Elephanta – The Playground of Shiva


    Some Interesting Threads

    The Elephanta Elephant – The island of Elephanta was named so because of a stone elephant which once stood near the landing place. Reference of this fine monolith is available since the earliest accounts of the isle. This elephant has been an object of controversy because of a figure on its back. Fryer was the fisrt one to mention that it bears a young one on its back. Captain Pykes provides a plate in his work which shows a small one on the back of this elephant. Grose mentions that ‘on the back of the elephant was placed standing another young one appearing to have been all of the same stone, but it has been long broken down’.

    The Elephanta Elephant


    Niebuhr mentions that it bears some object on its back but time has rendered it quite unrecognizable. Hunter, who visited in 1784, mentions that the elephant has something on its back. Goldingham mentions that the elephant was large as the life. James Burgess provides the measurements of this monolith as 13 feet 2 inches in length and about 7 feet and 4 inches high. In 1813, Erskine and Hall climbed the back of the elephant to identify the young one as mentioned by Pykes and others. They found the remains of four paws and that its belly was joined to the back of the elephant. On this basis, Hall suggests that it was a crouching tiger. The whole monolith was much in ruins during their visit. Looking at the one of the photograph produced in George Michell’s work, it appears that it might be howdah to me.

    Its head and neck dropped off in September 1814 CE and the whole statue crumbled down into a mass of ruins by 1852 CE. This elephant was moved to Victoria Gardens in Mumbai in 1864 CE. Here it was restored to its original shape and it is still standing at this location, now known as Veer Mata Jeejabai Park or Rani Baug where Mumbai City Museum or Dau Bhaji Lad Museum is located.

    Joanna Williams tries to find if there is any relationship existing between the stone elephant that once stood at the island and the caves. She points to the inferior workmanship, especially on the lower part of the animal, when compared with the elephant carved in the Ardhanareeshvar panel in the main cave, though both might be contemporaneous. However similar observations can be made in other instances where such free standing monoliths are found, such as Dhauli rock elephant, Mahabalipuram Panch Pandava Ratha and Ellora Kailasha Temple.

    Williams writes that the work in rock-cut cave was mostly done in top-down approach where the master architect worked on the top and left the lower part to be completed by his apprentices. In similar case, on monoliths, many carvers would have been involved at one given time. Probably the master sculptor devoted himself on the head as that would make the first impression and all other sculptors were assigned to the other parts of the animal. The head of the Elephanta elephant has not survived hence not much can be concluded.

    Williams suggests that these monolith elephants were setup as to guard the temple. She further makes comparison between these free-standing elephants with the present time temple elephants. She provides a reference from Matanglila of Nilakantha where the author stated that elephants were able to fly and roamed freely on the earth and the sky until they were cursed by a sage and deprived of the power to move at their will. Ramayana also has a reference where it is stated that mountains also had to move and fly at their will which later was deprived off by Indra.

    Williams suggests that the commonality between the mountains and elephants, both deprived off their freedom to move at their will, will probably have influenced the sculptor to carve out an elephant on the same rock where a magnificent cave was also carved. This seems like a more stronger argument rather than carving an elephant just to guard the temple or as a mount of Indra or Kartikeya.

    The Stone Horse – There was a stone image of a horse as well, located not very far in the south-east of the main cave, as first mentioned by Fryer in 1673. Ovington in 1689 writes that the horse was so brilliantly carved that from a distance it appears to be a real animal. Pykes mentions that this horse was known as Alexander’s horse. Pykes’ account was accompanied with a sketch of this horse, however I am not able to trace that. Captain Hamilton however states that its workmanship is far inferior in comparison to the elephant. This horse is not traceable at present; it seems to have disappeared between 1744 when Captain Hamilton visited and 1750 when Grose visited the island.

    The Nomenclature of the Island – This Island is popularly known as Elephanta however to its native it was always known as Gharapuri. Linschoten refers it as Pory, Perron and Niebuhr as Gali Pouri, Stevenson as Garapuri which he translates as ‘Town of Excavation’, Wilson as Gharapuri which he translates into ‘Hill of Purification’.

    It is believed that the Konkan Mauryas were ruling from their capital at Puri. The identification of Puri is still not satisfactorily done, however there are ideas that it could be the island of Elephanta. In a Chalukyan stone inscription at Aihole, it is mentioned that Pulakesi II conquered Puri, Lakshmi of the sea, with hundreds of ships in appearance like an array of rutting elephants. J F Fleet mentions that this Puri has been identified with Thana, Elephanta and Rajapuri however no conclusion can be reached.

