Elephanta – The Playground of Shiva




    Monuments – There are seven caves on this isle, five located on the western hill and two on the eastern hill. Besides these caves, there are remnants of a Buddhist stupa dating back to 2nd century CE, on the eastern hill, two canons of the Portuguese times on the western hill and several water cisterns. I was not able to visit cave 6,7, stupa and canons. These caves were included in the ‘World Heritage Sites’ list in 1986 by UNESCO.

    Main Cave (Cave no 1) – This is the first cave when you enter the complex. This is also the most important cave in the complex. Though the modern entrance to the main cave is in northern however in the past, the eastern entrance would have been the main entrance. At present, the eastern entrance is buries in debris. However, northern entrance would also have been used in past, though secondary. With eastern entrance as the main one, the Linga shrine comes in center, but if northern is taken as the main then the location of this shrine is not in center and hard to explain this deviation.

    Plan of the Main Cave (courtesy: Stella Kramrisch – Ancient India no 2)


    This leads George Michell to suggest the dual axis character of the cave. He mentions that there were two primary axes of this cave, one running east-west with the Linga shrine as the main object and other running north-south with Trimurti-Shiva. Trimurti-Shiva is the only sculptural panel which has been accompanied with its guardians which also suggests its special role within the design of the cave.

    Michell explained the mandala of the cave stating that it can be divided into 37 equal dimension squares. One square is occupied by the Linga shrine, leaving 36 squares. A mandala with 9, 16 or 25 squares is auspicious in the Hindu architecture; Michell tells that number 36 is also equally auspicious. Michell goes further in explaining the geometrical design of the cave, stating that the two main object of this cave, the Linga shrine and Trimurti-Shiva, lies on two concentric circles, the Linga shrine on the inner one and the Trimurti-Shiva on the outer one.


    Northern Entrance of the Main Cave


    Stevenson mentions that this cave dedicated to Shiva belongs to Smartaa school of this sect. Though the Shiva linga shrine was the chief object of worship however at present this cave is famous for its large relief panels which are strewn all around the cave. These monumental panels overwhelms a visitor who is already awestruck by the vividness and lively appeal of these sculptures. Below are the details of these panels, starting with the left panel at the entrance and going clockwise around the cave.

    Shiva as Mahayogi


    Shiva as Mahayogi  – This panel is situated on visitor’s left when entered through the present main entrance at north. Shiva is seated in padmasana posture, immersed deep into his meditation hence termed as Mahayogi. He is shown with two hands which are broken from shoulders down. His legs are also broken however from what is left it can be inferred that he is seated in padmasana posture. Brahma and Vishnu are on top corners. Among the other figures around Shiva, a horse rider is prominent.

    J Burgess suggests influence of Buddhism and Jainism over this panel.  His arguments are that Shiva is shown seated in a great meditation, which is very usual posture for Buddha and Tirthankars. He tells that when Hindus started their excavations, they tries to imitate the already existing Buddhist shrines. In their rivalry with the Buddhists, they created Shiva as Mahayogi. The lotus seat (padmasana) on which Shiva is seated, its stalk is held by two nagas. I have seen this feature in the Kanheri and Mahakli cave Buddhist sculptures. However, can these be really termed as Buddhist influence over the Hindu iconography?

    Shiva in deep Maditation


    Dr Qureshi informs that this sculpture has been identified as Yoga-Dakshinamurti by few scholars. Muriel Neff and Walter Spink take this as Lakulisha. Both these identifications are, however, not correct as the arguments given to support these do not hold water. Neff’s argument that this cave is a copy of cave 29 of Ellora and as Ellora has Lakulisha so this cave should also have. However there are many themes in Elephanta which are missing in Ellora cave. Interesting would be to see if all the themes of the Ellora cave are repeated in this cave or not. ASI brochure mentions this image as of Lakulisha.



    Ravananugraha-murti – This panel is located on the north side of the eastern portico. This gigantic image relief represent what we know as Ravananugraha-murti in Hindu iconography. The theme is the humiliation of Ravana, the king of Lanka, in the hands of Shiva, when the former tried to lift the Kailasha mountain, the abode of Shiva, in effort to carry that to his town, Lanka.

