The Treasures of the Sea – Mumbai, India

The Treasures of the Sea
Mumbai (Bombay), India

The Cave Filled with Treasures
Everyone who visits Mumbai hears of and invariably visits the Gateway of India. This 26 metre-high stone gateway was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911.

Tourists throng to visit it now, and right opposite stands the 5-star luxury hotel of the Old Taj, equally impressive. I learned that there was an attempt to drive away the many pigeons that roost here, through methods not really humane. Fortunately, the pigeons are still here.

My visit here was for a different purpose. Steep stone steps lead into the sea, and one can ride on the small motor boats or ships and see Mumbai’s coastline or, better still, satisfy one’s curiosity of the island looming in the distance.

I opted for the latter. In just under 40 minutes, we reached the island of the Elephanta Caves. Jumping off the jetty, I walked up to the caves. A long walk, one also has to trudge up steep stone steps, but I did not think it worthwhile to wait for the little toy tram (if there really is one as I did not see it) to take me up there.

The island seems to have got its name after a huge elephant idol, which was discovered by the Portuguese who first landed here. A few guides mention that this elephant statue is found in one of the local museums, yet others swore that it is in the Victoria Gardens, the local zoo. On my next trip to Mumbai, I shall try and trace it out.

It seems to me that the name of the island should be changed to “Monkey Island”. No offence meant, but the throngs of monkeys were a real nuisance, as were the guides. I finally joined a group of other Asian tourists; most of them were from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Heavy pillars carved from rocks held up the main cave. There are three entrances to the temple caves, from the north, east and west sides. We stepped gingerly into the opening in the volcanic cave. The guide informed us that these caves date back to 6th century AD and were built during the reign of Raja Krishnaraja and are dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, who has three avatars (persona): the creator, the preserver, the destroyer.

The tiny guide booklet, which I held firmly in hand, has another story to tell. It stated that the caves date back to the 9th century, when the Silhara Empire reigned. Irrespective of these contradictions, it is certain that the temple caves are dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The most famous carving is that of Maheshmurthi – a huge (20 ft-high according to the guide) three-headed bust of Shiva, depicting these three avatars; it is in fact a carving found in the inner recesses of the cave.

The main cave has many other carvings: a dancing Shiva; Shiva with his wife Parvati during their wedding ceremony (the ceremony is presided by another god, Brahma, and is attended by scores of other gods and goddess); Shiva in meditation with snakes coiled around him; Shiva gently releasing the goddess Ganga (the holy river of India to ensure that she does not flood the world); and Shiva depicted as Ardhanareshwar (I hope I have got this spelling right!). It seems that Shiva split his body, creating two forms, the male and female, and thus birth was possible. A few other carvings are found on the walls of this main cave. Added to this, however, is the graffiti by the local Romeos – sickening.

At another end is the Linga. The Linga (a conical shape) depicts Shiva as the Lord of Fertility and Reproduction. Bright red and yellow flowers were being offered at this place. There are other smaller caves (rooms), most of which are in much need of repair. In fact, restoration is on going in some places, as the Elephanta Caves are now labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the officials mentioned that the rock formation is of basalt and limestone, thus the carvings are easily susceptible to wear and tear.

Most of us stood mesmerized by the Maheshmurthi. Once our eyes had gotten used to the dim light inside, we noticed that the middle head, gazing straight ahead, depicted an unbelievable calm and serenity. Our guide informed us that it is not always so. During the day, he has witnessed Shiva having several different expressions.

We knew that this was largely because of the interplay of light; light enters the cave from different angles. But we preferred to believe him as we made our way back to the jetty.

Mumbai’s Arabian Sea did offer quite a few pleasant surprises.