I have always been a sucker for historic places. These places make you wonder how old our civilization is, how ahead we have come in time and how much further we need to be. Writing on Forms of Shiva at Elephanta Caves is probably the most difficult things I have had to do. It is not because it would be my first blog of such kind (which it is) but everything about the place one of a kind experience from the beginning to the end.
It started by catching a ferry ride from Gateway of India opposite Taj Hotel. Anyone who’s lived in Mumbai even for a day would tell you what a privilege it is to stand in front of that rich heritage, a landmark that defines Mumbai. On my way there I was accompanied by both my dad and flock of seagulls who kept us entertained by catching treats from air till the destination arrived. A mini train ride and couple hundred steps later I made it to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Elephanta Caves.
There are seven sculptures carved from rocks each describing different tales and events of Hindu god Shiva and goddess Parvati. Together they show us the forms of Shiva at Elephanta Caves.
The date of excavation of Elephanta caves or Gharapuri meaning ‘city of caves’ is unknown. However, there is a debate amongst archaeologist about its making. Some say it dates back to 4th CE while other believe it dates back to 6th CE. Despite the debate, all historians agree it is a ‘superhuman excavation’ – an inspiration.
Viewing it first time myself, I could not agree more. I am no historian but you don’t have to be to see spectacular sculptures, pillars, and Shrine.
There are seven caves cut from one rock, just one survived the destruction. While viewing and clicking from different angles I had to remind myself that it was carved from rock, not built. You can not but admire the genius engineering and hands that created it. These caves were the worship place for the Hindus where once chanting, prayers and offering took place regularly. Today the place lies as a tourist spot and prayers are done only during ‘Maha Shivratri’ as permitted by the government.
Destruction of Elephanta Caves
There are versions regarding the destruction, some say it was due to waterlogging and rain. Some blame the Portuguese who wanted to reduce the Hindu influence during their rule. Soldiers practiced targets in the caves sparing nothing but Trimurti, even removing inscription of the creation and making of caves. The reason ‘Trimurti’ remained unharmed. Some say it is because of the sense of peace it brought to the viewers. It probably intimidated them too much.
These are all speculations and talks on where, why and how that no longer matter. What matters is no further damage happens to them and tourist’s appreciation of what could have been if it stayed untouched.
Shiva as Nataraja at Elephanta Caves
You either go clockwise or anti-clockwise but as soon as I saw this figure I automatically moved towards it without thinking of the flow. Didn’t need the second guess to know it was ‘Nataraja’ the most famous form of Shiva. Natraj comes from Sanskrit word that translates to ‘Lord of Dancers’ or ‘King of Actors’. Been worshipping the ‘Lord of Dance’ for nearly a decade both before and after Bharat Natyam I know the significance it holds in the world of performing arts in India.
This dance of his is known as ‘Tandava’ categorized into from forms ‘Ananda Tandava’ and ‘Rudra Tandava’. Ananda depicts dancing for enjoyment while Rudra is violent, vigorous and considered to be the end of the world.
The lower part of this statue is completely destroyed and only one of four hands has sustained. Upper right holding Agni (fire), apart from those deities carved around Shiva to spectate his Tandava have also suffered vandalism. Lord Brahma is noticeable due to his three heads on the top right.
What each hand depicts:
- Upper right hand: Damaru (musical instrument) symbolizing rhythm and time
- Upper left hand: holds Agni (fire) symbolizing creation and destruction
- Lower right hand: Abhaya Hasta, where Cobra is coiled on his hand. Symbolizing protection from fear. Cobra symbolizing fearlessness
- Lower left hand: Points downward towards the demon Apasmara on which he dances
Read More – Nataraja – Understanding the Chola Bronzes
Shiva slaying Andhaka – Elephanta Caves
Here Shiva is seen in ‘Bhairava Avatar, translating ‘Frightful’ from Sanskrit. Wearing crescent and cobra to high right and necklace around his neck, he seems to be marching in fury. This sculpture has undergone destruction. Two of four hands and the lower half no longer exist. Yet, the rage in his expressions is evident with raised eyebrows swollen eyes and tusk. You admire the artists who could carve it in stone.
Shiva holds the sword in his right hand, carrying Andhaka’s body after slaying him in left whose structure is broken. He carries a bowl with his other left hand to collect the dripping blood with the cobra coiled up around his hand.
Shiv-Parvati on Kailash
Shiv-Parvati, seated on Mount Kailash are playing the game of dice. Shiva wears the crown, a ‘Janeu’ or the sacred thread that goes from left to right, and is dressed up till his knee. Parvati is dressed in fine accessories with her hair falling in front. Upset with Shiva, she looks away as she lost the game of ‘Chopat’ (dice) only to discover Shiva has been cheating. Right behind her, between her and Shiva is women holding a child identified as ‘Kartikeya’ her son. At Shiva’s feet skeleton of Bhringi is seen (he vowed to worship only Shiva for the rest of his life.) Unfortunately, this sculpture has undergone massive destruction, nothing much of anything remains, it was traced by the similar sculptures found in Ellora caves.
Another panel depicts the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. See the coy expression of Parvati that is still so visible despite all the destruction of the panel.
Ravana lifting Kailash Sculpture at Elephanta Caves
This sculpture has Shiva with Parvati by his side residing on Kailash, surrounded by other deities in the upper half. Skeleton of Bhringi is seen near Shiva’s feet while in the corner right is ‘Ganesh’ – Shiva’s son. In the bottom half of the panel, below Shiva is Ravana, (sadly the carving and traces to that have been destroyed) trying to lift Kailash Parvat.
