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ELEPHANTA The island of Elephanta, located 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) off the coast of Mumbai, is well known for a large cave temple dedicated to Shiva. Six minor excavations are also located on the slopes of this island, which owes its name to the Portuguese who, in the sixteenth century, found a large sculpted elephant near the southern harbor. The caves were carved in the sixth century a.d., and it is disputed whether they were sponsored by Kalachuri rulers or by members of a late Maurya dynasty controlling the Konkan at the time. However, as suggested by Walter Spink, significant coin finds at Elephanta seem to link closely the Kalachuri king Krisnaraja, who was a supporter of the Pashupata sect, to the patronage of the main Shaiva cave on the western hillside.

The main cave has a rectangular ground plan with openings on the north, west, and east sides. The north entrance has a two-pillared portico, while the eastern access opens to a court and the western one onto an unfinished space. The interior hall, carved 139 feet (42.5 meters) deep into the basaltic rock, is filled with four rows of pillars with fluted cushion capitals (16.4 feet, or 5 meters high) and displays an unusual layout with two main foci of worship: a square lingam sanctum placed next to the western opening, aligned with the eastern entrance; and a colossal relief depicting three faces of Shiva, carved at the center of the south wall and lined up with the northern entrance. This atypical plan has long puzzled scholars, who have tried to interpret the cave's function and iconographical program, which consists of a number of large sculpted narrative panels placed next to the accesses and on the south wall. On either sides of the north entrance portico appear two slightly damaged reliefs depicting Shiva as Nataraja (Dance King) and as Lord of the Yogis. These two well-known guises nicely counterbalance each other, as they emphasize the static and dynamic powers of Shiva, the god's inner energy and its outer manifestation. Inside the main hall, on the north wall bracketing the entrance, there are two reliefs, one representing Shiva impaling the demon Andhaka, and the other showing Rāvaṇa lifting Mount Kailas. These two scenes both focus on Shiva's role as conqueror of demons and perhaps, much like the two panels in the north portico, seem to function as a pair. Across the pillared hall on the south wall, facing these reliefs, are representations of the god Shiva with his consort Pārvatī: next to the west entrance is the marriage of Shiva and Pārvatī (Kalyanasundara); and next to the east entrance, Shiva and Pārvatī are gambling at dice (Umamahesvara). In these two family depictions, filled with heavenly figures, Shiva continues to be the absolute focus of the scene, as he is much larger in scale.

Across the north entrance, in a recess of the south wall, is the central relief depicting three colossal heads of Shiva (18 feet, or 5.5 meters tall) guarded by two attendants. The iconography of this high relief, generally identified as representing Sadashiva, or "eternal" Shiva, has been object of great discussion. The frontal face depicts a serene aspect of the god, the left profile portrays the angry form of Shiva, and the right one focuses on his feminine appearance. The setting and design of the image implies the existence of a fourth, nonvisible face in the back, and some scholars have proposed that a fifth face, looking upward, should be imagined as completing the icon. The size, position, and quality of the image, as well as its alignment on the north-south axis of the cave, suggest that the patrons placed enormous relevance on this relief, which emphasizes the essence of the god Shiva rather than his actions. Two large-scale panels flank the central Sadashiva: Shiva bearing Gaṇgā (Gangadhara) appears on its right, and the androgynous form of Shiva (Ardhanarishvara) on its left. It is worth noting that these two images, which underline the all-encompassing nature of the god Shiva, beyond duality and distinctions, work as perfect complements to the central icon of Sadashiva. All the reliefs in this cave seem to be the product of a single vision and are related in style and composition. They display great affinity with late Guptan regional idioms from areas adjacent to the Konkan, in particular with the sculpture from Ajanta in inner Maharashtra, and Shamalaji in Gujarat.

The other focus of the great cave at Elephanta is the perfectly square sanctum placed at the western end of the east-west axis. The shrine contains a lingam on a high square base (yoni), and has four entrances aligned with the cardinal directions, protected by imposing dvarapalas, or door guardians. A similar organization of space and placement of sanctum can be found at Ellora in the Dumar Lena cave (cave 29). At Elephanta, the relationships between the sanctum and the colossal image of Sadashiva on the south wall remain unclear—it is almost as if two different, independent layouts overlap in the same space. The presence of multiple entrances to the pillared hall confirms that the cave at some point in its history had two foci of worship, but it is uncertain whether this was part of the original plan. Recent interpretations maintain that some idiosyncratic features of this cave might be explained with its possible affiliation with the esoteric Shaiva sect of the Pashupatas.

Two subsidiary caves are part of the main cave complex: the larger is next to the east entrance overlooking the east court, and has a small porch leading into a square chamber, with a central lingam shrine that can be circumambulated. The porch is decorated on the left by a large-scale relief of Kārttikeya that appears visually linked to the Shaiva panels inside the main cave hall, and by a poorly preserved depiction of the seven mother goddesses (Saptamatrikas). In the unfinished west court, a small liṇga shrine faces the entrance to the cave and is bracketed by damaged reliefs of Shiva Nataraja and Shiva as Lord of the Yogis, the latter very different in style from the other carvings at the site.

Pia Brancaccio

See alsoShiva and Shaivism


A recent and accurate overview of the site appears in George Michell, Elephanta (Mumbai: India Book House PVT LTD, 2002). For more in-depth analysis, see: W. O'Flaherty, G. Michell, and C. Berkson, Elephanta, The Cave of Shiva (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983); C. Collins, The Iconography and Ritual of Siva at Elephanta (Albany: State University of New York, 1988); W. Spink, "The Great Cave at Elephanta: A Study of Sources," in Essays on Gupta Culture, edited by B. Smith (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983). A "classical" interpretation of the main cave appears in S. Kramrisch, "The Great Cave Temple of Shiva on the Island of Elephanta" in The Presence of Siva (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981).

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Elephanta (ĕlĬfăn´tə), island, c.2 sq mi (5.2 sq km), in Mumbai harbor, Maharashtra state, W India. It is noted for six Brahmanic caves, carved (8th cent.) from solid rock some 250 ft (76 m) above sea level. The Great Cave, the largest (130 ft/40 m long), contains gigantic pillars supporting its roof and colossal statuary, most notably the famous three-headed bust of the Hindu god Shiva. The caves are much visited by Hindu pilgrims, especially since they were restored in the 1970s. The statue of an elephant, now removed to Mumbai city, gives the island its English name. The Indian name is Gharapuri.

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Elephanta (Gharapuri). An island off the coast of Bombay, containing a famous representation of the trīmurti Śiva in a cave temple. The date is uncertain, but c.5th–7th cent. CE.