    Shiva & Parvati at Kailasha


    Shiva and Parvati are shown seated on Kailasha mountain. Shiva is shown with eight arms, all are broken now. Parvati’s torso only remains, she is shown seated on Shiva’s left. Bhringi is shown near Shiva’s feet. Ganesha is standing on his left. Vishnu is shown riding over Garuda, above Shiva’s left shoulder. Below most is shown Ravana with ten heads and twenty hands, all of which are in very bad state of preservation at present. He is shown with his back to visitors with all his hands are lifted up in his effort to lift up the mountain.

    Shiva’s Abode – Kailasha


    Shiva and Parvati at Kailasha – This is the next panel in clockwise direction of the above. Shiva and Parvati are shown seated on Kailsha mountain, probably indulged in a play of dice, however this cannot be said with certainty. Shiva is shown with four arms, two of which are broken. He sits with one leg bent. Parvati is seated on his left, her two arms are broken. Above Shiva and Parvati are shown various houses, palaces which represent the residential layout of the Kailasha. Above the ceilings of these structures are shown various figures.

    Shiva, Parvati and Kartikeya


    Behind the right shoulder of Parvati, stands a female figure carrying a child astraddle on her left side. J Stevenson takes this child as Ganesha and hence suggests that the theme of this relief is the birth of Ganesha. However, Erskine, Burgess and many others including K V Soundara Rajan and dr Qureshi take the child as Kartikeya. At Shiva’s feet is shown Bhringi in his skeleton form.



    Ardhnareeshvar-murti – This panel is located on the east of the central Sadashiva image. The theme is Ardhnareeshvar, Shiva shown with combined attributes of a male and female. The image of Shiva is 16 feet 9 inches feet high, his right half is of male and left half is female. The earlier European visitors, including Niebuhr, thought that this figure to be intended for an Amazon thus transferring the Greek tradition to India however there is no such being known to Hindus. J Stevenson thinks that this half-male and half-female figure is the representation of Adam and Eve as Eve was created from a rib-bone of Adam. Edward Moor was probably the first European to identify this panel as ‘Ardha Nari’ in his ‘The Hindu Pantheon’ published in 1810.

    Shiva stands inclined over Nandi. He has four hands, front right hand rests over Nandi, back right hand holds a snake, front left hand has feminine appearance and back left hand holds a mirror. Dr Qureshi informs that on Shiva’s left is shown Varuna on makara, Kartikeya on peacock and Vishnu over Garuda. I am not able to locate Kartikeya in the panel. Vishnu is shown with four arms, one holding chakra. The other two arms are broken and one arm is resting over his knees. One female figure is holding a fly-whisk, another small female figure is holding a jewelry box for Parvati.

    On Shiva’s right is Brahma, shown seated on a padmasana (lotus throne), which is supported by five geese. Indra riding over his elephant is shown between Brahma and Shiva. Below Brahma is a large male figure wearing high cap and holding a large trident. J Burgess mentions that he could be Nandi or Narada or some other personal attendant of Shiva.



    Sadashiva/Mahesha/Trimurti – At present this is the main attraction of the cave. This is the first thing which any visitor will spot when entered into the cave through its northern entrance as it lies directly opposite to the entrance. The sheer size of the sculpture is ample enough to impress any visitor. This sculpture is inside a recess which is 10.5 feet deep. The pilasters are 15.5 feet apart and the recess inside is 21.6 feet wide. This sculpture occupies the whole space rising from a base of about 3 feet high. The holes in corners and floor suggests that probably there was a mechanism to provide a screen to occasionally conceal the image from the visitors or to provide a railing to keep off the crowd from the image.

    Sadashiva – popularly known as Trimurti


    The total height of the sculpture as per Stevenson is 19 feet, J Burgess provides rather accurate measurement with 17 feet 10 inches, and Qureshi as 18 feet. Width at the eye level of the extreme faces is 22 feet 9 inches and across the wrists is 22 feet. Burgess mentions that the noses of the two faces of this bust were broken by visitors in 1865. On such mutilations, Hector Macneil, who visited Elephanta in 1783, writes that what the hand of time has not been able to deface, the blind zeal of bigots and the childish tricks of fools have very nearly destroyed.

    Stevenson mentions that this image reflects the threefold character of Shiva, as Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra. He further tells that this image is probably reflecting the five-headed images of Shiva seen elsewhere, one head is hidden behind and another head on top. The central face reflects Brahma, the face on the spectator’s right is Vishnu and the third face if of Shiva. Vishnu is having full blown lotus in his hand, Brahma holds his characteristic gourd, swelling on Shiva’s forehead is his third eye. He also points to Greek and Roman goddess Hecate is also represented as three-headed goddess suggesting the influence on Hindus for going with same representation.

