Elephanta Island, India: A UNESCO Heritage Site

Faith inspires - the Elephanta carvings make that clear. Someone motivated by religious conviction went to tremendous effort to see that the rock was manually chiseled.

Photography by Thomas M. Mueller

“In a dark moment in history, the Portuguese used the location for military training. The British, on the other hand, employed it for cocktails.”

- Guide, December, 2011 at Elephanta Island, India

Faith inspires — the Elephanta carvings make that clear.

Initially, someone motivated by religious conviction went to tremendous effort to see that the rock was manually chiseled. Today, the carefully carved cliff still creates a spiritual experience for most visitors, no matter what their beliefs.

The height of some of the Elephanta carvings stand up to 19 feet tall.

Oddly, the cave carvings aren’t carvings at all. The columns and structures were manually whittled from rock around the 6th century C.E. No one is certain who created them. However, we do know that it had to be considerable work considering the primitive tools available at the time.

The result is structures that are up to 19 feet tall. One niche includes the god Shiva in altered appearances as creator, preserver and destroyer. This meaning is un-intelligible to most foreign visitors who require a guidebook or guide to appreciate the full interpretation.

The head of the God of Shiva is in three forms (creator, preserver and destroyer). It is the cave’s highlight.

Getting to Elephanta Island is easy for those staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. The boats to the island leave from the Gate of India, which lies almost immediately outside the Taj Mahal’s door. The trip over is pleasant. After arriving, either a walk or train can be taken to reach the hill that leads to the cave. After that, if someone choses, she or he can even hire a chair sedan to be carried to the top of the hill. The fee for this service is about $10.

The boats that travel to Elephanta Island daily are located in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

The train that travels from the boat landing to the bottom of the hill is both charming and free of charge. However, once at the base of the hill, vendors with everything you probably don’t want line the path to the caves. This includes jewelry, carved elephants, scent balls, balloons and other assorted wares. The best way to avoid buying is to ignore the vendors. If eye contact is made, even briefly, they have a way of engaging and not letting go until something is purchased.

The train from the boat dock at Elephanta Island to the base of the hill.

Once at the top of the hill, monkeys are the welcoming committee. They are fun to watch and can be comical. But, the guide warns us to “Stay your distance as they can bite.”

Still, they provided welcome entertainment both before and after we entered the cave and were a fitting addition to a pleasant day. For me, Elephanta was worthwhile. Not only was it inspiring to see, but also a relatively easy journey.

The monkeys at Elephanta Island stared at us while we stared at them. At other times, they acted like children chasing one another.

Some specifics:

How to get there: By boat from the Gate of India in Mumbai just steps from the Taj Mahal Hotel. The ride is about 45 minutes.

Caution: There is a long flat (approximately 20-minute) walk and then another 125 steps up a steep hill from the dock at Elephanta; wear sunscreen and take a hat. A train is provided for the flat walk if desired and a sedan carried by four Indian porters can be rented to go up and down the hill.

Total Time: About six hours, including the boat trip.