    Several scholars are of opinion that Puri is same as Elephanta. These include Shrinivas V Padigar, Hirananda Sastri, Sadashiv V Gorakshkar, M N Deshpande, Karl Khandalavala etc. R G Bhandarkar mentions that Puri was the capital of the Konkan Mauryas and later of the Silharas which is also evident from the Kalachuri inscription at Kanheri. Arguments against the identification with Elephanta are,

    • The Aihole inscription refers Puri as a formidable city which looking at its present state does not appears to be so,
    • The island is cut from the main city for almost one-third of the year which makes is not suitable for the capital city
    • The architectural remains at the island does not support it to be a capital city

    The Mysterious Inscription – It was Couto who mentioned that there used to be an inscription at the entrance of the caves which was taken down and sent to Portugal as no one in India was able to decipher that. However, this inscription is untraceable till date. Can Couto be believed? Couto is known as a faithful Portuguese historian and most of his accounts are proved to be true. But, in this case as the inscription is not traceable hence nothing can be said for certain.

    Qureshi mentions that it is most probable that the inscription was in Brahmi script and as that script was non-decipherable by the time of Couto hence they probably send the stone to Portugal. But, if there was any chance of its decipherment then that could only be happened in India but not in Portugal. However, it is also possible that the stone was sent as a trophy or souvenir as there were few inscription found in his estate.

    The Builders – In absence of any inscription at the site, identification of its builders are still mired in controversies. Various scholars have tried to answer this however none have succeeded in very convincing manner. However, at the moment, its is either taken as the Kalachuri or the Chalukyan by most of the scholars.

    • The Konkan Mauryas – V Gorakshkar, A S Gupte, Pramod Chandra, Sadashiv Gorakshkar, Karl Khandalavala
    • The Kalachuris – Walter Spink, Charles Dillard Collins, V V Mirashi, Joanna Williams
    • The Chalukyas of Badami – Mulk Raj Anand, K V Soundara Rajan, Dulari Qureshi, Brahmanand Deshpande
    • The Rashtrakutas – Stella Kramrisch
    • The Guptas – Hirananda Sastri

    Mirashi’s and other scholars’ argument against the Konkan Mauryas is that they were feudatories of the Kalachuri and did not have enough resources at hand to take up such a huge project.  Mirashi’s arguments against the Badami Chalukyas are that they were Vaishnavas hence should not sponsor a Shaiva cave.  Mirashi, Collins and Spink’s arguments for Kalachuri are based upon the identification of the Lakulisha figure and findings of the Kalachuri coins at the site.

    Qureshi’s argument against the Kalachuris is that they were engaged with the war of life and death with the Chalukyas as evident from the Mahakuta pillar inscription and Nerur grant of the Badami Chalukyas. Such a war would not allow the Kalachuris to commence a work like Elephanta.

    Dating of the Caves – In absence of any inscription, dating of these caves cannot be done with certainty. We have already discussed about the builders of these caves as proposed by various scholars. On similar grounds, the scholars have proposed the dating of these caves.

    • Fifth Century CE – Hirananda Sastri
    • Sixth Century CE – Walter Spink
    • Seventh Century CE – Y R Gupte, V V Mirashi, K V Soundara Rajan, Mulk Raj Anand
    • Eighth Century CE – James Fergusson, Percy Brown, Stella Kramrisch
    • Ninth Century CE – James Burgess
    • Tenth Century CE – John Wilson

    The Ascetic Shiva – This panel, located on the left of the northern entrance, is very controversial in its identification. It is not doubt that this shows an aspect of Shiva as the cave is dedicated to him and all other panels depict his various aspects. Hence we can can easily set aside theories which identify it as Buddha. There is also no doubt that it shows Shiva in meditation or yoga. So where is the controversy? It is whether it shows Shiva or Lakulisha. Identification of him as Lakulisha is very vital for scholars who associated the cave to the Pashupata sect and affiliate it to the Kalachuris.

    • Lakulisha – Hirananda Sastri, Walter Spink, Charles Dillard Collins
    • Mahayogi – Sadashiv V Gorakshkar, Dulari Qureshi,  George Michell

    Previous Chapter


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