    Sykes ridicules the scholars who were not well versed with Hindu iconography and term this image as Trimurti. He states that this image is of Shiva where he is shown as the generator in his central face, left face reflects Shakti or Durga, and the right face shows him as the destructor. Erskine also seems to follow Sykes when he narrates the caves of Ellora and three-faced images of Shiva at Ellora. Instead of Shakti, he tells that the left face reflects Parvati.

    Aghora, Tatpurusha and Vamadeva


    Shiva with his five aspects is quite famous during medieval times. There are many examples of this particular theme at various places. As per Vishnu-Dharmottara, five faces of Shiva represent five elements, Ishana (sky), Tatpurusha (wind), Aghora (fire), Vamadeva (water) and Sadjoyata (earth). Thus this image of Elephanta represents Aghora, Tatpurusha and Vamadeva aspects of Shiva. A chaturmukha-linga of Nachna shows four out of five aspects of Shiva.

    The right dvarpala is 12 feet 9 inches high and has not suffered much damage. His one hand rests over a dwarf, 7 feet high. The left dvarpala is about 13.5 feet high and has suffered a great loss. By the time when Niebuhr visited the cave, only its part of left arm and right leg was missing but at present very little is remained of its head and shoulders. The dwarf standing nearby is 6 feet high.



    Gangadhara-murti  – This compartment, 13 feet wide and 17 feet high, is located on the west of the Sadashiva panel. The figure of Shiva is 16 feet high and shown with four hands. In one of his hand he holds a tress of his hair, and one hand is in abhaya mudra, his other two hands are broken. It appears that his front right hand was touching the chin of Parvati who stands on his left. The figure of Parvati is about 12 feet 4 inches high. Though the face of Parvati bears a charming countenance however Shiva touching her chin probably reflects the jealousy of her as Ganga is descending into the locks of Shiva and will reside there as her rival in love. This theme is very well executed in the Pallava cave temple at Tiruchirappalli.

    Ganga descending into Shiva’s hair locks


    Ganga is shown above Shiva’s head as a three-faced figure. Stevenson, Burgess and Qureshi are of the opinion that these three heads represent Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, however Carmel Berkson takes Ganga as a three-faced goddess. Burgess suggests that the figure below Brahma who is kneeling on his knees might be Kama, Bhagvanlal Indraji proposes that it might be the king who excavated these caves. Dr Qureshi identifies him with Bhagiratha, who is credited to bring Ganga on the earth. Though his figure is much broken however he is very well gelled into the whole theme of the panel. On Shiva’s right is Brahma and Indra. Brahma is seated over his lotus throne carried by five geese, while Indra is riding over his elephant, Airavat. Vishnu over Garuda is on Parvati’s left.



    Kalyanasundara-murti –  This panel is located on the south side of the shrine to the west porch. The theme is the marriage between Shiva and Parvati. The figure of Shiva is 10 feet 10 inches high. The figure of Parvati is quite shorter than that of Shiva, and she radiates in her prime youth. Behind her is standing her father, Himavan. A female figure on next to Himavan could be Menaka, his wife and the mother of Parvati.

    Marriage of Shiva and Parvati


    Brahma officiates the ceremony as a priest. Vishnu is present riding over his mount, Garuda. Behind Parvati’s attendant on her left is a large male figure. Going by a large crescent behind his neck, Burgess identifies him as Chandra (moon). He bears a large pot of water meant for marriage ceremony.



    Andhakantaka-murti – This panel faced Kalyanasundara-murti and located on the north of the west end of the cave. The figure of Shiva stands 11.5 feet tall. Shiva is shown with eight arms and face filled with rage, swollen eyes, protruding tusks. Erskine and Wilson identify it as Bhairava, Stevenson also identifies it as Bhairava however he adds that the theme is destruction of Daksha’s sacrifice. Burgess proposes all identification, as Bhairava, Mahakala (as Paterson in Edward Moor’s book) and Kapalabhrit (due to Kapalika sect)

    Shiva’s five arms with both legs are now broken. In one hand he is holding a long sword, in another he holds a bell and in the third he is holding a bowl. Two of his broken hands are holding an elephant hide spread across the back of the panel. De Coutto and Niebuhr  mention a human figure held by his legs in one of Shiva’s arm, and Stevenson mentions that in one arms he holds tuft of Daksha. This figure is no more seen at present.

