shrines, but not all are so fully developed.
The main and the most important cave, cave no 1, known as the great cave, measuring 130 feet (39`63 m) from the entrance to the back, is supported by rows of six columns and consists of several entrances. While the unassumingly small main entrance, hiding the grand hall inside, is aligned north-south axis, two other entrances face east and west. There are four pillars at the main entrance, and the roof of the hall has concealed beams supported by stone columns joined together by capitals. The Great Cave contains the dedicated shrines, the largest of which is the square plan Linga shrine, equipped with four entrances, guarded by dwarapals on each side.
The northern entrance to the main cave is flanked by two damaged panels of Shiva dated to the Gupta period. While the left panel depicts Yogishwara Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, the right shows Nataraja Shiva, the Lord of Dance. However, the 20 feet (6 m) tall Trimurti Sadashiva, carved in relief on the south wall of the cave facing the north entrance, along the north-south axis, is perhaps the most important sculpture in the caves. The three heads of Shiva carved in the relief represent the three aspects of Shiva, creation, protection, and destruction. According to another version, the right half-face, holding a lotus bud, symbolizing the promise of life and creativity, depicts Vamadeva, the creator, while the left half-face, the face of a young man with moustache, represents Aghora or Bhairava, the destroyer, also known as Rudra-Shiva. Finally, the central full face, calm and meditative, represents Tatpurusha or Mahadeva, the protector. The three faces are equivalently symbolic for Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara, the three major gods of Hinduism.
The Trimurti Sadashiva is flanked by the four-armed Ardhanarishwara on its left and Gangadhara to the right. The Ardhanarishwara is a composite figure of a man and a woman, Purusha and Prakriti, symbolizing creation, while Gangadhara depicts Shiva brings the Ganges from the heavens through his tangled hair, with smiling Parvati stands by his side. Unfortunately, both the figures of Ardhanarishwara and Gangadhara are damaged. The panel of Andhakasura vadh on the wall near the west entrance, depicting the enraged Shiva killing the demon Andhaka, is ruined below the waist. The wedding of Shiva and Parvati, named Kalyanasundara in Hindu texts, is carved on the southwest wall, near the Linga shrine. Among the other mostly damaged or ruined or dilapidated caves, another structure that somewhat remains intact located near the great cave, is the Sitalbai Temple, a large prayer hall with its walls decorated with rich and intricate sculptures.
The Elephanta Caves receives around a thousand visitors every year, which substantially increases on special occasions like Shivaratri, Dance festival, the World Heritage Day on18 April, and World Heritage Week between 19 and 25 November. Although the Archaeological Survey of India, Aurangabad Circle maintains and manages the site, it jointly works together with UNESCO after the caves were declared a World Heritage Site.