The caves of Elephanta

It’s about an hour by boat from Bombay Harbour. Or Mumbai Harbour, depending on what you prefer to call that city. The city itself is not, to put it kindly, very picturesque, but just an hour’s boat ride away, we enter quite another world: the caves of Elephanta Island.

But these aren’t ordinary caves: these aren’t caves created by the workings of nature. These caves, like the much larger Ellora on the Indian mainland, have been carved out, quite insanely, by human hand. The whole edifice is one vast sculpture, sculpted directly into the rock face itself, some fifteen or so centuries ago.

I was there last weekend. After disembarking from the boat, we walked along a pier, and then up the slope of a hill, on steps flanked on both sides by bustling cafes and by souvenir stalls. And then, we were faced with the “cave” – a large, man-made, pillared opening into the rock. 

Coming inside from the bright sunlight, all seems dark at first. But then, as the pupils dilate, there emerges slowly from the darkness a vision – a vast, magnificent vision of Divinity, of the Trimurti, the Trinity comprising Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the three faces of the God Shiva.

One does not need to believe in Hinduism, or indeed in any religion at all, to find oneself overawed. After all, even many an atheist has been overawed by the vision of Sistine Chapel, or of Chartres Cathedral. And here, too, one is brought face to face, if not with Divinity itself, then, at least, with a human vision of Divinity, that is no less splendid for being human. It is a vision that overwhelms with its magnificence, and with its serene grandeur.

There are times I think God is the noblest work of Man.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on LE ARTISTE BOOTS and commented:
    Most interesting.


  2. This seems like such an incredible place! I totally agree that works of art inspired or directly relating to religion can and should can be appreciated by everyone including non – believers. In addition to this magnificent looking sculpture, examples abound. As I recently listened to it, I am thinking of Mozart’s Requiem right now!


    • Yes, it is curious, isn’t it, the extent to which we may find ourselves in thrall of religious art even if we are not ourselves religious? I’d go a bit further: we do not react to works such as Mozart’s Requiem despite their religious content, but, rather, because of it. Even if we have consciously rejected religious belief, there remains an aspect of us that continues to respond keenly to expressions of religious sensibility. I’m afraid this train of thought leads us into areas where I find myself out of my depth, and unwilling to speculate!

      Although I was born in India, and had spent the first five years of my life there (I came to UK back in 1965), I have not been back to India often, and am not widely travelled. I would certainly like to do a tour some day of the great monuments of India – especially Ajanta & Ellora, which, even to judge from the photographs I have seen, are breathtaking. My recent trip to India was a work visit, but i am so glad I managed to fit in Elephanta.


  3. Posted by alan on March 12, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    I also agree that non-believers can appreciate religiously inspired works of art.
    But as for god being the noblest creation of man… well, I can think of some very badly behaved gods.


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