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Western India is famous for a string of rock-cut temples ranging in date from the 2nd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. Around Bombay alone, one can see within a radius of 20 kms several of them including the Buddhist rock-cut temples of Kanheri and Kondivite and the brahminical caves of Elephanta, Mandapesvar, and Jogesvari.
The island of Elephanta, originally known as Gharapuri, derives its name from a massive stone elephant now displayed in the Victoria Gardens in Bombay. Except for a few Kshatrapa coins of the 4th century A.D. found here nothing is known of the history of Elephanta prior to the defeat of Mauryan rulers of Konkan by the Chalukyan emperor Pulikesin II of Badami in a naval battle for the island in 635 A.D.
There are three caves (rock-cut temples) out of which one is dedicated to Siva. Others are of no particular interest. The main cave datable to the mid 7th century A.D. comprises of a pillared hall in which a small shrine with four entrance doors flanked by Guardians (Dvarapals) is situated. It is a unique example of a happy blending of the Gupta and Chalukyan arts. While the massive but graceful figures of divinities and guardians and certain architectural features such as square pillars with cushion-capitals suggest Chalukyan influence, the depiction of mountains and clouds and the hair style of women are reminiscent of Gupta art.
The sculptured panels depict Siva as Anugrahamurti (bestower of gifts) or Samharamurti (destroyer of evil and ignorance). The figure of Mahesamurti (as Siva is called when all the three aspects of creation, protection, and destruction are combined), in the central panel of the back wall is a masterpiece of Chalukya-Gupta art. His calm face in the centre represents the protector, while his ferocious face on the left depicts Bhairava (responsible for destruction), and the one on the right having a gentle feminine look is that of Vamadeva (responsible for creation).
Other important panels on the side walls are those of Yogisvara (Lord of Yoga), Nataraja (cosmic dancer), Ardhanarisvara, Gangadhara, and Ravananugraha Siva. The circular pedestal in the open courtyard marks the seat of Nandi (Bull), the vehicle of Siva.
The side cave has a small shrine and a Pradakshinapatha (circumambulatory passage). An interesting panel in this cave is that of Ashtamatrikas (eight mother goddesses) flanked by Kartikeya and Ganesha.
A Siva Linga in the main cave temple.
A different Siva Linga. Ensure that you take off your footwear before you enter this holy room. Else the guard on duty will ensure that you do so. Thanks to Vinayak for this image.
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