LOCATED ON AN ISLAND off Mumble’s eastern shore, the 6th-century AD Elephanta cave temples, chiselled into a rocky cliff and dedicated to Shiva, contain some great masterpieces of Indian sculpture. Originally called Gharapuri or “Fort-City”, the island was renamed Elephanta by the Portuguese after a huge stone elephant that once stood here. This is now in the garden of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumble’s Byculla area. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Elephants cave temples can Ile visited on a day trip by boat from Mumbai.

Exploring Elephanta The origins of the cave temples at Elephants are lost in obscurity, but in all probability they date to the 6th century AD and represent the period of I Brahmanical revival after Buddhism began to decline. Fro the pier, where visitors disembark from the boats, a long flight of 125 steps leads to the temple’s main Northern Entrance. This is a huge square hall with sides measuring 40 m (131 ft), supported by two dozen massive pillars. Here, in a deep recess against the rear (south) wall, is the huge triple-headed Shiva statue, the Mahesamurti. This is the glory of Elephanta, and few visitors can fail to be moved by this powerful, compelling Image, hailed by art historian Percy Brown as “the creation of a genius”. The three faces represent Shiva in his different manifestations. The central face with its towering, elaborate crown depicts Shiva the Preserver, sublimely serene and introspective. The one facing west represents Shiva the Creator, gentle, solicitous and graceful. The head facing east, with its cruel mouth, fiercely hooked nose and serpents adorning the hair, shows Shiva as the Destroyer.

On either side of the statue are other superb sculptures. The one on the east shows Shiva as Ardhanarishvara – the Lord who is Both Male and Female, and thus symbolizes the Divine Unity in which all opposites are resolved. The image on the west is of Shiva as Gangadhara, helping the river goddess Gangs descend to earth  while his consort Parvati and other deities look on. Contrasting images of peace and violence, joy and fury, can be seen in exquisite sculptures throughout the temple. Thus, one sculpture near the Western Entrance lyrically depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, while opposite it is a powerful panel showing Shiva brutally impaling the demon Andhaka. The Eastern Entrance has Shiva and Parvati contentedly playing dice in their mountain abode, as the demon-king Ravana tries to destroy their home by shaking the mountain.

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