The Elephanta Caves are a network of sculpted caves located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri (literally "the city of caves") in Mumbai Harbour, 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to the east of the city of Mumbai in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The island, located on an arm of the Arabian Sea, consists of two groups of caves—the first is a large group of five Hindu caves, the second, a smaller group of two Buddhist caves.
The Hindu caves contain rock cut stone sculptures, representing the Shaiva Hindu sect, dedicated to the god Shiva. The rock cut architecture of the caves has been dated to between the 5th and 8th centuries, although the identity of the original builders is still a subject of debate. The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. All the caves were also originally painted in the past, but now only traces remain.
Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, is about 7 miles (11 km) east of the Apollo Bunder (Bunder in Marathi means a "pier for embarkation and disembarkation of passengers and goods") on the Mumbai Harbor and 6 miles (9.7 km) south of Pir Pal in Trombay. The island covers about 4 square miles (10 km2) at high tide and about 6 square miles (16 km2) at low tide. Gharapuri is small village on the south side of the island.
Since no inscriptions on any of the caves on the island have been discovered, the ancient history of the island is conjectural, at best. Pandava, the hero of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and Banasura, the demon devotee of Shiva, are both credited with building temples or cut caves to live. Local tradition holds that the caves are not man-made.
The island has two groups of caves in the rock cut architectural style. The caves are hewn from solid basalt rock. All caves were painted in the past, but only traces remain. The larger group of caves, which consists of five caves on the western hill of the island, is well known for its Hindu sculptures. The primary cave numbered as Cave 1, is situated about 1 mile (1.6 km) up a hillside, facing the ocean.
The main cave, also called the Shiva cave, Cave 1, or the Great Cave, is 27 metres (89 ft) square in plan with a hall (mandapa). At the entrance are four doors, with three open porticoes and an aisle at the back. Pillars, six in each row, divide the hall into a series of smaller chambers.
Shiva-Parvati on Kailash and Ravana lifting Kailash
The carving on the south wall to the east of the portico depicts Shiva and Parvati seated on their abode Mount Kailash. The four-armed Shiva is seen with a crown and a disc behind it (all damaged), the sacred thread across his chest, and a dressing gown covering up to the knee. Parvati, dressed in her finery with her hair falling to the front, looks away.
Trimurti, Gangadhara and Ardhanarishvara
Described as a "masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art", the most important sculpture in the caves is the Trimurti, carved in relief at the back of the cave facing the entrance, on the north-south axis. It is also known as Trimurti Sadashiva and Maheshmurti.
Shiva slaying Andhaka and Wedding of Shiva
The engraved panel in considered to be a unique sculpture in the north end of the aisle, and shows Bhairava, or Virabhadra, a frightful form of Shiva. In the carved panel Shiva's consort is seen sitting next to him, looking terrified. A female attendant is next to her.
Yogishvara and Nataraja
The panel to the east of the north portico is Shiva in a Yogic position called Yogisvara, Mahayogi, Dharmaraja and Lakulish. Resembling a Buddha, Shiva is in a dilapidated condition with only two broken arms. Shiva is seated in padmasana yogic posture (cross legged) on a lotus carried by two Nāgas.
Main cave shrine
The central shrine is a free-standing square cell, with entrances on each of its sides. Each door is flanked by two dvarapalas (gate keepers). The Linga, the symbol of Shiva in union with the Yoni, and the symbol of Parvati together symbolize the supreme unity that is deified by the shrine.
Several courtyards to the east and west of the main cave are blocked, though there is a 55 feet (17 m)-wide courtyard that is accessible by entering the eastern part and climbing nine steps. A temple on the southern wall of the court depicts a well-preserved fresco.
The west wing, entered through the main cave, is in a semi-ruined state. It has a small chapel and a cistern enclosed within the pillared cave, which is believed to be Buddhist. Another shrine to the west of the courtyard, with a portico, has carvings of Shiva in a yogic pose seated on a lotus carried by “two fat, heavy, wigged figures”.
Other notable caves
To the south-east of the Great Cave, is the second excavation which faces east-northeast. It includes a chapel at the north end. The front of this cave is completely destroyed, only fragments of some semi-columns remain. The interior has suffered water damage.
The threats to Elephanta Caves have been identified as the following: developmental pressures (mainly due to its location within the Mumbai Harbour), anthropogenic pressure due to growth of population of the communities residing on the island, industrial growth of the port facilities close to the island, no risk preparedness plan to address natural calamities such as earthquake, cyclones and terrorist attacks, unsustainable tourism and tourist facilities on the island, and poor management of the heritage monument.