    Shiva slaying Andhaka


    Nila, the elephant demon sent by Andhaka to kill Shiva, is seen on Shiva’s right. Nila was killed by Virabhadra and its skin was presented to Shiva. The same skin is held by Shiva in his upper two arms, stretched across his back. Immediately above the head of the principal figure is a peculiar piece of carving. Erskine, Wilson and Burgess takes it for mythical symbol Aum (OM). Stevenson takes it for lingam. The similar structure is also seen in the ‘Shiva-Parvati over Kailasha’ panel of this cave.



    Nataraja – This panel is situated on visitor’s right side when entering from the main entrance at north. The compartment is 10 feet 9 inches wide and 11 feet 2 inches high. From inside the width is 13 feet. The principal figure, that of Shiva, is 10 feet 8 inches in height. Shiva is shown with eight arms. From the description of W Hunter, who visited in 1783 CE, it appears that first right and third left arm was intact, however at present only fourth left hand remains and all other are gone. His left leg is fully gone, right leg below knee is also not there.

    Shiva is shown in ‘Lalitam’ posture of cosmic dance. This dance posture is very regular in Nataraja images across India. On Shiva’s left is standing Parvati. Above Parvati is seen Vishnu over Garuda and Indra over elephant. On Shiva’s right, at his feet is Bhringi who is much defaced now. Beyond Bhringi is a large male figure holding a large rod, which Burgess identifies with Shiva’s Trishula. Hence he could be one of the attendant of Shiva. However from the magnitude of the figure, he should be identified with Kartikeya. Above this large figure is Ganesha and above him is Brahma over a lotus throne carried by five geese.

    Central Shrine


    Central Shrine – This shrine is enclosed by four pillars and allowed entrance from all four sides. The platform is raised 3 feet 8 inches above the floor of the cave. On each side of the entrances, gigantic dvrapalas are standing. Their height varies between 14 feet 10 inches and 15 feet 2 inches.



    J Burgess mentions about a very interesting tradition. He tells that Brahmans were not allowed to be the priests of a Shiva temple instead it was the Guruva community which held that position. Guruva people came from Shudra section and were the only ones to touch and decorate the Shiva lingam. This tradition supports the hypothesis that Shiva was the god of the aboriginal tribes of India and the Aryans took him into their pantheon when they won over the aboriginal tribes of India.

    Western Courtyard


    Subsidiary cave on West – Exit through the western side takes visitors to an open courtyard measuring 9.2 m square. On south side of this cave is a water cistern of considerable extent. De Coutto mentions that the end of this cistern was never found. Shrine on the west side is entered through two pillars and two pilaster supported front. The hall is 27 feet wide and 13.5 feet deep and about 9 feet high. Its west side has a shrine inside which a Shiva linga is installed. This shrine is guarded by two gigantic dvarpalas on either side.

    Shiva in Meditation


    Northern wall of the shrine has a sculpture of Shiva as an ascetic. He is shown in a very similar attitude of the main cave Shiva Mahayogi sculpture. Burgess mentions about a figure on south. On this side, Shiva is shown with six arms. I was not able to trace this sculpture.

    Eastern Courtyard


    Subsidiary cave on East – The eastern exit of the main cave takes visitor to an open courtyard, 55 feet deep (Qureshi: 14.35 m in width and 17.7 m in length). The cave is entered through a portico supported on four columns and two pilasters, 50 feet in length and 18.5 feet high. Burgess tells that all the pillars were broken except their bases and capital. The present pillars are the reconstructed ones.

    Main Shrine


    This hall inside has shrines on its lateral sides and a garbha-griha in middle with circumambulatory path around the garbha-griha. The hall measures 58 feet 4 inches wide and 24 feet 2 inches deep (Qureshi: 17.45 m in width and 7.38 m in depth). The garbha-griha 13 feet 10 inches wide and 16 feet deep (Qureshi: 4.9 m by 4.22 m from inside). A Shiva-linga is places inside this garbha-griha. The entrance to this shrine is adorned by two statues of tigers. Burgess mentions that the head of one statue was broken by some European visitor in May 1868.

