In Focus

Elephanta Island’s ‘elephant’ stands refurbished at city zoo

By Gajanan Khergamker

A basalt sculpture of an elephant, once monolithic, stuck in a dozen places, stands awkwardly in an enclosure at the entrance of the only zoo in Mumbai popularly known as Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo and formerly Raani Baug after the erstwhile British name of Victoria Gardens.

The Island's Elephant, once monolithic, stuck in a dozen place

The story of the elephant is unique and almost symbolic of line of stories and legends all along the west coast of India that harbours ruins and relics left behind by a belligerent Portuguese known to ‘leave behind a trail of ruins whenever they left a colony’.

Sculptures destroyed by Portuguese at Elephanta Caves

Gharapuri as an ancient island was known in Hindu scriptures was renamed Elephanta Island by the Portuguese who found the monolithic basalt elephant at the base. And, as was their practice, they attempted to lift the sculpture and shift it but failed and the elephant sculpture fell and broke into a dozen pieces. It’s these pieces that were stuck together and relocated to the entrance of the zoo in Mumbai.

A visit to Mumbai would be sadly incomplete without a trip to Elephanta Island that lies 10 kms away from its south east coast. And, a trip to Elephanta Island would be incomplete without a sojourn at its three villages that lie obscure from view. To visit Elephanta Island, one must take a boat launch
from Gateway of India that lies in South Mumbai, preferably early in the morning to give you enough time to explore the island by noon, before it gets really hot and sultry later in the day. There is incidentally no vehicle to commute around on the island.

A two-way ticket for the Island can be purchased from Gateway of India and a boat be alighted from 9 am onwards, the last boat to the Island being available at 2 pm. The hour- long ride provides for myriad opportunities to shoot the Gateway of India along with The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in one frame while at a distance into the sea. As the boat chugs along, you could view a range of cargo ships and foreign vessels, Butcher Island, Cross Island even a pod of dolphins if you are lucky.

Lining up at Gateway of India for the boat launch to Elephanta Island
As you approach Elephanta Island in less than an hour, you’ll first see a sprinkling of houses and a jetty at Elephanta’s largest village – Rajbundar on the southernmost tip of the island. Once you reach Elephanta Island, you will alight at a jetty – a new one constructed following a surge of tourists to
the UNESCO World Heritage Site that registers more than seven lakh visitors every year. You have the option of taking a narrow-gauge toy train from the jetty area on the dock to the base of the steps leading up to the Elephanta Caves – about 600 meters away – at a cost of Rs 10.

If you opt for walking down the stretch, you will be greeted by hawkers selling souvenirs like necklaces, anklets, showpieces, hats and keychains. Once you reach the base of the steps near an open area, lie a string of shops lined all along selling artefacts, knick-knacks, eatables and drinks to pep you up before you embark on the 120-step climb to the Caves. It’s recommended that you grab your snacks and beverages here before you embark on the climb as, along the route, there’re few options available and easy to miss in the hustle of the moment.

Now, those who are unable to climb up can avail a ‘dolly’ (Yes, that’s how they spell it on a fixed signage) that comprises a palanquin-like contraption - where four men physically lift you seated on a chair tied to two wooden poles all the way to the caves at the top for a price of Rs 2,000 per person for a one way trip.

All along the 120 steps are interlined stalls selling stones, jewellery, artefacts, idols, rings and the usual touristy paraphernalia. Once you reach the top of the 120 steps that, at one point of time, seem unending, the going gets a lot easier. To enter the cave area, you need to pay Rs 10 for an Indian or Rs 250 for a foreigner.

The caves are rock-cut temples that cover an area of 60,000 square feet and include a main chamber, two lateral chambers, courtyards and a sprinkling of shrines. The 20-foot high Sadashiv – Trimurti, associated closely with Elephanta Island itself, is the most important sculpture of the caves. The other sculptures depict Shiva crushing Ravana with his toe, Shiva’s marriage with Parvati, Shiva bringing the Ganges down to earth by letting her flow through his Jat (locks of hair) and a dancing Shiva. On the western end of the temple is a sanctuary housing a linga too. Here, you can witness most of the sculptures lie damaged. The Portuguese troops would use the sculptures for target practice and concurrently destroyed most of the cave temples.

You must make it a point to walk down a stretch that adjoins the entrance to the Elephanta caves. The road takes you all the way around the island, near a man-made water reservoir constructed to tackle a shortage issue for locals, down till Rajbunder village visible during the boat trip to Elephanta Island. Also, make it a point to keep your hands as free as possible while on the Island. Any food items or drinks in your hands will be perceived as an invitation to the hundreds of monkeys who will snarl, bare their fangs and threaten you into submission. Keep them in your bags, preferably a haversack and away from view.

* The temple caves at Elephanta were cut out from a single basalt rock around the time between 400 AD and 800 AD.
* No vehicles are permitted on Elephanta Island which got power only recently in February 2018.
* India’s longest undersea power cable – 7.5 kms in length – was used to power the island and its three villages seventy years after India’s independence.
* Gharapuri means ‘village of caves’, and the name is still in use even today.
* The first boat to leave Gateway of India for Elephanta Island starts at 9 am and the last boat to leave Elephanta Island for Gateway of India leaves at 5.45 pm.
* Tourists are not permitted to stay overnight on the Island.

A version of this story first appeared in Deccan Herald's Travel supplement.