To the East of Mumbai lies the magnificent Elephanta Island which houses the caves of the same name. The Elephanta Caves is natively known as Gharapurichi Leni. The island is also known as ‘the city of caves’ or Gharapuri or also as Pory Island.
About 10 kilometres or 6.2 miles into the Arabian Sea from Mumbai is this cave island which has a group of five Hindu caves and a smaller group of two Buddhist caves. The caves have been carved out of rock.
Getting to the caves is a ferry ride from the Gateway of India from where boats leave every day from 9 am to 2 pm. The return ferry is from 12:30 pm to 5:30 pm. The boat landing area has a fee that has to paid by tourists who enter the island. There is a train which takes tourists to the foothills of the steps that lead to the caves.
There is another option to walk rather than wait for space in the crowded train which goes at a slow speed. The hike up the steps has sellers selling various articles like earrings, rings, souvenirs like necklaces, anklets, showpieces and keychains and other jewellery in addition to bags and other accessories. There are also food stalls and monkeys in plenty.
The entry to the caves also has a fee that has to be paid. Photography in the caves is forbidden. The Elephanta island has an area of 16 sq. km with many palms, mango, and tamarind trees. A deep ravine cuts through the island from north to south. There is a hill nearby to this known as the Stupa Hill. There are mangroves near the boat dismemberment area.
The Hindu caves have rock-cut stone sculptures on basalt rock of the Shaiva sect of Hinduism which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The rock-cut architecture of the caves dates back to the period between the 5th and 8th centuries. The caves were pained, but now there are only remains.
There are depictions of Shiva and Parvati, of Ravana lifting Kailash and other scenes from the life of Shiva in the caves. There is a Shiva linga also in one of the caves. A few of the caves are incomplete and in a bad condition.
The main cave is Cave 1 which is known as the Great Cave. The cave has the famous Trimurti stonework which is the most famous sculpture in Elephanta. This cave was renovated in the 1970s and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) now.
The island has a population of about 1,200 people. The locals are mainly involved in growing rice, fishing, and repairing boats. There are two British-era cannons at the top and is a favourite posing spot for tourists.
There is also a small dam built to hold rainwater but that part of the island is privately owned and not accessible to tourists. There are a total of three villages on the island which comes under the Raigad district. The villages are Shentbandar, Morabandar and Rajbandar, the capital. The caves and stalls are in Shentbandar while Morabandar has a thick forest. Staying overnight is not permitted for tourists.
From the top of Elephanta Island, an awesome view of Mumbai can be seen. The garden near the dam is also a must-visit as it has some beautiful flowers and butterflies. The caves area is generally very crowded, especially on weekends. But the garden area and the Cannon Hill area is less crowded as they require more walking and climbing which puts many people off since the climb to the caves itself ends up being tiring.
Elephanta is a must-visit for a one day trip for people from Mumbai as it showcases brilliant history. The Elephanta ferry ride also offers a seagull chase and a view of Mumbai from the Arabian Sea.
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