A 45-minute boat journey from The Gateway of India jetty, next to the Taj Mahal Hotel, takes you to the quiet wooded island of Gharapuri. In the 16th century, the Portuguese found a stone elephant here, and ever since the island is better known as Elephanta. The elephant was moved to the mainland and placed in front of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the heart of Mumbai. A short walk from the island’s jetty and a gentle climb takes you to India’s most accessible rock cut structure, and one of the finest examples of monumental sculpture. The caves here were carved out of rock in the 5th and 6th centuries, and there is evidence of Buddhist iconography in a cave and a nearby brick stupa. The highlight is the exquisite main cave, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, embellished with spectacular images of Shiva. This was created as part of the revival of Hinduism as Buddhism slowly declined in much of India.
The main cave at Elephanta warrants detailed study and with an &BEYOND guide it offers a fascinating introduction to Hindu mythology. The central triple-headed Shiva, Tri-murti, on the southern wall is a masterpiece and perhaps the most impressive sculpture, showing three aspects of the great god. Other panels depict Shiva’s marriage to Parvati, Shiva dancing, Shiva siting on Mt Kailash and Shiva in an androgynous pose as Ardhanarishwara (half man, half woman) among others. There is a small museum nearby to explore.
There are cave temples, retreats and monasteries in the northern western ghats (riverside steps), the ridge of hills that stretch north from Mumbai. The Kanheri Caves in north Mumbai are the closest, while the caves at Ellora, Ajanta and Aurangabad 400km (248mi.) to the north are among the most varied and most extensive.