Can't make it to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Maharashtra? The Elephanta caves in Mumbai are a popular and more accessible alternative. These rock-cut cave temples were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Not only are they considered to be one of the most significant examples of Indian sculpture art, but they're also one of the most important collections dedicated to Lord Shiva. This complete guide to the Elephanta Caves will help you plan your trip there. The caves are located about 6 miles (10 kilometers) east of Mumbai, on the island of Gharapuri. It's better known as Elephanta Island, which gives rise to the name of the caves.
A lack of archeological evidence means it's uncertain who exactly made the Elephanta Caves or when. Based on other similar caves in the region, the Elephanta Caves are widely thought to have been constructed sometime around the 6th century AD, either by king Krishnaraja of the Kalachuri Dynasty or by Chalukya Dynasty rulers. These dynasties were established in the region after the decline of the Vakataka Dynasty in the 6th century.
The island was called Elephanta Island by the Portuguese in the 16th century after they acquired it from the Gujarat Sultanate and discovered a sizeable rock-cut stone elephant statue there (the figure is now on display outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai).
By the time the British gained control of Bombay in the 17th century, the caves had become quite damaged. Large sections had been either vandalized or ruined by natural forces. However, as Bombay grew, Hindus returned to worship at the caves. The caves weren't restored until the late 1970s, though, when the Indian government decided to make them a tourist site. They're currently managed by the Archeological Survey of India.
How to Get There
Elephanta Island is reached in about an hour by boat from the Gateway of India in Colaba. The boats depart every half hour or so from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There are two options: luxury or ordinary. The newer luxury boats are hardly luxurious, but they're a bit more comfortable than the standard ones. Expect to pay about 200 rupees ($2.79) per person for the round trip. Tickets can be purchased from the official booking office counter near the departure point. For 10 rupees extra, payable aboard the boat, you can sit on the upper deck. It's recommended for the best views (including the iconic Taj Palace Hotel and Gateway of India in one frame).
Once you arrive at the jetty on the island, you'll need to walk up about 120 steps to reach the entrance of the caves. Alternatively, it's possible to take the toy train (10 rupees per person) or be carried on a chair tied to two wooden poles (2,000 rupees per person). Climbing some stairs is unavoidable, though, so do consider this.
How to Visit
The caves are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Mondays. Ideally, go early in the morning to beat the crowds and heat. Boat services are suspended during the monsoon season from June to August.
Entry tickets cost 40 rupees (56 cents) for Indians and 600 rupees (about $8) for foreigners. They can be purchased from the counter at the entrance to the caves. There's also a 10 rupee development tax.
The stairway up to the caves is lined with souvenir and snack stalls. Do stock up on anything you need to eat and drink. However, beware of the pesky monkeys that patrol the area, and keep any consumables away from them. They're known to be aggressive and will steal stuff. You may choose to dine in the government-run restaurant near the cave entrance instead.
Tourist guides are available for hire at the caves, and they'll likely approach you. You don't need one, though. It's sufficient to buy an inexpensive copy of A Guide to the Elephanta Caves by Pramod Chandra. You can also stop by the small museum (free to enter) located after the ticket counter to get an overview of the history of the caves.
Taking a tour of Elephanta Island is an option. Swadesee offers this interesting Elephanta Island Experience, which covers the rest of the island as well. Mumbai Magic, Breakaway, and Reality Tours and Travel (includes Sassoon Dock and lunch with a local family) are recommended too.
What to See
There are seven caves in two groups on two different hills. Caves 1-5 are Hindu caves dedicated to Lord Shiva on Gun Hill (also called Cannon Hill). Caves 6 and 7 are Buddhist caves, situated further away on the island's eastern Stupa Hill. Not a lot of people visit them. They're not in good condition, and one is unfinished.
The main attraction is Cave 1, and it's the first cave you'll come across. It's difficult not to be wowed by the masterful carvings of Lord Shiva in 10 different avatars. The most impressive one is a 7 meter (22 foot) Trimurti—a three-faced Shiva in his role of the destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe. This cave is often likened to Dhumar Lena Cave 29 at Ellora.
There's less to see in Caves 2-4, as they're almost devoid of carvings.
If you climb the crumbling narrow path to the right of the entrance to the caves, it will take you to the top of the hill where there are two large cannons. The hill also provides captivating views across the island.
For a more in-depth experience, don't miss visiting the villages on the island to get an understanding of the culture of the Agri and Koli fishing communities that inhabit it. Electricity only reached the villages in 2018!