Elephanta Caves




Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. They are located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri (literally “the city of caves”) in Mumbai Harbour, 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to the east of the city of Mumbai in the Indian state of Mahārāshtra. The island, located offshore about 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) west of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, consists of Shaivite caves and a few Buddhist stupa mounds.

The Elephanta Caves contain rock cut stone sculptures that show syncretism of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and iconography. The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. Except for a few exceptions, much of the artwork is defaced and damaged. The main temple’s orientation as well as the relative location of other temples are placed in a mandala pattern. The carvings narrate Hindu mythologies, with the large monolithic 20 feet (6.1 m) Trimurti Sadashiva (three-faced Shiva), Nataraja (Lord of dance) and Yogishvara (Lord of Yoga) being the most celebrated.

The origins and date when the caves were constructed have attracted considerable speculations and scholarly attention since the 19th century. These date them between 5th and 9th century, and attribute them to various Hindu dynasties. They are more commonly placed between 5th and 7th centuries. Most scholars consider it to have been completed by about 550 CE.

They were named Elefante – which morphed to Elephanta – by the colonial Portuguese when they found elephant statues on it. They established a base on the island, and its soldiers damaged the sculpture and caves. The main cave (Cave 1, or the Great Cave) was a Hindu place of worship until the Portuguese arrived, whereupon the island ceased to be an active place of worship. The earliest attempts to prevent further damage to the Caves were started by British India officials in 1909. The monuments were restored in the 1970s. In 1987, the restored Elephanta Caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, is about 10 km (6.2 mi) east of the Gateway of India in the Mumbai Harbour and less than 2 km (1.2 mi) west of Jawaharlal Nehru Port. The island covers about 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi) at high tide and about 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi) at low tide. Gharapuri is a small village on the south side of the island. The Elephanta Caves is connected by ferry services from the Gateway of India, Mumbai between 9AM and 2PM daily, except Monday when the Caves are closed. Mumbai has a major domestic and international airport, as well as is connected to the Indian Railways.

The island is 2.4 km (1.5 mi) in length with two hills that rise to a height of about 150 m (490 ft). A narrow deep ravine separates the two hills, and runs from north to south. On the west, the hill rises gently from the sea and stretches east across the ravine and rises gradually to the extreme east to a height of 173 m (568 ft). Forest growth with clusters of mango, tamarind, and karanj trees cover the hills with scattered palm trees. The fore shore is made up of sand and mud with mangrove bushes on the fringe. Landing quays sit near three small hamlets known as Set Bunder in the north-west, Mora Bunder in the northeast, and Gharapuri or Raj Bunder in the south.

There are five rock-cut caves in the western hill and a brick stupa on the eastern hill. The eastern hill has two Buddhist mounds, and is called the Stupa hill. Close to the five western hill caves, are Cave 6 and 7 on the eastern hill. The most visited and significant cave is on the western hill and is called Cave 1 or the Great Cave, located about a kilometer walk up a steep graded uphill. The Elephanta island is a protected monument area as per the requirements of UNESCO, A notification was issued by the Government of India in 1985 declaring a buffer zone that includes “a prohibited area” that stretches 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) from the shoreline.
The ancient history of the island is unknown in either Hindu or Buddhist records. Archeological studies have uncovered many remains that suggest the small island had a rich cultural past, with evidence of human settlement by possibly the 2nd century BC. The regional history is first recorded in the Gupta Empire era, but these do not explicitly mention these caves. This has made the origins and the century in which Elephanta caves were built a subject of a historic dispute. They have been variously dated, mostly between from late 5th to late 8th century AD, largely based on the dating of other cave temples in the Deccan region. Colonial era historians suggested that the caves were built by the Rashtrakutas in 7th century or after, a hypothesis primarily based on some similarities with the Ellora Caves. This theory has been discredited by later findings.
According to Archaeological Survey of India and UNESCO, the site was settled in ancient times and the cave temples were built between 5th and 6th century. Contemporary scholars generally place the completion of the temples to the second quarter of the 6th century and as a continuation of the period of artistic flowering in the Gupta Empire era. These scholars attribute these Cave temples to king Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri dynasty. The dating to a mid 6th century completion and it being a predominantly Shiva monument built by a Hindu Kalachuri king is based on numismatic evidence, inscriptions, construction style and better dating of other Deccan cave temples including the Ajanta Caves, and the more firm dating of Dandin’s Dasakumaracarita.

According to Charles Collins, the significance of the Elephanta Caves is better understood by studying them in context of ancient and early medieval Hindu literature, as well as in the context of other Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples on the subcontinent. The historic Elephanta artwork were inspired by the mythology, concepts and spiritual ideas found in the Vedic texts on Rudra and later Shiva, the epics, the Puranas and the Pashupata Shaivism literature corpus of Hinduism composed by the 5th-century. The panels reflect the ideas and stories widely accepted and well known to the artists and cave architects of India by about 525 CE. The mythology varies significantly in these texts and has been much distorted by later interpolations, but the Elephanta Cave panels represent the narrative version most significant in the 6th century. The panels and artwork express through their eclecticism, flux and motion the influence of Vedic and post-Vedic religious thought on Hindu culture in mid 1st millennium CE.

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