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Elephanta Caves, India

This page is about the fascinating sculptures from the Elephanta caves in India.

Andhakasura-badh (Killing of the Demon named Andhaka)
Photo taken from "Elephanta: The Cave of Shiva", Essays by Wendy O'Flaherty, George Michell and Carmel Berkson (Princeton University Press, 1983)

I will easily pick the Andhakasura-badh relief (see above) at the Elephanta caves along with Michaelangelo's David as two top favorite sculptures that I have actually seen. I will also select one of Rodin's ageless beauties in front of which I have spent long hours at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, at Stanford University and in Paris. To this list I must also add a few supremely elegant creations still mesmerizing visitors after more than 1500 years from the Ellora caves in Maharashtra, India.

Unfortunately many, if not most, of the sculptures in the Elephanta caves have been severely damagaed due to the passing of time. But more directly they have been badly mutilated due to gunshot "wounds" (how else can I describe it?) and wholescale vandalism by Portugese sailors. These sailors from the "civilized" world, at the peak of Portugeese domination of the world, apparently used to practise shooting inside those caves where they used to take shelter. No thought was given to the destruction of some strange statues in some remote "uncivilized" part of the world. They of course had no idea what they were doing.

The photos displayed here were taken by me almost twenty years ago during my trip to the Elephanta island, which can be reached from Mumbai (Bombay), India, by an hour long launch-ride. The launch ride starts not too far from the famous Taj Hotel (see photo at right); this beautiful building was the scene of a horrifying terrorist attack in 2008.

These photos were taken with my old friend Minolta X-700 SLR film camera, the last non-autofocus SLR from Minolta, just before Maxxum 7000 was introduced. Of course there were no digital cameras in those days. There was no possibility of correcting exposure errors. As you can see the photos are not of high quality. I must admit, I was completely confounded by the intense daylight outside the caves and the deep darkness within. Direct electronic flash was of no use, it robs the sculptures of their three-dimensionality and makes them unbearably flat. Therefore, it is almost pure luck that the photos came as good as they did. I nevertheless display the photos because I so much like the ambience of the caves, which, not in small part, is due to the sheer dynamic quality in these sculptures. I hope that despite my failure as a photographer, the viewers would be able to appreciate some of the artistic qualities of these sculptures and if they find themselves around Mumbai, will surely not miss the chance to visit this gem.

Needless to say I plan to return to Elephanta equipped with a digital camera.

A short description of the Elephanta caves:

The elephanta caves are located in the Elephanta island which is about 10 km from Mumbai (Bombay) in the state of Maharashtra, India. The local name of the island is Gharpuri. The name Elephanta was given by the Portugese and is attributed to the presence of a huge rock-cut monolith elephant in the island, which was later removed by the British and placed in the Victoria Gardens (Veermata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan) at Mumbai. The sculptures of these caves are hewn straight out of solid dark basalt rock. The caves are dated between 5th and 8th centuries, but some confusion still remains about their artisitic creator or the king who funded them. As customary, the caves were all probably painted in the beginning, but only traces of paint remain today.

There are two sets of caves in this complex, a larger set of five caves attributed to the supreme Hindu God Shiva, and two caves containing Buddhist themes. The main cave used to be an active place of worship until Portuguese rule began in 1534, when the caves suffered severe damage. After years of neglect the caves were renovated in the 1970s, and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to preserve the artwork. It is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Most of the descriptions I included in these pages are accumulated from the following books (click on the images for bigger versions):
Amar Chitra Katha (India Book House Pvt. Ltd.). These comic books, which describe mythological and historical heroic characters are very popular in India and are often the unofficial source of history for the kids.
Elephanta: The Cave of Shiva,
Essays by Wendy O'Flaherty, George Michell and Carmel Berkson (Princeton University Press, 1983)
Archaeological Remains: Monuments and Museums, Part I
(Archaeological Survey of India, Government of India, 1964)
The Presence of Siva
BY Stella Kramrisch, (Motilal Banarsidass 1988)
A Guide to Elephanta
BY Hirachand Shastri, (Kanak Publications, New Delhi, India)
Elephanta The Island of Mystery
BY Owen Kail, (Taraporevala, Bombay, India)

[Click on any image.]

Last Revised September 10, 2010

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