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Modern India

Hindu Cave Temples of Mumbai

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 30 May 2010

Jogeshwari, Mandapeshwar & Elephanta Caves

There is an historical treasure right in the middle of the shanty lands of the city of Mumbai, something to which the common 'Mumbaikar', citizen of the city, is oblivious. This treasure consists of the Jogeshwari caves, located in the suburb of Jogeshwari, and the Mandapeshwar caves which are situated at Borivali.

Though they are as old as the famous Elephanta caves, they are not as prominent as them.

They were excavated between fifteen hundred to two thousand years ago. Now, though they have been declared protected monuments by the Archaeological Survey of India, they lie in a state of disrepair and utter neglect. Their surroundings have been encroached upon by slums and today they lie unnoticed and unpreserved.


The Jogeshwari Caves

These are Hindu cave temples, probably excavated even before the famed Elephanta caves. Despite their current location, they are still used on a regular basis as a local temple.

The Jogeshwari cave temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was said to have been excavated during the reign of the Kalachuri dynasty sometime in AD 520-525 (before the excavation of the Elephanta caves).

There are three temples which make up the complex. The main temple is the one dedicated to Lord Shiva, the second is to the goddess Jodeshwari, and the third is to Lord Ganesha.

There are beautiful figurines of gods, goddesses, Yakshas and Gandharvas adorning the walls. The doors carry motifs carved out on their brackets.

One of the entrances has two dwarpal statues carved on either side.

The Jogeshwari caves are also infested by a huge number of bats which seem to be absolutely everywhere.


The Mandapeshwar Caves

These are located in Borivali west, around three kilometres from the highway. The temple within them is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was excavated almost fifteen hundred years ago.

The entrance leads into the sabha mandap, followed by the antarala, which houses a Nandi statue facing the garbhagriha. The sanctum has a Shiva linga, the phallic representation of Lord Shiva.

The room to the left of the sabha mandapa contains beautiful carvings of Lord Shiva as Nataraja performing the cosmic dance.

The other figurines have either been defaced by vandals or have worn away with time.

The pillars are decorated with beautiful motifs and figurines.

Adjoining are other cave rooms which probably served as dharmashalas for passing travellers.


The Elephanta Caves

The last of the cave temples of Mumbai, but easily the most famous, are the Elephanta caves. They are situated around fifteen kilometres from the Gateway of India, in Mumbai, on a tiny island called Gharapuri.

Gharapuri is a fishing village which is inhabited by the Koli fisherman community.

The journey to these caves can be commenced from the Gateway of India from where several boats and launches ferry passengers throughout the day. It is an hour's journey from Gateway to Gharapuri Island, from where one has to climb several stone steps to reach the Elephanta caves.

These caves were constructed sometime between the sixth and seventh centuries. Who actually built them is still not clear, but they have been patronised by several ruling dynasties over the years, such as the Konkan Mauryas, the Kalachuris, the Chalukyas (there is a mention of the Chalukyan King Pulakeshin II having conquered the island), plus the Silharas, and the Rashtrakutas.

These caves are actually Hindu temples which are dedicated to Lord Shiva. They have been built following the traditional Buddhist method called 'Leni Viharas' (cave dwellings).

The site has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is under the protection of the Archaeological Society of India, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation of India, and the Maharashtra government.

The name Elephanta is derived from a mammoth statue of an elephant which was discovered by the Portuguese when they first acquired control over the island in 1534, taking it from the Gujrat sultanate. This statue has since been relocated to the Jijamata Udyan in Mumbai.

The cave temples have been chiselled from the igneous black basalt rock which forms the island.

The most famous statue on the island is the Trimurti or Maheshmurti statue which depicts Lord Shiva as the fearsome (the righthand face), the benign or meditative (the central face), and the lovable (the lefthand face). This statue is housed in the main cave along with other very interesting and intricately carved statues depicting the events related to the life of Lord Shiva.

The main cave also includes Shiva Slayig the demon Andhaka, and a statue of the demon king Ravan lifting Mount Kailasa, but then weighed down and trapped under the weight of Lord Shiva.

There are also statues of Lord Shiva in meditation as Yogishwara or Lakulisha after the death of his first wife, Sati.

There is a statue of the wedding of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati (who is Sati reborn); a statue of Shiva and Parvati enjoying a game of dice on Mount Kailasa; the Shiva performing the cosmic dance in the form of Nataraja; Gangadhara reining in the River Ganga as it descends on the earth.

Then there is also the statue of Shiva as Ardhanareshwara or half man, half woman.

There are also several Shiva lingas or idols in the form of a phallus and a vagina depicting the union of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati. The main shiva linga is housed in a square room flanked by four dwarpalas (gatekeepers) on the edges of the room.

All these statues are housed in the main caves which are situated at the entrance.

The other caves are minor ones which served as dwellings for the ascetics and visitors who frequented these caves.

Something else which can be seen on the island is an old British cannon which is located on the pinnacle of the hill and frequented only by real enthusiasts, thanks to the high altitude dissuading anyone else from making the attempt.

Elephanta Caves
The Elephanta Caves on Gharapuri Island near Mumbai



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.