Elephanta Island and Caves are located about 10km (roughly an hour-long ferry ride) from Mumbai. Interestingly enough, the caves are named by the Portuguese who found a stone elephant at their entrance when they “discovered” the area in the 15th Century. I carved (pun intended) an entire day out of my schedule to see the site. Tickets are relatively inexpensive (~200R, or about 4$) and purchased at a store in a line of shops near the entrance to the Gateway of India. The ferries leave on the half hour and are located directly behind the Gateway; just follow the crowds behind the huge structure and show your ticket as you get on the boat. After an hour long journey you are let off at a pier, allowed to take a small train (10R) to the base of the island, then it’s another kilometer or so to the entrance of the caves through a gauntlet of souvenir stalls.
The main cave will be the focal point of most people’s visit, and contains the majority of the sculptures and statues that the site is known for. These include the Mahesh Murti (three-headed Shiva), Ravana lifting Mount Kailasa, and the main shrine with a Shiva lingum. I spent a good hour-plus here with a guide (recommended… see below) as he explained the countless stories and myths associated with each section of the caves. After spending time at the main cave we went around the side and visited a group of smaller caves with more intimate shrines. After almost two hours with the sculptures we walked the paths to Cannon Hill, where along the way we saw remnants of an old British fort, a few monkeys, and the weapons that the area is named after. A visit to Shet Bunder (a small village near the entrance where my guide lives) rounded out the day. After about four hours on the island it was time to board the ferry and travel back to Mumbai.
Overall I found my visit here impressive initially but that faded a bit in the ensuing days after visiting the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. I know comparing sites like this on a trip is like comparing your kids: never advisable but almost always inevitable. The caves are in a bit of disrepair, I believe due to natural aging in addition to the destructiveness of the initial discoverers and probably following admirers. I would highly recommend a guide in this case, as even with reading beforehand I would have found the visit a bit confusing. There aren’t many signs posted by the carvings and although you can buy supplementary materials at various points (before your trip, in Mumbai, on the ship, at the island, etc.) there is a natural descriptive dialogue that is necessary when you stand in front of the carvings and try to interpret or understand them. For those just visiting the city and not making a trip inland, a visit here will suffice for your dose of religious grottoes in the country.
*Be wary of people trying to have you hire them as a guide at the Gateway of India. Many of them never see you to the ship and aren’t licensed for services they offer.
*Consider looking for a guide as you land on the island jetty and not bringing one from the city. I met a local and really lucked out (his services raise the overall rating from 3-3.5 to a 4) as he knew all the nooks and crannies of the area. I was even able to visit his house (and have chai!) and village at the end of the tour, an indelible memory of the trip for me.
*If you’re trying to squeeze another “event” into your day by visiting here consider doing this first and leaving on the initial boat (I believe it departs at 9:00AM). The caves were sparsely populated when I arrived at 10AM but filled up quickly.
*More than any other site I visited in my ten days in India, reading and having a knowledge base beforehand will greatly enhance your experience here. As an alternative, I believe there is a separate museum on site that might dovetail nicely with a visit although I did not get a chance to visit it.
*Consider taking a stroll around the area and away from the main caves. There are other layers of history here beyond the UNESCO offerings.
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