Elephanta Caves, a collection of 7 ornately-sculpted caves on Elephanta Island (Gharapuri) near Mumbai, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that anyone in and around Mumbai can visit on a whim. But it is a crowd-puller for foreigners and Indians from other regions alike. The 5 Hindu and 2 Buddhist Caves of Elephanta Island were once active religious sites for people of both religions before they were damaged and destroyed during the colonial era.
As is the case with a lot of our heritage monuments and religious sites we have lost to outside invaders, the Elephanta Caves too is a heritage we have lost to the colonial era. Yet, the relics are completely worth visiting. You can visit the caves with your friends or with family, but if you are planning a visit to Elephanta Caves as a solo traveller, there are some very specific things that you need to know.
But first and foremost:
Elephanta Island or Gharapuri is located approximately 11kms east of Mumbai and you must take a ferry that departs from the Gateway of India jetty to get there. For an approximately four-hour trip that includes the ferry carriage to and from the island, you will be asked to shell out something just under Rs 150 per ticket inclusive of a guide and Rs 130 per ticket minus one.
You can purchase your tickets for the ferry at the MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corp) booth at the Gateway of India. Once you board the ferry, you can pay and additional Rs10 per person to sit on the upper deck and enjoy some great views of the Mumbai sea-face including the views of the majestic Taj Hotel, marine drive and The Gateway of India.
Now here's the catch for solo travellers. I am not sure whether it is so to discourage solo travellers making a trip to the Elephanta Caves are a simple case of economic profitability, you cannot but a single ticket to get there. So, you need to look for another solo traveller to team up with you for the duration of the trip and thankfully, it is usually easy to find someone to team up with if you keep a lookout by the ticketing area.
The ferry ride takes just under an hour to reach the island. The first boat leaves Mumbai at 9PM and there is one ferry out every 30 minutes thereafter till the last one at 2PM. The first return ferry from Elephanta Island leaves at 12 noon and the last ferry back leaves at 5:30PM.
It is important to note that the caves are quite a distance away from the where you disembark the ferry. Though there is a short, fun, toy train ride (Rs 10 per ticket) from the jetty area to the foot of the mountain, reaching the Elephanta Caves quite a bit up the mountain is not an easy task, especially for kids and the elderly. There are about 120+ steps at quite a steep gradient at times and hence this trip is not recommended for solo travellers with walking disabilities or knee issues unless you are sure of your fitness level and health parameters.
Here's a Youtube Video that takes you through the full journey to Elephanta Caves in an entertaining manner. You can follow Youtuber Indianama for more such videos.
Unlike some of the other heritage monument testimony to the cultures of ancient India, very little is known as bout the historical origins of the Elephanta Caves. Excavations and restorations at the caves on the island have put some pieces of its history before us but these too are too widely debated by historical and archaeologists to be considered a commonly believed opinion. And that is part of the charm that lends itself to the caves' mysteries.
The theories that have the most widespread acceptance are ones that attribute a significant portion of the caves to the Chalukyas of the Badami Dynasty between 450 and 750 AD. Thereafter, the caves have silently watched the changes of the regional power baton between the Mayryas of Konkan, the Trikutakas, the Silaharas, the Rashtrakutas, the Kalyani Chalukyas, The Deogiri Yadavas, the Shahis of Gujarat and even the Marathas. The caves witnessed their degradation and desecration under the rules of the Portuguese and the British.
The Elephanta caves are believed to have been active places of worship for both Hindus and Buddhists till the 1500s, but the Portuguese that came thereafter ill-treated them to no end. It is believed that its beautifully hand-carved stone deities were used as target practice by Portuguese soldiers with little respect and regard for local customs and culture.
Today, despite the wear and tear of the years gone by, and the ill-treatment received at the hands of the colonial invaders, Elephanta Caves is still a famous attraction in Mumbai. Though dilapidated, the caves, with their large wall carvings, sculptures and architectural designs, still draw great interest from locals and foreigners alike.
Here's a video that showcases the interiors at the Elephanta Caves in a beautiful manner. You can follow Swaha Vlogs for more travel videos like this one.
Here's a list of things to do and see at Elephanta Caves; but of course, one of the main things to do here is to explore the caves and their vicinity either by yourself or as a guided tour. As you finish your expedition the stairs and enter the main area to purchase your tickets, you will be approached by several informal guides, who though informal, are completely equipped with local knowledge and knowledge of the caves for a fraction of the cost as the licensed guides. I recommend that you take a guide, whether informal or official because a guided tour is the best way to get the most of your Elephanta Cave experience.
