A couple days ago, we headed out to Elephanta Island, a small Island in Mumbai Harbor about 6 miles east of Mumbai. We were going to see the 1600 year-old caves and rock carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To get there, you need to catch a ferry – they run every 30 minutes – and the guidebooks and Internet led us directly to the ferry ticket booth and prepared us for the cost of the ferry. The guidebooks and Internet did NOT, however, describe where to go once you had your tickets, and neither did the rather sour man behind the ticket window who sold them to us.
In an effort to save future travelers 10 minutes of wandering and asking other tourists where to go, here’s what you do: as you face the Gateway of India and look left, there will be hundreds of people lined up to get on boats. Those aren’t the boats you need, and thankfully there are not long lines for the right boats. The boats you need actually pull up directly behind the Gateway of India. So walk around to the back side of it, do your best to look like a tourist while holding out your ticket, and you’ll be quickly directed onto a boat.
With our seats on the ferry secured, we headed off on the one hour trip to Elephanta Island. The boat is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. For an hour, the droning engine of the boat blocks out the sounds of your fellow passengers, leaving you to enjoy the fresh(er) air, cool breeze, and gentle rocking of the vessel as you cruise along. We thought we were in a good mood already when we got onboard, but 10 minutes into the ride we were absolutely euphoric.
An hour later, we arrived at a long pier jutting out from a small, jungle-clad island. Rather than pulling up directly to the pier, our boat pulled up alongside an already-moored boat, and we disembarked from our boat to the next boat, and then through that boat to the pier. An interesting, but effective, solution to the relatively low number of mooring stations on the pier. From there, you can either walk the half mile from the pier to the stairs that lead to the cave entrance, or you can take a small toy train for 10 rupees (round trip). We opted to walk.
When you reach the stairs, you’re faced with maybe 10 minutes of climbing. The stairway is about 12 feet wide, and lining it the entire way on both sides are booths where people are selling everything from freshly roasted corn, snacks, and water, to fake guns, elephant statues carved from jade, and commemorative dishes featuring the Taj Mahal. It’s kind of amazing the array of knickknacks that were for sale here. If we were on a shorter trip, I’m sure we would have come home with our fair share of junk.
At the top of the stairs is the main event – the caves. I cannot do their history justice in a short blog post – please check out the Wikipedia article for more details. For now, just know that they are Hindu and Buddhist caves from the 5th and 8th centuries, and they contain cut-rock depictions of various Hindu gods (mostly Shiva) made directly into the walls of the cave.
The caves held up well to our expectations. They are in good condition, though not completely restored. I enjoyed that fact, as you can really get a sense of the age of the carvings. In the main cave complex sits the largest and most important carving: the Trimurti, a depiction of a three-headed Shiva representing creation, preservation, and destruction – the three aspects of Shiva. Oh yeah, and the heads are 20 feet tall. It’s an imposing, and gorgeous, carving cut out of the wall of the cave. To the left and right of the Trimurti are other depictions of Shiva. They are similarly impressive, though smaller and are generally not restored. All other available wall space in the main cave complex is similarly adorned, there’s also an ancient and huge cistern, and a few shrines. The whole main complex is held up by maybe 25 pillars that were left while the cave itself was excavated and then carved and decorated.
The primary shrine is in the center of the complex inside its own four walls. Each wall has a doorway, and each doorway is guarded by two 15-foot tall stone “gate keepers”, each of which is unique. Most of the gate keepers are damaged, though a couple are remarkably well preserved.
After leaving the main cave complex, we headed to two smaller cave sets: one Hindu, one Buddhist. They are more open and contain little to no detailed wall carvings, though they were significantly less trafficked by other tourists and were very serene and full of shrines. Some of the more devout among the tourists would remove their shoes, enter the shrines, and leave an offering and say a prayer. A security guard stood watch to make sure nobody disrespected the shrine by entering with shoes, being loud, or otherwise disrupting those who were praying.
Apart from the caves, the views from the Island back toward Mumbi are amazing. They would be spectacular if not for the air pollution, but even with it, you can take in the full enormity of the Mumbai skyline. It’s just a never-ending, miles long stretch of high rises as far as you can see in all directions. I intellectually knew that Mumbai had to be huge to house 21 million people, but you can’t really feel what a city that size looks like until you get away from it and turn around, which is exactly what you can do from here.
No account of Elephanta Island would be complete without a word about the monkeys. The island is inhabited by what I am sure are tens of thousands of rhesus monkeys and they want anything and everything you have that may be edible or drinkable. Everything. If you’re holding something that resembles a water bottle, they’re coming for it. If you open food near them, they’re going to take it from you. The literature about Elephanta Island warns of “aggressive monkeys”, but they don’t seem to go out of their way to bother you unless you’ve got food or water. We just kept our distance and took pictures, though a few people got too close and were presented with what Wikipedia describes as a “silent open-mouth stare” as the monkey charged them.
Finally, you may be wondering why it’s called “Elephanta Island” when I didn’t mention any elephants. The island was so named because in the 1600s, Portugese explorers stopped by and found a large monolithic sculpture of an elephant on the island. After naming the island after the sculpture, they tried to take it with them to Portugal (of course), but accidentally dropped it into the ocean. It was later recovered, restored, and now sits in a museum in Mumbai.