Elephanta – The Playground of Shiva

Past References – Since Twentieth Century CE

Richard Harris (1905, Historical and Descriptive Guide to the Rock-cut Caves of Elephanta) – I do not have this work with me, details in this article are drawn from George Michell’s work. Richard, after Pykes and Ouseley, suggests the influence of Egyptian art over the Elephanta icons. He provides various similarities in between the styles of these two civilizations.

T A Gopinatha Rao (1914, The Elements of Hindu Iconography) – Rao’s work is a milestone in the study of Hindu iconography and still being referred by scholars. I have included this here as Rao described various Elephanta panels in his study.

About Gangadhara panel, he mentions that there was a female figure whose legs only remaining, who seems to be descending near the end of his jata which he held in his back right hand. I am not able to figure out this in the present panel. He identified the seated male figure near the right leg of Shiva as Bhagiratha. The triple headed female figure is identified as triple river Ganga after she was joined by the Yamuna and Sarasvati branches.

Rao was the first one to identify the Andhakantaka panel at Elephanta. Till then it was wrongly taken as Bhairava. He mentions that this is one of the finest depictions of this theme. He compares the Elephanta panel with the panels found at Ellora. He mentions that the goddess Yogesvari (Kali) is shown squatting on the ground, holding in her hand a cup in which she catches the blood-drops as they trickle down. Just above Kali is shown a dakini, half human and half bird, sitting waiting for her prey of human flesh. A devi is shown seated on the right of Kali. Rao mentions that these sculptures belong to same school. However, the Elephanta panel is much damaged at the bottom, hence it is hard to notice Kali, dakini and devi in it.

Rao was also the first to identify the Kalyanasundara-murti panel depicting Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. He mentions that it is very remarkably well-executed panel however unfortunately it is much mutilated. He mentions that behind Parvati is standing Lakshmi with her consort Vishnu who holds a large pot of water. However, there is much probability that Rao is wrong in this identification as the male figure with large pot of water should not be identified as Vishnu but probably as Chandra (moon) as he has the crescent behind his head. Also the female figure holds a chauri which probably makes it hard to be identified with Lakshmi. However, Rao is correct that the large male figure standing behind Parvati should be identified as her father.

Rao in his work, plate CXV, presented a stone Sadashivamurti which he mentioned that it was found at Elephanta. Rao mentions that the Trimurti sculpture of this cave represents Mahesha murti with its left head representing Aghora, middle one Sadyojata. He did not provide any identification for the right head.

E B Havell (1921, Ars Asiatica vol III) – I do not have access to this article hence my observations on it are derived from Collins directly. Havell suggests that the linga in the central shrine inside the main cave is later substitution of the four-headed image of Brahma found at the site. This is the same stone image which was produced as a plate in Rao’s work mentioned above. Havell however was wrong in mentioning that as an image of Brahma as Rao was correct in identifying that as Sadashiva image.

Havell also did not agree with earlier scholars on identifying the middle face of the Trimurti image as that of Brahma, but he said that it represents Vishnu as the preserver. The jewel in the headdress represents Solar emblem and the missing right hand was raised in vitarka-mudra (a gesture of argumentation), Havell writes. Havell takes the proper right face as of Shiva and the proper left face as of Parvati.

Kanaiyalal H Vakil (1932, Rock-cut Temples Around Bombay at Elephanta and Jogeshwari Mandapeshwar and Kanheri) – I do not have this book at my disposal, hence my comments here are largely borrowed from Collins. Vakil’s book was largely a derivative but does contain some sensitive aesthetic responses and a number of stylistic comparisons within and without the cave. He suggests that the debris filled eastern entrance was probably the main entrance of the cave.

S R Wauchop (1933, The Buddhist Cave Temples of India) – Wauchop’s book was on the Buddhist caves however he included a chapter for the Elephanta caves as he believes that one cave at least must have been made by the Buddhist builders.

