The Elephanta Caves

“I couldn’t tear myself away from the image of the Maheshmurti. It was so beautiful. So mesmerising. Elephanta was so nice,” gushed Iskra, an exchange student from Bulgaria.

I listened to Iskra’s description of her visit to Elephanta Caves with part fascination and part envy. The reason? In spite of having lived in Mumbai for nearly 23 years, I had never been to the Elephanta Caves. Listening to Iskra, and that too a foreigner, rave about them needled me into resolving to visit the caves at the earliest opportunity.

And would you believe it? The opportunity presented itself to me the very next day, almost as if it was just waiting for me to make up my mind. My Facebook wall announced that Girls on the Go (GOTG), a women’s only travel club, was conducting a guided day trip to the Elephanta Caves on 13 March 2011. Would I be interested? Not one to let go of an opportunity like this, I signed up for the trip within seconds of seeing the intimation. 😀

Gateway of India

So, on D-Day, I was at the Gateway of India much before the reporting time of  7.45 am. While waiting for Piya Bose, the founder of GOTG, and the rest of the group to assemble, I tried to recall what I knew about the Caves. They were … um… really old rock-cut caves, were located in Elephanta Island some distance away from Mumbai, could be accessed only by boat, and was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In short, I knew nothing about the Caves. Of course, by the time the tour got over I was a little wiser thanks to Lakshmi Kishore, our guide, and a booklet on the Elephanta Caves that I purchased from the ticket office.

Elephanta Island has traces of habitation from 2nd century BC in the form of remains of a Buddhist stupa, reportedly built by Emperor Ashoka himself. But what the Island is really famous for are 7 rock-cut caves, whose age is not well established due to absence of written records. Various theories exist as to the age of the caves as well as to who built them, and according to the Archaeological Society of India’s (ASI) booklet, the caves were excavated during the middle of the 6th century, during the rule of the Konkan Mauryas.

Locally, Elephanta Island is known as Gharpuri and is located about 11 km from Mumbai. It was called Elephanta by the Portuguese, who found a stone statue of an elephant at one of the entry points to the Island. Though they tried their best to destroy the statue, they only succeeded in severely damaging it and today the restored elephant is installed at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

Aquatint of the Stone Elephant by Thomas Daniell and William Daniell, 1786. Photo Courtesy: Elephanta by George Michell

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The Banashankari and Mahakuta temples: Examples of neglect and apathy

My recent trip to some heritage sites in North Karnataka (Aihole, Badami, BijapurHampi and  Pattadakal) was an eye-opener in more ways than one. While I was amazed to see the excellent work done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in restoring and maintaining the sites, as well as the efforts taken by the Karnataka Tourism Board, I was appalled to see condition of heritage sites not maintained by the ASI. My visits to the Banashankari Temple and the Mahakuta Temple Complex, both near Badami, are perfect examples of this.

The Banashankari Temple site has been a place of worship for about 14 centuries or so, though the current temple building is only about 200 years old. The temple’s name is derived from its location in the Tilakaranya forest. The main deity, Banashankari is also known as Shakambari or the vegetable goddess. Banashankari was the kuldevata or the tutelary deity for the Chalukya kings of the 7th century.

Our tour group arrived at the Banashankari Temple after spending a magical and enchanted evening at the Bhoothnatha Temples and the Agastya Teertha, near the Badami Cave-Temples. And came back to earth rather rudely with a ride through narrow, dusty, potholed and dirty access road to the temple. It was an inkling to the state of the temple itself.

Outside the Banashankari Temple. The guard-cum-lamp tower at the entrance to the Harida Teertha in the centre of the photograph

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