Elephanta Island in Mumbai (previously known as Bombay) is home to the famous tourist attraction, the Elephanta Caves. The island is actually home to two different groups of caves. One is a large group of Hindu caves and the other a pair of Buddhist caves. The Elephanta Caves have been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They are famous for their rock-cut stone sculptures, which are dedicated to Shiva, a Hindu god.

Some of these sculptures are mammoth in size, and include temples covering approximately 60 000 square feet. Although the original builders have not been agreed upon by modern anthropologists and historians, the Elephanta Caves have been dated back to between the fifth and eighth centuries CE (Common Era). Most of the history of these caves relies on legends and tales. There is even one theory that the caves were built by powerful spirit beings, rather than humans. This is based on the fact that the excavations that needed to be made are of such an enormous scale that it is deemed almost impossible for humans without the equipment that modern technology has produced. In addition, the sculptures themselves are of such a high quality that some have thought it unrealistic to imagine that unskilled labourers could have
Image of the facade of one of the ancient Hindu temples on the island of Elephanta.
Facade of one of the ancient Hindu temples on the
Island of Elephanta.
produced them.

When the Portuguese explorers arrived, they used these caves and rock carvings as target practice from their fort. They damaged the temple sanctuaries and defaced the sculptures. However, it is also believed that rain and water damage is partly responsible for the destruction of many significant parts of the Elephanta Caves. The main cave was restored during the 1970’s, despite some elements of the structure and design being irretrievable.

The larger group of caves comprises five separate caves and is Hindu in nature. The smaller group of two caves contain Buddhist monuments. The main Hindu cave is situated on a hillside and boasts incredible ocean views. This is a temple with one main chamber and two lateral ones, as well as courtyards and smaller shrines. Several carvings of the god Shiva occur throughout this temple. The main shrine is square and statues of various gods fill its walls and flank the doors. Most of the statues have been damaged.

Because the Elephanta Caves are within the Mumbai Harbour, they face various developmental threats. As this industrial area continues to expand, the safe area around the island decreases. In addition, there have been no formal plans or procedures put into place to protect the last vestiges of these fascinating structures in the case of a natural disaster, leaving the island and caves very vulnerable. There is also an ever-increasing population of people living on the island itself. In recent years, laws have been put into place to preserve these natural wonders. These laws prohibit mining, quarrying or blasting near the monument.

Not only are the Elephanta Caves valuable for their anthropological and historical influence, they are also beautiful. They remind visitors of the ancient culture of India and the importance of religious customs and worship within this society. This, in turn, encourages foreigners to sample a small piece of authentic Indian civilisation.

For more information: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/244

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