The main thing to do at the Elephanta Caves if of course to check out the 7 caves and two Buddhist water tanks in the vicinity. Cave 1 is the largest of the caves here and with such high ceiling standing on gigantic pillars, it feels less like a cave and more like a Roman monument.
The main cave contains several shrines, pillars, a carved-out meditation space, several large and small statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, and an open porch. The main attractions at this cave are an iconic three-headed Shiva statue in the cave's interior temple, and the Mahayogi Shiva and the Nataraja Shiva on the left and right sides respectively just as you enter the cave. Wikipedia has the best details on all the deities that are found in this cave.
Caves 2 to 5 are right along a paved pathway once you or out of Cave 1 and take a right. Each of the caves has its own set of stone residents and of course, the folklore stories that go with them and this makes guided tours here a matter of necessity.
Cave 2 is smallish and is yet to be completely restored. Cave 3 is similar to the main cave with its similar entrance pillars and is equally large in size. Cave 4 is largely damaged but still holds an ancient Shiv Linga in its inner sanctum. Cave 5 is the only one with no known artistic remains but is still a good visit for those who like to explore.
Caves 6 and 7 are Buddhist caves located on Stupa Hill, on the eastern side of the island. Though these caves get fewer visitors than the main 5, they are worth visiting if you'd like to take a first-hand experience of what ancient Buddhist temple caves really looked like. Cave 6 or Sitabai's temple cave as it is called, was converted and used as a Christian Church by the Portuguese. Cave 7 has large artificial boulders and a dry pond today, but it is evident that there was once a large stupa here.
There are quite a few other things to enjoy at and around the Elephanta Caves. Whether you are a solo traveller or are visiting with friends or your kids, you will enjoy the short toy train ride that takes you from the jetty area along the coast to reach the foothills of the mountain.
Another must-do thing to do here is shop at the number of local shops that operate on both sides of the stairs as you climb up. Of course, we recommend that you shop on your way down to avoid carrying big packets and carry bags along your sightseeing tour. My favourite things to show here are local geodes (from Elephanta Island) and stone artefacts such as carved coasters, carved stone sculptures and painting, completely made-in-India.
Photography is another important thing to do here. You can start with photographing the Mumbai skyline as your ferry across to and from the island. The saves themselves represent a wonderful opportunity to click stunning black and white or grayscale pictures. People also love to capture the locals, resident monkeys and an occasional rock monitor lizard on their cameras.
This video by Stephen Knapp offers the best stills of the actual caves and the sculptures within the caves.
Last but not the least, if time permits, take the 15-minute hike up a crude trail to get to the top of Cannon Hill. This hilltop, which was once a military lookout post, still gives unhindered views of the harbour. You can also see two large British-era cannons here.
The caves are open to visitors from 9AM to 5PM on all days except Mondays. The entrance tickets for Indians are just Rs 40 per person while the same is at Rs 600 per person for foreign nationals. If you are a history or art lover, you will want to take your time at the caves. This means that you can easily spend between 2 to 4 hours here.
People disinterested in both can get disillusioned by the fact that most of the sculptures are badly damaged, in which case they prefer to return back in an hour or two. The beauty of the caves really is in the eyes of the beholder!
Here's another good Youtube video on the experience at Elephanta Caves. You can follow Youtuber Garima's Good Life for more such videos.
As mentioned earlier, there are about 120 steep steps that you need to take to reach the caves. The caves are therefore not easily accessible to the disabled even though some locals do offer to take the elderly up in palanquins carried by four for charges that are negotiable on the spot.
I have been to Elephanta Caves on 3 different occasions and hence I can very safely say that you need to hit the very first ferry out to avoid large crowds at the top. The caves definitely get overcrowded later during the day.
Resist the temptation and do not feed the monkeys. Though they appear docile, they are at best naughty and at worst, bullying rogues that will follow you around and even snatch things from your hands or purses when the opportunity presents itself.
Staying overnight at the Elephanta Caves is prohibited, but there is a small hotel run by Maharashtra Tourism that allows you to take a short break or rest for an hour or so. There is a restaurant at the top that serves delicious snacks and meals too.
Shopping here requires a good eye and a knack for bargaining. Almost everything is charged at a slight premium so it pays to bargain for a better, fairer deal.
Video shooting inside the cave is said to be prohibited but I have seen several videographers taking footages inside the cave to make YouTube video. Compliance with that particular rule and enforcement of the same, both seem to be lax. On the other hand though, photography is welcome.