Elephanta Caves: Where the Lord of the Lords resides

India is the abode for many stupendous temple creations that has augmented the opulence of Indian cultural heritage. History of temple architecture goes back to Gupta period, when various rock cut cave temples and Buddhist Stupas had been built by the rulers of that period.

One such astounding example of rock cut architecture is the elephanta cave temple, which is dated by archaeologists and historians sometimes during the 6th century C.E., when the Gupta Dynasty was in power.

These magnificent rock-cut beauties are a network of richly sculpted caves on the Island of Gharapuri, which is 11km away from the Gateway of India (Mumbai). The island gets its name as Elephanta when it came under the Portuguese control in 1534. There was an impressive sculpture of a giant elephant made out of black stone that stood on the mound towards the east of Gharapuri village. Thus the Portuguese named the island as Elephanta after this elephant sculpture. This sculpture was collapsed in 1814 and was later put together in 1864, which can still be seen in the Bhau Daji Lal museum at the Jamata Udyan at Byculla in Mumbai.

The island comprises of two groups of caves one group consist of 5 caves, dedicated to Hindu deity Lord Shiva. The other group smaller ones consist of two Buddhist caves. The entrances to the caves are from east, west, and north sides. The eastern entrance leads to the Stupa hill that contains the small group of caves which houses the Buddhist monuments. The west wing too leads to some minor shrine but dedicated to lord Shiva. The main cave consists of 9 different sculpture panels dedicated to lord Shiva with the Linga residing inside.

Because of the significant Hindu caves of Elephanta; it has become an important pilgrim site in India. The caves are carved out of gigantic rock blocks, and there are still some hints of paint left on the cave walls. The main cave numbered as Cave 1, is dedicated to Shiva which is situated about 1.6 km up hillside, facing the ocean. It covers 60,000 square feet in area.

This cave is believed to be the divine residence of Shiva, the greatest of all Gods. Even the architecture of the cave invokes divine emotions and follows the notion of Shiva’s cosmic order. The construction is cultivated to allow the flow of light, space and interior ritualistic movement.

Berkson shows the whole temple plain in a very detailed manner. He talks about the fluted column that divides the cave into number of aisles. The columns have cushioned capitals, very typical Gupta style pillars. And above the capitals there are brackets that support the beams which run along the ceiling, adding style to it.



Fig.3. Plan of the Main Cave (courtesy: Stella Kramrisch – Ancient India no 2)
Fig.3. Plan of the Main Cave (courtesy: Stella Kramrisch – Ancient India no 2)

The cave has a symmetrical layout and has an established geometrical concept. The main cave hall that enshrines the Linga has two concentric circles and two axes passing through the center coinciding with the two cardinal points; the Linga in the inner circle on the east – west axis. The other axes vertically intersect on the outer circle where the Eternal Shiva image resides (south wall). Thus the two most important and prominent points of the cave are geometrically related, (see fig., 1).

And along with the two circles, including the columns the whole cave can be divided into small squares that are symmetrically grouped in rows running along in both directions. Total 36 square mandalas are formed, and according to Vastupurusha it is a very apt number. The whole geometrical plan denotes that the plan is actually of the sacred mandala which is a combination of cosmic dimension and sacred mathematics (see, fig., 2.).

The a) Linga is the most important in this cave. It is housed inside a square chamber that has four openings and each pair of doors has giant Shaivite Dwarpalas. The garbhagrha is a Sarvatobhadra as it has four pair of doorways. The Linga symbolizes the phallic nature that exudes the energy associated with nature of creation. And this very energy of the cosmos is believed to be radiated on all the four directions through the four openings of the chamber.

Altogether, there are nine sculptured panels carved inside the main cave (cave1) that portrays the Shiva’s mysterious nature. The panels are divided into four groups, facing each other from the north, south, east and west walls (see fig.3.).

Andhakantaka-murtiArdhanarishvaraCave 2Cave 5close view of one pillarDvarpalaDvarpalasGaneshaGangadharaKalyanasundara murtiLion as a guard at the entrance of the main shrineNearby the cavesSadashiva- popularly known as trimurtiShiva as dvarpalaShiva as MahayogiShiva lingaMain shrineNatarajaShiva, Parvati and Kartikeya

The most important and a great masterpiece of the Gupta- Chalukyan Art stand the sculpture of b)Trimurti (sadashiv), protruding from the south wall. The image is 20 feet in height, depicting a three headed Shiva. And it is believed that the fourth head is at the back and the fifth on the top. The middle face of the whole sculpture is that of Tatpurusha, the embodiment of both male and female. The face is serene and has a tranquil expression. The eyes are closed in meditation and the only ornamentation is the ekavali.

