Monday, June 1, 2009

Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island appeared as a phantom through the haze from our boat as we neared the halfway point of the one-hour ride from Mumbai. The island, named by Portuguese colonists after the huge elephant statue they saw when they first arrived, is home to a complex of caves carved out of rock between 600 and 700AD and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.

My travel companion, Deon, was visiting India to see his ancestral homeland. His father is Hindu, and Elephanta’s caves were carved by followers of the cult of Shiva, one of the most powerful gods in the Hindu religion.

Once our boat docked, we hired Milind, a local guide. He led us down the pier past moored fishing vessels alive with Indians scraping barnacles and weaving nets to the 120 steps leading up to the caves.

On the way up, we passed through a bazaar of vendors all selling items made on the island and included everything from pearl necklaces and silk paintings to carved fishbone elephants and religious statues. A mischievous monkey stole one vendor’s water bottle and finished it off in a tree.

After paying the $5 entry fee, we saw the mouth of the main cave. It appeared as a square hole cut out of solid rock supported by four pillars reminiscent of Greek or Roman architecture, but distinctly different. Milind explained that the whole cave, along with all of its pillars, adornments, reliefs and details, is carved from a single piece of rock.

Inside, we marveled at the artwork, which is a combination of the Gupta and Chalukyan styles. Enough light filtered between the square stone pillars to illuminate the relief scenes carved in the walls.

Standing in the center of the caves, walking in the footsteps of artists who carved them without machines almost 1,400 years ago was a humbling experience. Gone was the oppressive heat of Mumbai, the constant din of honking horns and hubbub of a city at once too large and not large enough. I traced the outline of a small elephant sculpted into the corner of a pillar and asked Milind about the namesake elephant that used to stand on the island, but which is now in Mumbai’s Victoria Gardens.

“The elephant is a Hindu sign of welcome,” he replied. “The Portuguese didn’t know what it was for.” He then pointed to a panel along one side of the cave. Shiva’s arms were missing, and there was some damage to the flat surfaces as well. “The Portuguese did that, too, with their guns.” I leaned closer and felt the rough edges of a hole made by a musket ball centuries ago, trying to picture the soldier who was a long way from home finding small amusement in a foreign land.

I turned to Deon and saw that he was transfixed by the relief on the back wall, portraying the three-headed incarnation of Shiva – Mahesamurti, in which the aspects of creation, protection and destruction are brought together, each represented by one head. Milind told us it is one of the most powerful in the Hindu religion.
Off to the right was a sculpture of the Seed of Life, which Hindus believe sprouted into the lotus flower and eventually became mankind. It sits in its own room, protected by towering stone guards.

In the courtyard between the main cave and one of the smaller ones, we learned there should be a statue of a bull, which Shiva rode, but it was another casualty of the Portuguese colonization.

Another pair of caves whose stone was too soft for sculpting provided housing for the builders of the main caves. Rather than tour those, which are empty, we asked Milind if we could see his village instead. He readily agreed and led us over a barely discernible trail he said is a local shortcut. It eventually opened into a larger path, and we rounded a corner to his village.

I felt like I was the first foreigner to ever set foot within its bounds, although that is highly unlikely. The first building I noticed was squat and no bigger than my bedroom. It had a brightly colored conical dome rising from one end, indicating it was a temple. A low stone wall set it back from the paved footpath and the other pastel buildings around it. A couple of dogs chased each other in front of it.

It turned out to be the 10th anniversary of the temple’s construction, which is dedicated to a local god. A festival was planned for that night, and a woman at the temple’s door handed us each a spoonful of masalah, a mixture of grits, raisin and butter for eating during prayers, when meat is not allowed. It tasted doughy and sweet.

As Milind led us through the haphazard streets of his village to his house, few people were out. Most were working as guides, selling trinkets at the market or fishing. The entrance to his house was guarded by a yellow lab named Lucky. His father sat on a plastic chair in the corner and greeted us in Hindi.

The house itself was only one main room with a small bedroom, but was floored in beautiful tile and well-kept. Silks hung on the walls, a vibrant cloth divided the bedroom from the main room and a family photograph sat on a shelf to one side.

Milind told us he would play the keyboard at the festival that night. We insisted he play for us, and he eventually gave in. After playing a song on the keyboard, he handed it to Deon and pulled out another instrument for himself. Together they played while I sat watching and taking pictures.

After they finished, we thanked Milind and his father, then headed back toward the pier for the next boat to Mumbai. We left Elephanta Island as we’d found it, a specter in the haze. Only this time that specter represented a new cultural perspective for both of us.

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