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The Elephanta Caves – Location and History:


Elephanta Caves

Elephanta / Elephanta Caves Mumbai / Caves of Elephanta / Elephanta Cave Island, known to natives as Gharapuri, is located in the Bombay harbour (on the northerly west coast of the Indian subcontinent), owes its name to the enormous stone elephant found there by Portuguese navigators. This elephant was cut into pieces, removed to Bombay and somehow put together again. It is today the melancholy guardian of Victoria Garden Zoo in Mumbai (Bombay). The island was named by the Portuguese, who, upon arrival to the island found a large stone elephant sculpture on entry into the bay. Measuring approximately three kilometres long, the island houses massive temples excavated from the island’s great rock composition.

The island on which the Elephanta / Elephanta Caves / Caves of Elephanta are located is also a resultant of volcanic lava flow which approximately took place between Cretaceous and Eocene periods of the Secondary and Tertiary Epochs respectively of Geological Time Scale.

The ‘Elephanta caves’ have a long history and thought to date back to the Silhara kings belonging to the period between 9th – 12th centuries. With the Brahminical resurgence during the reign of Gupta dynasty in 3rd century AD, these great caves exploded into existence at Elephanta. The island was the capital of the powerful coastal kingdom but later the Portuguese took possession of the island and as they first found a monolith elephant the island was named Elephanta. As the worship of the figure of the Buddha began to encourage a rise of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, a shrine was introduced in the house of Buddha images, replacing the cells in the middle of the back wall. The Elephanta Island is the site of the magnificent Elephanta caves, containing beautiful carvings, sculptures, and a temple dedicated to the Hindu deities Shiva.

The seven caves located in the Arabian sea island, 11 km east of Mumbai, richly represents the Indian rock-cut art of Saiva faith (6th – 7th century A.D.). The art here carries a perfect expression especially the large and bold relief panels that are housed in Cave 1. However, the ancient vestiges found in the island goes back to the early centuries of Christian Era representing shreds of Roman amphorae, ancient jetty or docks and a brick stupa.

Among the two hills on the island, the western and the eastern has altogether five rock-cut caves in the former and the latter, has a brick stupa on the top of it with two caves and few rock-cut cisterns. One of the caves on the eastern hill is unfinished and the other a plain excavation. The most important among the caves in the western hill is the great Cave 1 which measures 39 metres from its front entrance to the back. In plan the cave closely resembles Dumar Lena cave at Ellora. The main body of the cave, excluding the porticos on the three open sides and the back aisle, is 27 metres-square and is supported by rows of six columns each. The most striking of the sculptures is the famous colossal Trimurti at the back of the cave facing the entrance. On each side of the Trimurti recess is a pilaster in front of which stand gigantic dwarapalas or doorkeepers.

There are also beautiful sculptured compartments in this cave such as those depicting Ardhanari (representing the unified form of Siva and Parvati); Kalyanasundaramurti (the marriage of Siva and Parvati); Andhakasuravadamurti (Siva killing the demon Andhaka); Nataraja (dancing Siva); Demon King Ravana shaking the mountain Kailasa, the abode of Lord Siva.

There are two groups of caves. To the east, Stupa Hill (thus named because of a small brick Buddhist monument at the top) contains two caves, one of which is unfinished, and several cisterns. To the west, the larger group consists of five rock-cut Hindu shrines. The main cave is universally famous for its carvings to the glory of Shiva, who is exalted in various forms and actions.

The Elephanta Caves – Hindu Deity Siva:

The most extraordinary (in size and seeming importance) of these caves is solely dedicated to the Hindu deity Siva. This cave houses large stone relief sculptures depicting many forms of the deity.

Because of Siva’s significance as one of the major Hindu deities, the great cave at Elephanta has become a large pilgrimage site for Hindus today. Known as the cosmic creator, preserver, and destroyer Siva is regarded in the Shaiva Puranas as the supreme or absolute. Architecturally, the temple considers the cosmic associations of Siva, as the construction allows for space, light, and movement. Interestingly, the journey to the shrine is an integral part of the pilgrimage experience. Reaching the temple is a symbolic removal of self from the physical world (across water, up a mountain, then entering the cave), transcending from the human realm into the divine realm.

The cave temple has three entrances, from the north, west, and east – all leading into the main interior hall. Both the east and west wing entrances have their own sculptures associated with Siva.