He tells that the cave which has a chaitya window and rail-pattern must be originally Buddhist and later converted to Buddhism. He provides description of the main cave as though it was not Buddhist but visited by many people. He identifies the Sadashiva murti with Hindu trinity comprising Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Recent discovery of few Buddhist caves on this island, supports the theory that this island was inhabited by Buddhist monks at some point of time prior to Hindu establishment.

Hirananda Sastri (1934, Guide to Elephanta) – It was Sastri who, after James Burgess, brought up a meticulous and up-to-date reference book on Elephanta. He provided detailed description of all the panels and identified these to almost the same as these are known today. For the Trimurti image, he tells that it represents Shiva in three aspects, creator, preserver and destroyer. Sastri was the first to identify the ascetic Shiva image in the main cave and the subsidiary cave as that of Lakulisa, the twenty-eight and the last incarnation of Shiva as the Puranas. His identification of this image as that of Lakulisa is based upon the comparison with the similar image found at the Dhumar-lena cave at Ellora. 

Stella Kramrisch (1946, Ancient India no 2) – Kramrisch wrote an article on the Mahadeva image of Elephanta and supplied with photographs taken by his pupil, Prithwish Neogy, who did some experiments with sun-reflectors and artificial lights while taking photographs. She mentions that the great sculpture of Mahadeva is an image of the fully manifest Supreme Shiva. In the middle is the face of Tatpurusha, the faces of Aghora and Vamadeva are collateral. Aghora holds a snake and Vamadeva holds a lotus.

Kramrsich tells that Vishnudharmottara knows the five faces of Shiva under a double set of names. The first set is Ishana, Tatpurusha, Aghora, Vamadeva and Sadyojata. The other set is Sadashiva, Mahadeva, Bhairava, Uma and Nandin. These names in different sets corresponds to each other respectively, thus Tatpurusha-Mahadeva, Aghora-Bhairava and Vamadeva-Uma would be the faces of this bust as Elephanta. Thus Kramrisch suggests this is how the image of Mahadeva carved at Elephanta.

J N Banerjea (1956, The Development of Hindu Iconography) – Banerjea, in contrast to Kramrisch, matches the double sets of names of the five faces of Shiva, as found in Vishnudharmottara, as Sadyojata-Mahadeva, Tatpurusha-Nandi, Aghora-Bhairava, Vamadeva-Uma and Ishana-Sadashiva. Hence he identifies the central face with Mahadeva, proper right face with Bhairava and proper left face with Umavaktra. Though his identification matches with that of Kramrisch if we consider only the second set of names, but in case of first set of names, as their matches differs hence the identification differs as well.

Muriel Neff (1960, MARG vol 13 no 4) – I am not able to get this MARG volume; hence comments in this article are largely bought from Collins. Neff, for the first time, proposes that the plan of the main cave is a derivation of Vastupurushamandala explained by Stella Kramrisch. She also tries to relate this with the Shiva temple at Bhitargaon. She also proposes that the northern entrance is the principal entrance and the Trimurti is the main altar while the detached linga shrine is the secondary altar. She further tells that the Dhumar Lena cave precedes Elephanta.

Pramod Chandra (1970, Elephanta Caves, Gharapuri) – I do not have this book however it appears to be a handy guide book for the tourists. It might be that Chandra provided some new insights into the cave complex, if yes, then I have no information available on this.

Heimo Rao (1976, Reflections on Indian Art) – I do not have this work with me; my comments here are largely borrowed from Collins. He proposed that the large plan of the cave suggests that it was pilgrimage site. Various tableaux around the cave, on its clockwise circumambulation, depict the gods as mere spectators watching the drama all around. The clockwise circumambulation ends with Shiva as Mahayogi, emphasizing the eternal bliss attached with the utmost achievement of that stage.

K V Soundara Rajan (1981, Cave Temples of Deccan) – Soundara Rajan takes the Badami Chalukyas for the builders of this cave complex. He rejects the theory for the Kalachuris or Vakatakas, and in his arguments he presents the architectural framework and continuity of the Badami Chalukyas which fits in the case of Elephanta. For the Trimurti Shiva, he identifies it with Mahesha-murti and for Shiva in meditation is identified as Mahayogi by him.

