Elephanta Caves

Elephanta is an island in Bombay harbour, with a small set of Hindu and Buddhist cave temples. The caves are artificial, the temples cut from the rock around 500 – 800 CE, and the complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an hour’s boat trip from the Gateway of India, and a popular sightseeing excursion from Bombay.

I’d had mixed reports: Peter and Corinna in Jodhpur had said it wasn’t worth seeing, and Abby in Pushkar had said it was. That returned the verdict to neutral, and I’d already exhausted the things to see in the city, so I decided to go for it.

Entrance to the main cave at Elephanta

At the ticket booth, I didn’t have to wait for my turn at the counter, as a tout came up and asked if I wanted the boat trip to Elephanta. My suspicions were immediately raised, but as he seemed to be offering the same thing that I was trying to get, I said yes. I handed over the money, and he got the ticket from the counter. It was a “deluxe” ticket – for a nicer boat, and a free guide when I got to the islands. I double checked with the tout: “This includes a guide?” Yes, yes, guide included. Show ticket at caves.

I was handed over to another man who walked me around to the dock. “You want boat to Elephanta?” Yes, Elephanta caves. “Caves? Oh. You want caves?” Yes, the caves. Why do you think I want to go to Elephanta, the bloody shopping opportunities? “But now is not good time to see caves. Very dark. Better to go in afternoon.” I know caves are dark, that’s one of their identifying features. And I’m busy this afternoon. So how do I get to the caves?

He pointed out a boat, and I got on. I tried to go up to the upper deck, but was told no. Other passengers were going to the upper deck. I looked at my ticket, and noticed that it said, “do not go on upper deck.” There hadn’t appeared to be any better option than “deluxe” at the ticket booth, and I wondered exactly what I was getting for it, as the boat didn’t seem particularly nicer than any of the others. But, an hour later, it was at Elephanta.

There’s a long walk along the jetty, long enough for their to be a miniature train for people who can’t be bothered. At the next ticket booth, I got my ticket for the caves themselves (the previous one was just for the boat, and the guide). “Would you like a guide?” I show him the deluxe boat ticket and ask for the guide that comes with it. “No, that’s only for groups, not for one or two people.” Well, that wasn’t explained to me when I bought it, and I was obviously one person. What was the point of this “deluxe” ticket, after all? Did I get it for the comfy chairs and complementary drinks (of which there were none)? As far as I could tell, there was no difference between a deluxe boat and a normal one. You sit on a bench, wait an hour, and you’re at the island. I couldn’t even go on the upper deck. That serves me right for ignoring my instincts and allowing a tout to facilitate my ticket purchase – for even paying him any attention at all, other than a dismissive hand flick to shoo him away.

After telling me my guide-inclusive ticket didn’t include a guide, the ticket seller asked me again, would I like a guide? “No, I’ve obviously been ripped off enough already, haven’t I? I’m not giving you any more money.” A chuckle from an American tourist behind me, who obviously knew the feeling – who doesn’t after spending time in India?

To the top of the hill, where the caves are, there’s an even longer walk up steps, shaded by tarps, lined with stalls and hawkers, and infested by monkeys. It was swelteringly hot and the tarps didn’t make the walk much cooler. I finally emerged from the gauntlet and reached the main cave.

Ardhanarishvara (note the boob only on one side) at Elephanta Caves

It was moderately interesting. There’s a big statue of Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, which is badly damaged, apparently because the Portuguese used it for target practice – with what ammunition, I don’t know. There’s also a trimurti, much more artistic than the one at Chittaurgarh. And an Ardhanarishvara, a half-male, half-female figure representing Shiva and Parvati combined. But that’s about it. It took me less than 10 minutes to look around. There are supposed to be good views from the summit of the hill, a further climb from the caves, but the smog was so thick over Bombay harbour I wouldn’t have seen anything. I speed marched back down the hill to catch the next boat back.

I was thinking of following the pattern of previous articles with a Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh Cave Review, but the title’s not very catchy, and the other caves are worth articles of their own. But if I were reviewing Elephanta it’d be a 2-caver, and I’d have to agree with Peter’s assessment: probably not worth the ordeal of getting there and back.

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