Sixteen sculptures in total are present in and around the temple cave, nine of which are housed within main hall of the temple. Either in relief or as standalone sculptures, they are carved directly from the hill’s rock composition. Each of these nine works depicts a form of Siva or a figure associated with the deity. The two most significant of these sculptures are the linga sculpture contained within a chamber (completely separate from the rock walls) near the west entrance, and a massive bust sculpture of the five-headed (with only three being visible) Sadashiva (the Eternal Siva form) protruding from the southern wall in the temple. Travelling along the directional axes and through the center of the temple would lead one to encounter either the linga chamber (east to west) or the Eternal Siva bust (north to south). This suggests even more attention to the specific construction of the temple, and a possible geometric link between the two sculptures for ritual movement purposes.

The square chamber enclosing the linga form has an opening on each side, with each also being guarded by large dvarapalas. The symbolic association of doorkeepers to Siva is debated in interpreting Hindu mythology, but their purpose can be generalized, as either to prevent or preserve sexual contact. The presence of doorkeepers around the housed linga serves to promote the exclusiveness to Siva and symbolically, to serve the shrine as guardians. The linga form of Siva represents the phallic nature, and exudes the energy associated with its nature of creation. The energy radiated from the linga is considered, as it is allowed to travel outward through the four open doorways surrounding its enclosure and outward in all directions, auspiciously affecting any devotees in or near the temple.

The large bust sculpture depicting Sadashiva reveals three of its implied four headed figure. The implied fourth face at the back and fifth face on the top, noted as being Sadyojata (the first manifestation of Siva) and Ishana (the highest manifestation of Siva) respectively.

Each of the visible faces describes a part of Siva’s nature and embodies specific features to allude to those qualities. Siva’s right face portrays the masculine/destructive nature of the deity. The face is rugged and aggressive looking, and carries a moustache along with a snake being held near the face to further emphasize the physical, and philosophical masculine nature. The sculpture’s left face offers the duality of this and embodies a feminine (vamadeva – graceful) form of Siva. The face looks tranquil and pure, with a lotus held near the face to help to convey the creator nature of the deity. The center face of Siva is an embodiment of both male and female forms (tatpurusha – transcendent). Aligned together, and transcending both forms, this face is serene and tranquil. Siva’s eyes are closed suggesting deep meditation and inward thought while still remaining ever present; allowing for the presentation of the dichotomies he represents (active yet passive, finite and infinite, energetic yet ascetic, etc.).

The remaining seven sculptures are relief panels carved into the walls surrounding the interior of the temple and embody depictions of Siva. The placement and relation between each set of relief sculptures also represents the dual natures of the deity.

The Elephanta / Caves of Elephanta / Elephanta Caves are rock-cut temples created by carving out rock, and creating the columns, the internal spaces and the images. The entire complex was created through a process of removing rock. Some of the rock surfaces are untreated bare rock while some are highly finished. The temple complex covers an entire cave area of about 60,000 square feet and comprises a main room and two lateral ones, courtyards and several subsidiary shrines.

The World Heritage Values and authenticity / integrity of this site are well maintained since its inscription on the World Heritage List.

The island abounds in monkeys which add to the mystery of the place. There are innumerable friendly monkeys of various sizes which have a keen eye on the visitor’s food. They do not hesitate to be the uninvited guest and share the food.

As the Elephanta caves are not one of India’s major tourist destinations, the majority of visitors to the caves are Siva devotees.

Undoubtedly Elephanta / Elephanta Caves Mumbai / Caves of Elephanta were the creation of a genius, a master architect, who having thoroughly absorbed and assimilated the magnificent contribution of his predecessors in the dual traditions of the independent free standing sculpture and rock-cut architecture, produced a monument introducing a whole new world of form quite distinct from any previous achievement. It is believed that the caves were used as target practice after Portuguese constructed a fort and put a flag to ward off pirates. However, many of the sculptures have been desecrated. Made out of solid rock, the caves attract more visitors each year than the entire city of Mumbai. No wonder, this place resonates with the spiritual energy of India. Unfortunately, some of the sculptures have been damaged, yet somehow, nothing has disturbed the sublime beauty of this place for centuries.

How to Reach Elephanta Caves:

By Air: GM_Air_S

Mumbai is the nearest airport.

By Rail: GM_Railway_S

Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is the nearest railway station.

Road: GM_Bus_S

From Dadar: A taxi may be hired to reach Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

From Mumbai Central: A taxi may be hired to reach Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

Ferries are available from Gateway of India to reach Elephanta caves.

Other Interesting Places you may wish to visit

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