IT TAKES MORE THAN AN HOUR BY SLOW CHUG-BOAT TO GET THERE, IT IS CROWDED WITH TOUTS AND REPELLANT MONKEYS, AND THERE IS PRECIOUS LITTLE TO SEE ONCE YOU ARRIVE. Despite all this, Elephanta Island has earnt itself the reputation of being one of Mumbai's major tourist attractions. So, why do so many tourists devote so much time to visiting Elephanta, when there are better attractions around? Personally, I think Kanheri Caves are more interesting and more alternative, but then again, I am a lover of the obscure. Most tourists prefer Elephanta over Kanheri for their Mumbai religious cave experience. So why is that? In the essay that follows, I will try to divine an answer!
h i n d u + h e r i t a g e
THE TRAVELLER'S BIBLE "LONELY PLANET" WRITES IN ITS GUIDE TO THE CITY OF MUMBAI: "The rock-cut temples on Elephanta Island, 9km north-east of the Gateway of India, are Mumbai's major attraction. Little is known about their origins, but they are thought to have been created between 450 and 750AD, when the island was known as Gharapuri (Place of Caves)." It suggests to me that "puri" is the Hindi word for "place", since so many place names in India have a "pur" or "puri" in them. But this quotation doesn't answer the important question: why is Elephanta Island so famous and so popular?
Before I start my rant, here are some other traveller's opinions about Elephanta, harvested via Google (web search parameters: "Elephanta Island disappointment"):
Gnome writes: "This is a small island about 1 hour from Bombay, where there are many old temples and ruins. It is worth a day trip if you are stuck in Bombay, although I was very tempted to put it in the Tourist Trap section. The boat trip out to the island is interesting, and there are some nice little markets on the island itself. The temples and ruins on the island were a bit of a disappointment, as they are in very poor condition. However, if you use your imagination (like me), you should be able to appreciate what it must have looked like hundreds of years ago. The boat trip is a real eye-opener, as this has to be one of the most disgustingly dirty harbours in the entire world."
Meanwhile, Robert Paul Fasnacht wrote on his epic Indian site: "Elephanta Caves are reached by paying for a seat in a motor launch and then riding out to an island. The caves were hewn out of solid rock by Hindu priests many centuries before the Europeans arrived on India's west coast. Bombay, now called Mumbai, eventually became a site for a Portugese fort and the caves were eventually discovered by soldiers. Believing the many carvings of Hindu deities were sacrilegious, no respect was offered for the fine artwork that existed. According to one tourist pamphlet, pot shots were fired at many statues. I had been to Elephanta Caves earlier with my mother and brother and I wanted to show the caves to Lorene, remembering almost too kindly what they really looked like. After the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra Fort, and "baby Taj, what we saw at Elephanta Island simply did not measure up well. Still the boat rides were pleasant and we had harbor views that would have been otherwise unavailable to us."
Robert is right -- the sculptures at Elephanta Cave simply do not measure up. And since a whole infrastructure of scamming and touting has built up around the Elephanta Island name, it is time the truth was exposed: there is nothing to see there!
Another Indian visitor on üEŻessari süEŻOu remarked: "At the end of February I showed up in Bombay all wide-eyed and innocent to start my southern India tour. First stop was Elephanta Island. I bought a "deluxe" ticket for the ferry over and printed on the ticket it said a guide would be provided included in the price. My Lonely Planet had also said this would be the case, so I wasn't surprised when I got off the boat and a man approached my travel companion and me claiming to be the guide. If it hadn't been my first day in India, it would have rung some alarm bells that no one else on the boat, all Indian folks, got approached.
"The two hour tour was fine, not spectacular and not very informative but he carried my daypack for me which was kind of heavy so I was appreciative. At the end he said "lets get a drink" so we went in the restaurant at the bottom of the hill and my friend and I ordered a big Kingfisher to share and the guide ordered a large beer too plus some snacks. After we finished I turned to him and thanked him for the tour, handing him 200 rupees for a tip. He then acted like he couldn't believe it, and said his fee was 1200! When I told him it said on my ticket that a guide was included he acted like he didn't know what I was talking about.
"We had an argument in the side room of the restaurant (where he'd made sure we were seated) and I felt pretty uncomfortable because the waiter was looking on suspiciously, and I still don't know what would have happened if we hadn't sorted it out amicably. I got my stuff and started walking away without giving any money. Hower, my friend, who's even more of a sucker than me, ended up giving him 500 rupees and paying for his food and drink."
There is only one significant cave at Elephanta, containing a number of large sculptured panels dedicated to the Hindu Lord Shiva. Other gods are depicted, such as the Hindu God of Fire (Blessings Upon Him). I am well into Hindu cosmology and all those thousands of gods (see my Hindu Gods page), but Elephanta Island is not the place to celebrate them. Most of the panels at the island are in poor condition, unrecognisable, and broken into pieces. I found it far more interesting standing outside away from all the touts, appreciating the view of the island (which is largely rural.) Being my first impression of rural India, I was struck by the natural beauty and the way the trees rustled in the breeze, all the strange Indian insects and monkeys. To me, this was more religious than looking at a dusty cave. But you don't have to go to Elephanta Island to see rural India -- most of the huge subcontinent is full of rural India!
g e t t i n g + t o + e l e p h a n t a + i s l a n d
GET THE FERRY FROM THE GATEWAY OF INDIA TO ELEPHANTA ISLAND. The cost is 110 Rupees. You have to walk through a scrum of beggars and con artists to board your boat. That said, getting to Elephanta Island is an idyllic experience and a strange combination of urban and rural India.
Timing: 9a.m -5.30 pm. Entrance fee Rs 10. For Foreigners US$5 (Rs 250) Every Monday its closed.
Gnome adds this pearl on how to get to Elephanta: "Directions to Elephanta Island: Get a boat from the Gateway to India, at the Taj Hotel. Make sure you shop around as there are some bad characters who will try to overcharge you, especially if you are not Indian looking." I will vouch to that -- some of the dudes working around the Gateway to India are truly bad news. They ought to be damned!
Contact us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
phone: (090) 6039-9341 (JAPAN)