Day trip to Elephanta caves, Mumbai: Blast from the past!
Seeing as we had missed going there last time we visited Mumbai thanks to the rains and because Udai had heard of my childhood visits to these caves, he was raring to go. He had put down his demand to visit Elephanta on Day 1 of his solo Mumbai trip to stay with Rachna, who my kids fondly call Bossy (Bausi actually, which is half bua and half mausi, for those of you interested in the etymology of this strange term). It also sort of fits with her, we joke, but in reality she is a softy and a sweetheart.
Anyway, on a super hot summer day, the kids and us- Rachna, Nupur (mausi to the kids) and me- boarded the ferry boat to Elephanta which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an experience pulling out into the sea, seeing the majestic Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel getting smaller and smaller as we headed out. Yes, I’ve been here as a child with my cousins and the ferry ride was the most thrilling part of it. This time, I noticed how many locals there were on board carrying vegetables, corn, coconuts and other goods to the island. These sea-people, for whom now tourism was a lifeline, intrigued me and I wanted to know more…
Anyway, many ship-sightings, lifebuoy-countings and sunburns later, we approached the densely forested island, locally known as Gharapuri but named Elephanta after the stone carved elephant that was discovered here and now stands in the Bombay Zoo, or the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the zoo premises to be precise.
It’s a hot walk and climb to the caves (you can also take a cute chugging train till the steps), but all worth the effort. Sweat streaming, we enter the dark caves to be utterly fascinated by the sculpture, the architecture, the sheer monumentality of these caves, built between 450 and 750 AD. The trimurti- Brahma,Vishnu, Mahesh is exquisite and so are the several sculptures of dwarpals, shiva, shiva-parvatu, ardhnarishwar, etc that adorn the first large cave.
For Udai and Aadyaa (and perhaps for all who visit), the fact that someone (in this case Portuguese traders) had shot at and maimed the sculptures was the main concern. they had read the Amar Chitra Katha comic about the caves and knew some of the history. So are those who did it bad? No? Then why did they do it? A long discussion on intolerance and how it is routinely practised, to the detriment of the human race, followed. An excellent opportunity for me to drill in my own philosophy of liberalism and tolerance, and appreciation of all cultures. I was to get the opportunity again, with much more impact, up in Mcleodganj in the context of Tibet, but more about that later.
The caves offer many photo opportunities and we took them all! On the way back, we decided to wait for the mini train to go back to the ferry. Sitting there, eating corn, I got the opportunity to converse in Marathi with the locals who run all the touristy knick-knack and food shops on the island. They were farmers and fisherfolk before, but now the monkeys have devastated all the crops and they rely on supplies from the mainland. They still fish and bit, do boat repair work etc, but are largely dependent on tourism fir income. The young do not stay here, leaving the island to study and work. I got the sense of despondency, rather than excitement. Would like to know more. When we declare something of heritage value, how does that change the loves of the people who have lived there for generations? Do they have links with the dynasty that carved the caves or are they later settlers? Is there any other way they can be involved to contribute to and benefit from the tourism that the island attracts? Is there any other way the trip the island can be enhanced? Through cultural interpretation centres, art displays, some non-invasive development around the island’s natural lakes and lagoons?
These were the thoughts going around my head on the ferry ride back. As the magnificent city of Mumbai came back into view, these thoughts faded and the excitement of walking around South Mumbai became more palpable!