The Elephanta Island is the site of the magnificent Elephanta caves, containing beautiful carvings, sculptures, and a temple to the Hindu God, Lord Shiva. These caves are located at a distance of 11-km from Mumbai and are now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island of Elephanta, being a commercial, military and religious center for centuries has traces of early Buddhist culture.
The Elephanta caves are thought to date back to the Silhara kings belonging to the period between 9th - 12th centuries. Legends and history suggest that the great warrior prince of Chalukya dynasty Pulkesin ll, raised the shrine to celebrate his victory. Some historians also suggest that these caves were built by the Kalchuri King Krishnaraja in 6th century AD. The entire cave temple complex covers an area of about 60, 000 square feet.
The World of Lord Shiva, Elephanta is the place where the main events in the mythology of Lord Shiva are depicted most powerfully, consistently and exclusively. At Ellora though other Gods appear on the panel with Shiva, but at Elephanta there is nothing but Shiva. According to Hindu Mythology three Gods govern their world : Brahma -- the creator, Vishnu -- the Preserver and Maheshwara -- the Destroyer. Elephanta has a story that there was a pillar whose end could not be found. Even the Gods failed to determine the length of the pillar. The temples in the Elephanta caves and the carvings on the walls show Shiva in different moods and shapes, Lord Shiva practicing Yoga, Lord Shiva meditating with snakes coiled around his neck, and at places Shiva is in the company of his wife, Parvati.
Panel 6 of the caves represents the marriage of Shiva with Parvati with the rites being performed by Brahma and scores of other Gods attending the marriage. Panel 5 of the cave describes the coming of Ganga from heaven to Earth. As the great force of Ganga might have destroyed the Earth, she lands in the hair locks of Shiva who then gently releases her. The wise and righteous Lord before whom the forces of evil and ignorance, flee, and are terrified into submission is carved on the 7th panel. Similarly other wall panels narrate the story of Lord Shiva. On the western end is the sanctuary of Linga denoting the essence of creative power, in which Lord Shiva is worshipped as the Lord of Fertility and Procreation.
The Monasteries of Ajanta lead us directly to Elephanta. It appears that the same families of craftsmen and sculptors who were working on the Kailasa temple of Ellora and adjoining Buddhist caves at Ellora were employed at Elephanta. An exquisite ensample of rock-cut artistry, can be found here. No doubt the cave was the creation of an unknown genius, a master architect, who having thoroughly absorbed and assimilated the magnificent contribution of his predecessors in the dual traditions of the independent free standing sculpture and rock-cut architecture, produced a monument which introduced a whole new world of form, quite distinct from any previous achievement.
The sculptors carved out of solid basalt rock, a representation of the heavenly mountain residence of Lord Shiva. Opening out from three sides, the temple lets in light from many angles making the sculptures seem to move with the changing angles of light.
The temple plan is so symmetric with important focal points worked out in a geometric Mandala (the design that represents the energy field). The pillars inside the cave give an impression that these pillars support the roof. Again the cross beams on the roof makes the visitor feel there is a ceiling of the caves. The pillars have been deliberately kept simple as to attract the attention towards the exquisite carvings on the panels, which are nine in number. There are three openings to the caves, which allows light to enter from various angles in different seasons giving an expression that the images are moving with transition of light.