1902 Encyclopedia > Elephanta Isle

Elephanta Isle
near Mumbai (Bombay), India

Elephanta Isle, called by the natives Gharipur, a small island between Bombay and the mainland, is situated about seven miles from Bombay, 18° 57' N. lat. and 73° E. long. It is nearly five miles in circumference, and the few inhabitants it contains are employed in the cultivation of rice, and in rearing sheep and poultry for the Bombay market. The island was, till within recent times, almost entirely overgrown with wood; it contains several springs of good water.

Entrance to Elephanta Cave print

Entrance to the Cave of the Elephanta
Source: Seward, William H.: “Travels Around the World” (1873)

But it owes its chief celebrity to the mythological excavations and sculptures of Hindu superstition which it contains. Opposite to the landing-place is a colossal statue of an elephant, cracked and multilated, from which the island received from the Portuguese the name it still bears.

At a short distance from this is a cave, the entrance to which is nearly 60 feet wide and 18 high, supported by pillars cut out of the rock; the sides are sculptured into numerous compartments, containing representations of the Hindu deities, but many of the figures have been defaced by the zeal of the Mahometans and Portuguese.

Trimurti, Elephanta Isle image

The Trimurti, Elephanta Isle

In the centre of the excavations is a remarkable bust, thought to represent the Hindu Triad, namely, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva [Shiva] or Mahadeva the Destroyer, but supposed by some to be a triform representation of Siva alone. The heads are 6 feet in length, and well cut, and the faces, with the exception of the under lip, are handsome. The head-dresses are curiously ornamented; and one of the figures holds in its hand a cobra di capella snake, whilst on the cap are, amongst other symbols, a human skull and a young infant.

On each side of the Trimurti [statue of the Hindu triad] is a pilaster, the front of which is filled up by a human figure leaning on a dwarf, both much defaced. There is a large compartment to the right hollowed a little, and covered with a great variety of figures, the largest of which is 16 feet high, representing the double figure of Siva and Parvati, named Viraj, half male and half female.

On the right is Brahma, four-faced, on a lotus, -- one of the very few representations of this god which now exist in India; and on the left is Vishnu.

On the other side of the Trimurti is another compartment with various figures of Siva and Parvati, the most remarkable of which is Siva [Shiva] in his vindictive character, eight-handed, with a collet of skulls round his neck.

On the right of the entrance to the cave is a square apartment, supported by eight colossal figures, containing a gigantic symbol of Mahadeva or Siva [Shiva] cut out of the rock.

In a ravine connected with the great cave are two other caves, also containing sculptures, which however, have been much defaced owing to the action of damp and the falling of the rocks.

This interesting retreat of Hindu religious art is said to have been dedicated to Siva [Shiva], but it contains numerous representations of other Hindu deities. It has, however, for long been a place, not so much of worship, as of archaeological and artistic interest alike to the European and Hindu traveller. It forms a wonderful monument of antiquity, and must have been a work of incredible labour.

Archaeological authorities are of opinion that the cave must have been excavated about the tenth century of our era.

The island is much frequented by the British residents of Bombay ; and during his tour in India in 1875, the Prince of Wales was entertained there at a banquet. (See Rousselet’s L’Inde, and Fergusson’s History of Architecture.)

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