The Elephant of Elephanta

Elephanta Elephant, Mumbai, Bhau Daji Lad MuseumIn a fenced enclosure outside the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (formerly known as Victoria & Albert Museum) at the Jijamata Udyaan (formerly known as Victoria Garden) in Mumbai, is an Elephant. Not a flesh and blood elephant, mind you, but a stone elephant with a long and interesting history to share.

Carved in the 6th century from a single piece of rock at one of the many entrances to the island known as Gharpuri, the Elephant saw many a king come and go for over a 1000 years. Then one day, in early 16th century, the Elephant saw the first European colonisers — the Portuguese — to the region. The Portuguese were so awed by him that they promptly named the Gharpuri after him — the Elephanta Island, a name it has been known as since then.

When the Portuguese relinquished their rights over the region to the British 150 years later, the Elephant was witness to this as well. The new colonisers were also impressed and awed with him. In fact, the English were so impressed with the Elephant, that they wanted to take him home to England. But this was no easy task and it took them nearly 200 years to put their wish in action.

On a sunny day in 1864, a crane was brought to the Island to lift the Elephant from his rocky home and transport him to ship that would then take him to a new home at a museum in England. This was no easy task and the local people and the English Officers directing this operation watched with bated breath as the crane huffed and puffed, and finally managed to lift the Elephant.

And as the arm of the crane swung around with its elephantine cargo, disaster struck. The crane snapped sending the Elephant crashing down and breaking him into pieces.

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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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