B N Chaudhury (1982, Buddhist Centers in Ancient India)Chaudhury writes very few words about Elephanta however he included it in his list of Buddhist centers. He acknowledges that many caves at the island are Brahmanical but he also mentions that one cave has a Buddhist chaitya.

Carmel Berkson (1983, Elephanta – the Cave of Shiva) – Carmel Berkson has worked extensively over Indian art and sculptures. She herself was an established sculptor. This work of hers contains three essays, one from herself, one from George Michell and one from Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. Her essay was mostly around the spatial arrangement, dimensions, angles and aestheticism of the various panels and sculptures at this site. She mentions that the best one is the panel of Nataraja which generated the best three dimensional appearance.

Michell was mostly concerned about the mandala of the cave. His points are described more in details in his own work listed below. O’Flaherty’s essays received somewhat negative responses from various scholars. Her suggestions about Shiva and his behavior was not taken in appreciative manner.

Owen C Kail (1984, Elephanta: The Island of Mystery) – Kail discussed Elephanta in the context of rock-cut architectural development at Ellora and Jogeshvari. First he mentions that Dhumar Lena cave at Ellora was the predecessor of Elephanta and Jogeshvari however in his last chapter he changed his opinion and put Elephanta before Dhumar Lena.

The main argument in the change of opinion was his conviction that these caves were first Buddhist and later converted into Hindu. Remains of chaitya arches on one of the cave’s facade is taken as the proof of this conviction by him.

He identifies all the icons of the main cave. The trimurti image is identified by him as Maheshamurti, depicting three out of five heads of Sadasiva icon. He identifies the ascetic Shiva as Mahayogi Shiva instead of Lakulisa.

Karl Khandalawala & V V Krishnan Sastry (1990, The Island Shrine Elephanta) – I do not have this work with me, I will update the article once it is available.

Charles Dillard Collins (1991, The Iconography of Ritual of Shiva at Elephanta) – Collins wrote his monumental work on Elephanta comprising its historical, mythological, cultural and architectural aspects. He advocates the Kalachuri origin of the caves, and fully agrees with Spink. He also accepts its Lakulisha association. In favor of this argument, he points to special emphasis on counter-clockwise circumambulation of a shrine. He tells that the sculptural scheme at Elephanta presents the progressive approach if circumambulated counter-clockwise.

George Michell (2002, Elephanta) – Michell explained the mandala of the main cave by a geometrical diagram consisting of 37 squares formed by 5 by 5 matrix with 3 additional squares on each side. Out of 37 squares, one was used by the shrine, hence 36 squares are left. As per the shilpa texts, the mandala should have 9, 16 or 25 squares. Michell mentions number 36 is as auspicious for Hindus as other numbers like 9, 16 and 25. Michell further mentions that this mandala has two axis, north-south and east-west. The east-west axis passes through the linga shrine while the south-west axis has the Trimurti image in its center. Therefore the linga shrine and the Trimurti image were the main objects of veneration in the cave.

He mentions various theories on the date and origin of these caves, however he did not adhere to any particular one. About the meditating Shiva sculpture in the main cave, he mentions that few scholars had identified it as Lakulisha however he did not intend to do so. Though, the similar image in the western cave, he identifies that as of Lakulisha. He puts Jogeshwari before Elephanta and the Dhumar Lena cave after the Elephanta in chronology.

Dulari Qureshi (2010, Rock-cut Temples of Western India) – Qureshi is the latest author who has taken up Elephanta in her monumental work on the cave temples of western India. She discussed on dating and authorship of these caves. She disapproves the Kalachuri affiliation and goes with Soundara Rajan while stating that these were built by the Chalukyas of Badami. She also does not agree with the identification of Lakulisha and instead identifies the panel as Mahayogi form of Shiva. Many of her arguments seem to be driven from those of Soundara Rajan.

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