The legend goes like this – once impressed by Ravana’s prayers Shiva grants him the wish. Ravana asks to be powerful, despite other deities as seen in the cravings protest to not do so, Shiva granted him the wish. In order to test his might Ravana shakes up the mountain where Vishnu is seen riding Garuda on the top left, Shiva’s family and numerous other deities are around them. Lord Shiva simply moves his toe and the mountain stops shaking. Pressure starts to crush and suffocate Ravana from the weight. He learned the lesson that he might be powerful but he can not even combat Shiva’s toe. Understanding what he did, he starts to sing songs praising Shiva after which Shiva forgives him and lets him go.
Read More – Ramayana places in Sri Lanka
Yogishvara – Elephanta Caves
Receding on the Himalayas, Shiva is seen sitting in padmasana – the lotus pose of yoga. Hence he is called Yogisvara or Mahayogi. His eyes are closed and distant – deep into the meditation after the death and loss of his first wife Sati. He is said to be seated on lotus carried by ‘Nagas’ or snakes. Surrounding him are the divinities in the sky and attendants below.
Sati killed herself as her father disrespected and didn’t honor her husband ‘Shiva’ who is the god himself. Ashamed of her father’s act she remembered her husband and prayed to Aadishakti to burn Sati’s body, to be reborn to the father who she could respect. She was later born as Parvati, who Shiva later remarries.
Shiva lost his cool after Sati dies. He performed ‘Tandava’ with Sati’s charred body on his shoulder. It is known that Shiva’s ‘Rudra Tandava’ that would lead the world to destruction. Vishnu had to intervene by cutting Sati’s body into pieces with his Chakra.
On the sculpture at Elephanta caves, both hands and legs of Shiva suffer destruction.
Other deities include Brahma, riding swan, Indra without ‘Airavat’ his elephant, Vishnu riding Garuda on a plantain leaf, and the Sun-god or Surya riding a fully saddled horse (head missing). Then, there is a saint with a rosary, two female figures in the sky draped up to their thighs, a faceless figure of the moon with a water container. There are three identical figures of a male flanked by two females; the skeleton of a sage who came to calm Shiva suffer destruction too.
Gangadhara at Elephanta Caves
To the right of the tri-murti is another beautiful sculpture broken in pieces telling a tale clearly its suppose to – the story of holy river Ganga descending to earth from Shiva’s matted hair. This sculpture can be seen in many places across India. What makes this Elephanta caves one interesting is the three-headed female representing Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati.
Ardhanarishvara at Elephanta Caves
Left to tri-murti is probably the best sculpture accept the masterpiece signifying men and women as equal, one, whose existence remains insignificant without the other. ‘Ardhanarishvara’ quite literally means half man half women, split from down the middle.
Ardhanarishvara sculpture at Elephanta caves is broken from below the legs. Shiva is on the right, (left to the viewer) whose one hand is on Nandi. Parvati forms the left (right to the viewer) in a delicate pose. Details of both Shiva-Parvati are rendered in respective halves. Growing up in a Hindu family I heard this story over the years where neither Brahma or Vishnu never fully passed their knowledge to their wives. For Shiva, his wife is no less than him, and he is no more than her. There are other versions to this as well, one of which says Bhringi took an oath to worship Shiva solely, ignoring Parvati sitting beside him. She asked Bhringi to worship her too but he refused. Agitated she asked Shiva to give her half part of her body Shiva agreed to merge both of them into one.
Trimurti – the core of Elephanta Caves
Considered ‘masterpiece of Gupta-Chalukyan art’ this is the most important & most impressive sculpture in the cave. The vastness of this figure is intimidating. There is an amount of calmness and serenity I experienced. It’s the only sculpture that has not suffered much in terms of destruction.
Aspects of Shiva
Based on six principles of the universe according to Hinduism, this sculpture shows three of six aspects of Shiva.
- Left face (viewers right) represents feminine side to Shiva, holding a lotus, there is a light smile carved on his face that cannot go unnoticed, it shows his caring nature to every being, called ‘Vamadeva‘ resembling Brahma.
- Right face (viewers left) has a mustache is holding a snake in his hand, depicts Shiva filled in rage. It is believed that his anger can burn the world into flames with his third eye. This form of his is known as ‘Rudra‘
- Central face instantly soothes you into it at first gaze, engrossed in meditation Shiva here is enlightened, a yogi and engrossed into his thoughts to the betterment of the universe, this aspect of his is called ‘Tatpurusha‘ resembling Vishnu this also earns him the name ‘Yogeshwar‘
Read More – Rudra Shiva of Tala
The other three aspects are not carved but said to be at the back, they are as follows:
- Isana internal-aspect that conceals; associated with all that exists; represents ether (space).
- Aghora south-aspect that rejuvenates manifest Brahman; associated with Rudra; represents fire.
- Thiruvadhanam six-faced Kartikeya was created by God Shiva using his third eye of all the above six faces.
I came out of the caves in awe of these forms of Shiva at Elephanta Caves.
If you are wondering where is the Elephant that gives these caves its name, read this – Elephanta’s Elephant at Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
Guest post by Ruchika Parekh & this is what she says about herself: Born in the city of dreams, (Mumbai) I had always taken a keen interest in arts whether it be performing or applied. After graduating with bachelors in fine arts with photography as an elective I have and continue to work as both graphic designer and photographer. The idea of reciting tales through pictures fascinates me.