The left face is that of Parvati portraying shringara, she has a very feminine, tranquil expression and has a lotus on the side of her face. And on the right                             is the face of Rudra (bhairava), it accentuates anger and fierceness. The jatamukuta has skull and the serpent coiled around it.

The remaining eight sculptures consist of extraordinary images of some mythological stories related with Shiva and Parvati.

On the eastern entrance facing each other is the Ravana sculpture and on the opposite wall there is the Gambling scene. In the c) Gambling sculpture Shiva and Parvati are shown seated on Kailasha, believed to be the residence of Shiva. The panel also shows other divinities crowding the scene. Shiva and Parvati are shown in a relaxed manner, to emphasize that they are at their home.

The opposite panel is that of d) Ravana lifting mount Kailasha, and is disturbing the peace. Shiva and Parvati again shown busy gambling, but Shiva is suppressing Ravana just by using his toe who is trying to lift the mountain.

The two other panels are located on the either side of the Eternal Shiva scuplture. One of the panels shows e) Ardhanarishwara that embodies both Parvati and Shiva in a unified form. The feminine character of Parvati is enhanced with full bosoms’ and a face with softer expression. To her side are her female attendants. Towards Shiva’s side stands Nandi the bull (vahana of Shiva). Shiva is resting his hand on the bull and towards his side the Shiva parivar is shown with Ganesha and Kartikeya. Also Indra on his elephant and three headed Brahma seated on a lotus can also be seen in the lower middle ground standing on Shiva’s side. Vishnu is seen standing on Parvati’s side. The top most layer has the flying maladharas.

The other panel is of f) Gangadhara Shiva that portrays Shiva’s controlling the fall of the river Ganga’s descent to earth. Here, Ganga is being depicted as a goddess with three bodies, with her robe flying denoting that she flows in the three worlds. She is called Mandakini, Bhagirathi and Bhogvati when she flows in heaven, earth and the underground respectively. Also Shiva and Parvati’s posture makes a very unique curve. Parvati is shown moving away from Shiva and Shiva tries to hold her hand from the top. Parvati’s expression and the whole scene generates a theatrical concept that the sculpturist has so profoundly created on these rocks.

Located on either side of the western entrance to the shrine and facing each other on opposing  walls is the panel showing g) Marriage of Shiva and Parvati taking place. Here Parvati standing on the right side of the panel is given to Shiva in marriage. Parvati has a shy expression on her face but her body posture denotes that she is eager to meet Shiva. Brahma is acting as a priest and is seated on the lower ground. The panel also shows Vishnu standing and there is the presence of Parvati’s father and mother in the scene. The Devaganas resides in the top of the panel.

On the opposite panel is the h) Andhakasurmurti showing Shiva killing the demon Andhaka by impaling him with a sword. Shiva is shown multihanded and he is carrying a bowl to collect the demon’s blood. He exuberates great power and fierceness with a lot of movement. The top register again shows maladharas.

Located on either side of the northern entrance, both facing the Eternal Shrine to the south is the i) Siva Dancing, shows several forms of Shiva dancing with other deities surrounding him. Towards his right side Shiva Parivar is shown along with other deities.

The other panel shows the j) Lord of Yogis also known as Lakulesh, a very human form of Shiva. He is shown with two hands and four students seated in front of him. This also signifies the Guru Shishya relationship. The panel shows nagas and naginis holding lotuses. The contrasting energies between these two images are evident. The dancing Shiva presents out flowing, active, dynamic energy; where as a yogi the energy is inward flowing, passive, and static. But even with differences in the moods the flow of energy is the same between the two.

This cave with such terrific and extravagant workmanship is a place to be preserved with great care. The After declaring the  caves a World Heritage site, UNESCO ordered the documentation of  the  site’s  history  and  draw  up  a site plan. And some grants were utilized for conservation of the caves.

The population on island declined and the island became forested.  After thousand years long worship the Shiva temples of the caves was abandoned. The only religious event which has survived  to  this  day  and is  related  to  ancient  cave  temples  is  the  festival  of  Shiva  –  Maha  Shivaratri. 


1)  Berkson, Carmel, O’ Flaherty, W., & Michell, G. (1983) Elephanta the Cave of Shiva.
2) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
3) Fig.3. http://puratattva.in/2013/05/25/mumbai-elephanta-caves-2289