Elephanta Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site which rises majestically out of the Arabian sea 10km east of Mumbai harbour with ancient Hindu and Buddhist cave temples.
A brief history of Elephanta Caves
Why and when the caves were created, and by who, is a mystery that makes Elephanta island a fascinating place to visit. I love that a visitor’s imagination can run wild and add a personal touch to the years and years of wonder and debate.
The architecture, depictions and inscriptions within the caves suggest that the cave temples were built in the mid-6th century BC under the rule of King Krishnarraja. The Buddhist Stupas on the east hill can be tentatively dated to the 2nd century BC.
Elephanta Island has been controlled by many dynasties and kingdoms over the centuries. It was named Gharapuri (Village of Caves) by the Marathi people and that continues to be its local name.
In colonial times the Portuguese invaded the island. The island was renamed ‘Elephanta’ by them as they were inspired by the massive elephant sculpture that once stood like a guardian over the sea.
Portuguese soldiers have been accused of the wanton and wilful destruction of the caves. Rumour and stories are rife that the ornate relief carvings were once used as target practice.
In the 1970’s, thankfully, the Indian Government decided to restore Elephanta Island. It was a fantastic decision which has allowed a great many locals and tourist to enjoy all the culture, history and mystique Elephanta has to offer.
What to see at the Elephanta Caves
The island is home to huge caves hewn out of the basalt rock and decorated with scenes of an ancient society and culture.
These caves are simply breath-taking. Lovers of history will adore studying the ancient texts, spiritual philosophy, mythology and epic tales depicted in the wall carvings. It’s like reading a giant storybook.
Exploring the island
- The routes around the cave sites are well marked. It’s mostly shaded by leafy trees with pretty spots to appreciate views of the lush foothills and the sea beyond.
- The west hill (Cannon Hill) rises gradually from the sea and is home to the Great Cave (Cave 1) with its Shivite depictions of ancient life and the epic stories of the Hindus. Caves 2-5 are close by.
- Cannon Hill is named after the imposing black cannons which were once Mumbai’s first defence against invasion and piracy. They are also one of the best places on the island to take awesome panoramic photos.
- The rim of the east hill (Stupa Hill) shelters the Buddhist caves and stupas of caves 6 and 7.
- There is a ruined Buddhist stupa on the east hill which is largely unexplored.
- There is a walkway between the east and west hills.
- Be careful as you climb the stairs to the main entrance. The monkeys which lurk in the shadows are naughty!
The Grand Cave
- The Grand Cave (Cave 1) was an active place of Hindu worship until the Portuguese colonials arrived.
- It is a staggering 40 metres from the cave entrance to the back wall.
- Despite the damage to the carvings the impact of the three main sculptures in the Grand Cave is still stunning.
- The ‘Sadashiv’ is the focal point and elaborately depicts Lord Shiva’s three personalities. The Creator, The Preserver and The Destroyer.
- Every aspect of a Hindu’s worship of Shiva is represented in the Grand Cave and it is a real feast for the eyes.
- The sculptures are beautiful, sensual and full of the power of the emotions depicted on the faces of the Gods and Goddesses.
Cannon Hill – Caves 2-5
- Cave 2 is slightly up the hill from The Grand Cave and is unfinished. There are rock pillars, a portico, a hall and three smaller rooms behind it.
- Cave 3 is the second most impressive of the Elephanta caves. The large pillars at the entrance are very grand and there are lots of ornate carvings inside.
- Cave 4 has a large open veranda which is a great place for a picnic lunch in the shade. The door arch is beautifully carved and leads to a large shrine area with a Shivalinga at the centre.
- Cave 5 is another unfinished cave and is the least accessible as the path is rough. It’s a good place to imagine how the bigger caves looked in ancient times when they were originally being excavated and carved.
Stupa Hill – Caves 6-7
- The eastern hill (Stupa Hill) is connected to the west by a walkway which passes a pretty, tree lined lake.
- The two caves on Stupa Hill are decorated with Buddhist themes and architectural influences.
- A Stupa sits at the top of the east hill and there are also several ornate water cisterns.
ELEPHANTA CAVES: THE ESSENTIALS
Elephanta Caves Guided Tours
If you want a professional guide for a half day trip or to include a full day trip seeing the highlights of Mumbai, click here to book your Elephanta Caves Tour!
Going independently to Elephanta Caves
The Journey from Mumbai
If you want to head to Elephanta Caves on your own, the journey begins at The Gateway of India, a large arch monument on the waterfront in Mumbai. Here are some details about the ferry!
- A ferry to Elephanta Caves leaves the Gateway every half hour from 9am to 2pm.
- Return ferries leave from Elephanta Island every half hour from 12.30pm to 5.30pm.
- The ferry ride, on a cute little blue and white striped boat, takes an hour.
- A 30-minute walk or much quicker toy train ride (10 rupees) are required from the ferry to the caves.
- Allow an hour at the very least to explore the caves.
- The ferry costs 150 rupees for a return trip with an extra 10 rupees charged if you want to sit on the top deck and enjoy the full drama of the Mumbai coastline.
The central government has sanctioned a project to make a 8-km long ropeway connecting Mumbai to Elephanta Caves which will take 15 minutes. The estimated completion date is in 2022 and will be the first over-the-ocean ropeway of the country.
Entrance fee to Elephanta Caves
- Tourists – 600 rupees.
- Locals – 40 rupees.
- Under 15’s – Free.
- Look into booking online via Yatra to beat the hustle and bustle of the ticket office.
Opening times of Elephanta Caves
- Visiting hours are between 9.30am and 5.30pm
- Elephanta Caves are closed all day Monday
Best time to visit Elephanta Caves
- If you’re not fond of travelling on water then, if possible, avoid visiting the caves in the monsoon months of June-August as boat schedules may be interrupted by the weather and the water will be rough.
- November-February will offer the most pleasant weather for happily wandering around the caves.
- February is the month of the two-day Elephanta Festival. It’s a fantastically colourful and musical occasion that showcases the atmosphere, history and culture of the caves.
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