This world heritage site is on a small island close to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Boats from the Gateway of India depart regularly so it is not difficult to get to. Getting to Mumbai from Badami was however something of an epic.
I had an early morning train north to a station that connects to Mumbai, but not only was the onward train an overnight one that would have left me kicking my heels in Solapur for ten hours, but my ticket wasn’t even confirmed, so the wait could turn out to be for nothing. So I decided to tackle the last 400 or so kilometres by bus instead. And as has often been the case, my bus station luck held and there was a rackety bus to the intermediate city of Pune leaving almost immediately.
It took seven hours, but a lot of that was spent in traffic jams or trying to overtake massively overloaded ox carts full of sugar cane. The final leg of the marathon was a lovely air-conditioned coach, although it let us out in a somewhat dubious suburb at around one in the morning. But I made it: another public transport win!
So, back to the caves, or more precisely, excavations. They are a group of rock-cut Hindu and Buddhist shrines. The island is hilly and the caves are reached up a long stair flanked with souvenir stalls. The site’s date is debated, but thought to be between the sixth and eighth centuries.
The largest cave (number 1) is also the most interesting, being full of images of Shiva including a famous three-headed depiction called the Trimurti.
The walls have wonderful relief panels illustrating various scenes from Shiva stories, which where apparently once painted as well. The UNESCO listing refers to them when it says that at Elephanta “Indian art has found one of its most perfect expressions”.
The excavated spaces, particularly of cave 1, are full of columns, with sculpted beams to mimic the appearance of built structures.
Cave 1 also has an inner lingam shrine with huge guardians sculpted on the outer walls, plus two subsidiary shrines opening off side courtyards. Here’s a creative commons plan of the layout borrowed from Wikipedia, (where you’ll find the key to the numbers).
Should you be wondering, the name of the Elephanta island is derived from a huge stone elephant sculpture found here by the Portuguese, who promptly chopped it up and took it to the mainland, in that way colonisers have of buggering up nice things. It is apparently now at Mumbai zoo.
I used the above view of one of the side entrances to cave 1 for the Lego model: