Elephanta Caves

It has often been said that most towns and cities somewhere have buried treasures. A layer of concealed earth whose natural outlines and waterways continue to shape the area's history even as the hills diminish due to quarrying or the valleys being silted with the rubble of successive buildings. Thus, in most towns and even cities, the basic material of the landscape is still perceptible to the interested eye, which is carefully moderated and cleverly disguised rather than totally transformed. It is still possible to unearth distinctive features of the 18th century that lie hidden beneath the 21st century one and below that again, a rural settlement from which the 18th century town grew.

Pic courtesy: thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com
Thus, a historically minded visitor can seek to trace the lost pattern of the islands that the British inherited as a dowry. If a visitor wants to see a brief vision of this past, one should take an hour's trip from the Gateway of India in Mumbai to the off-shore Elephanta Islands, locally known in Marathi as "Gharapuri" (the place of idols), which is now famous for its rock-cut Shiva temples. The Portuguese who landed at the Rajabunder Jetty at Gharapuri renamed the island due to a stone elephant that stood there facing the sea. Hewn out of a single rock in the middle of the sixth century A.D. . Wide pillared entrances in the east, west and north greet the visitors into the interiors of the caves but for these light-filled entrances, the caves do not have exteriors. 

The caves are divided into mandapas by arrays of pillars and vertical limits that support flat ceilings and bear the weight of the hill above it. The characteristic oddity, therefore, lies in the way in which the pillars are carved out of the rock caverns, which is nothing but an imitative illustration designed to give nature the air of architecture, since it leads one to question what these pillars would really be supporting were they load-bearing.  

The most famous idols of the Elephanta Caves undoubtedly remain the iconic sculpture of Sadashiva, which is a divine form of the panchamukha linga that has earned the caves an international acclaim. Contrary to popular belief of being the trinity of Generator (Brahma), Operator (Vishnu) and Destroyer (Mahesh), the three heads of Sadashiva are of Aghora, Tatpurusha and Vamadeva. It is important to note that Sadyojata at the back and Ishana at the top are implied. 

Lines of pillars create an axis from the north to south to the recessed southern limits with three enclosures, that of Sadashiva at the centre, flanked at the sides are shrines of Ardhanarishwara, that presents the concept of union between the masculine and feminine. In this portion of the Cave, we see Shiva as the Ardhanarishwara leaning on Nandi and the wonderfully detailed contrast between the masculine half and the feminine half. It also depicts other Gods and their mounts hence we have Brahma with His swan, Vishnu and His Garuda, Varuna with the crocodile and Indra with His Airavata, among others.

The Shiva Gangadhara panel allows a visitor to observe the slender forms of Shiva and Parvati. Above Shiva's head, we see Ganga as a three-headed figure that probably represents Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Vishnu on His Garuda, Brahma on His swan and Shiva's ganas are among the other male and female figures that can be seen in this panel. 

We then come to the Kalyana Sundara panel which depicts the marriage of Uma and Mahesh and therefore called the Kalyana Sundara Murthy. The shyness of Parvati is brilliantly sculpted and it is not hard to imagine a blushing bride here. This panel illustrates the kanyadanaam ceremony in which Parvati's father is giving Uma away to Shiva, the groom. Brahma is believed to have officiated the marriage as the priest while Vishnu acts as the witness. 

The next panel depicts Lord Shiva in his destructive form. In this figure, we see Him slaying the demon Andhakasura, who is not seen as a result of mutilation. Despite the level of mutilation, the expression of anger and fierceness on Shiva's face is unmistakable. 

The Nataraja panel, which is to the right of the entrance, has Shiva's sculpture most of which is destroyed below the waist as have most of his eight hands. The panel too has Brahma, Vishnu, Karthikeya, Ganesh and a comparatively smaller figure of Parvati to Shiva's left. 

The sculptural restraint and solemn lyricism, coupled with the measured movements and the dispassionate faces of the post-like figures of Lord Shiva grouped in dense interlocking continuity, have hardly more than one component. It is the underlying massiveness of western Indian sculpture that manifests here in the caves and asserts itself, particularly in the figures of Parvati and in that of Shiva. The style in which the sculptors have made their vision come true is not imbued with a realization of Shiva. Rather, it is an enchanted rendering of an impeccably Shaiva theme to which the sculptors must brought their training and dedication.


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