A Brief History of Elephanta Caves

by Vinaya HS on December 19, 2006

in The Mumbai Blog,Travel

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History: Elephanta Caves, Rock-Cut Temples

Click for a full-size image.

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.

Siva Linga

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.

Siva Linga

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

jjp January 31, 2007 at 9:39 PM

great stuff.. thanks very much
using lots of your ideas for a project of mine if you dont mind.
thanks again

ashish joshi March 6, 2008 at 8:41 PM

thax for info. it’s very interesting. if u have more on it please pass on. i am curious to know about the aim of these emporers to such massive work

mahindra s singh March 27, 2010 at 2:19 PM

hi this is mahindra thanks good work great picture

Suresh K Rai December 2, 2010 at 8:39 PM

It is a marvellous and historical place to be preserved

Sethu K Menon February 14, 2011 at 10:51 AM

Very Very Useful Informations. Please give the details of those who behind the building of this historical caves.

krishna patil August 26, 2011 at 6:03 PM

osssaaaammmm .

ritesh December 4, 2011 at 11:02 AM

dear friend
please correct some information as the caves near andheri-kondivite and near jogeshwari-are not brahmanical,plz visit them again,once were the buddhist caves encroached by brahmanical forces and just like buddha been misinterpreted as vishnu avatar,the caves too been brahmanised.


ritesh December 4, 2011 at 11:04 AM

today i am going to elephantasince ive got an info of finding new two buddha caves nearby mountain with stupas and ancient carvings.


Shaikh December 26, 2011 at 5:47 PM

Very informative on time.

Shaikh December 26, 2011 at 5:55 PM

is it safe to go?

abhi... October 8, 2012 at 9:38 PM

Great , thanks for the info , I had been Der yesterday but was not able to understand anything out Der , I tried but no , thank u again now I understud ..

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