    Shiva as Dvarpala


    Two gigantic dvarpalas are provided on either side of the main door of the grabha-griha, however these are detached from the garbha-griha structure and beyond the circumambulatory path. One of the dvarpala is indeed Shiva shown with four hands, holding a snake in one of his hands. The hall on east has two pillars and two pilasters for entrance. There are no sculptures insides.




    The shrine at the west of the cave is 10 feet 10 inches deep and 25 feet wide (Qureshi: 8 m in length, 3.1 m in width). The entrance is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The original pillars were long gone, the present one are the reconstructed ones. Both its lateral sides and the back wall has sculptures. Ganesha is present on the southern side, Kartikeya is present on the northern wall. However J Burgess instead of Kartikeya, suggests that it is Shiva as Shulapani. Brahma and Vishnu are present on top corners.



    The back wall are carved ten figures depicting Saptra-matrikas. Ganesha is shown at the extreme north and Veerabhadra on extreme south. In between these are eight matrikas instead of regular seven. Each matrika is depicted with a child and her respective flag staff. These matrikas are Brahmani, Maheshvari, Vaishnavi, Kumari, Indrani, Varahi, Chamunda and Yogeshvari. One of the argument forwarded by Dr Qureshi for the Chalukyas as the excavator of these caves is the presence of Sapta-matrikas. However here we find eight matrikas not seven, does this invalidate the argument of Dr Qureshi?

    Shakti of Kubera or Yogeshvari


    The eighth matrika is identified as Yogeshvari (the Shakti of Shiva) by Dr Qureshi and as the Shakti of Kubera by K V Soundara Rajan. Shakti of Shiva is already present in the form of Maheshvari and in this case what is the need to another shakti in form of Yogeshvari? Dr Qureshi informs that this eighth shakti is mentioned in Vayu Purana. Identification of K V Soundara Rajan as the shakti of Kubera is based upon a vimana on top of the staff. He identifies this vimana as Pushpak vimana which is in possession of Kubera.

    Inscriptions – Diego de Coutto informs us that a stone bearing an inscription was removed from the gate of these caves and sent to the Portuguese king D John III when the governor of India failed to decipher that. Portuguese king also failed in his endeavor to decipher it. After that there is no reference made of this stone and no traces of it are found till now.

    Hector Macneil mentions a Persian inscription during his visit in 1783, however William Erskine visited Elephant in 1813 and was not able to locate this inscription. A seal has been found during excavations at the island. It read ‘Narayana’ in the characters of 5th or 6th century CE.

    Cave 2


    Cave 2 – This cave is 109.5 feet long and . Verandah supported by four pillars and two pilasters, which are square in section.

    Cave 3


    Cave 3 Shrine


    Cave 3 – This cave is cut deep longitudinally in its width. The verandah, 80 m wide and 35 m deep, is supported on six pillars and two pilasters, all reconstructed. There is a chamber on its north, supported on four octagonal pillars and two pilasters. The chamber is 11.9 m wide and 6.7 m deep.


    Cave 4


    Cave 4 – This cave is similar to cave 3 in plan and execution. The verandah is 15.2 m wide. The back wall has three cells and a shrine with Shiva linga inside. The door guardians of the shrine are long gone. On either side of the verandah is a chamber supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The chamber measures 4.6 m square.

    Cave 5


    Cave 5 – The verandah is 22.2 m wide and 8.2 m deep and is supported on four pillars and two pilasters. The back wall has three cells, the central one has a Shiva linga inside.

    Cave 6, 7 and other monuments – To be updated on the next visit.

    How to get there – Elephant isle can be reached via ferries from the jetty at the Gateway of India. Ferries start from 9 AM and runs till sunset. There are two kinds of ferries, you buy the higher price ticket as they leave the jetty early. The ferry does not leave the jetty till there are a minimum number of passengers, for small ferry the limit is of 40-50 passengers. I was at the jetty at 9 AM and my ferry did not leave the jetty till 10 as there were not enough passengers to start. As it was a weekday so there was not enough crowd. Hence if you think to reach the isle early in morning then plan accordingly. Ticket for the small ferry was about Rs 120 and for the bigger one it was Rs 150, two ways. My recommendation, go for the bigger one as that will start early from the jetty, and there is not much difference in the two types of ferries.

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