An afternoon at Elephanta

Posted on Posted in Mumbai City

Back in school, I was always a back bencher.

It comes with its own advantages when you are hungry or if pending homework is to be completed before that sinister tempered professor walked in or if you simply wish to pretend to pay attention and sleep with your eyes wide open.

I laboured hard to memorize and recite English poems and balance equations in chemistry. I also tried my hand at plotting cities on world maps but ended up getting only one thing right, the islands outside the mainland that lay aloof in the blue waters of the stretched oceans. I would always wonder what life was like in those stranded water locked pieces of land. How did people get there and how many generations have spent their lives building it. The curiosity led to meddling with thoughts in my placid mind and I started reading a little more about them. I had this very peculiar affinity to History classes. Though we were gifted with a very good looking professor who had us drool with full attendance and attention, I never felt I was concentrating on something very intense (pun unintended).

It always gave me the feeling of being tuned to one interesting narrative after another that took me back in time. Sometimes I would pause and imagine how life would have been back in the age of the flourishing empires and dynasties that shaped India and made people flock to believe in various religions. Though most of the emperors and kings had their own egotistical interests, most sought wisdom and showered copious amount of enthusiasm in art and culture. One such breed of people who followed Hinduism, found their new Gods in the avatars of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Lord Brahma the perpetual creator lay neutral for all Hindu races. Their zeal for excellence in art led them to build some spectacular temples cut directly into the cave rocks whose walls were carved with their beloved deities and the latter’s relics.

History took its place and continued to rest at its origins while modern day civilization grew at a far rapid pace. Like they say in India, if you need power go to Delhi, if you need money come to Mumbai and for everything else go everywhere else. The alarming rate at which the financial capital of the country has grown leaves barely any spot in the city that could let you escape the urban chaos. For those looking to get out of the city and enjoy a single day of their weekend, there is Elephanta Caves situated about 11 kilometres from Mumbai’s shores.  I planned a trip there on a lazy weekend.

And here is my experience.

It was going to be a hot day. I pack some water, my camera rig and a pair of shades.  I drive to the paid parking circle around Regal Cinema in South Mumbai. That’s the best place to leave your car if you don’t  wish to try your luck with the traffic cops on the look out to tow  away vehicles that are scrupulously parked at unauthorized spots on the busy Colaba and Apollo Bunder streets. From there, it is a five minute walk to the ticket counter that reads the timings and the types of ferries one could enjoy to reach the caves. I stick to the trusted MTDC operator and get a ticket for myself. On reaching the jetty, I realized it actually made no difference from whom you purchased the ticket as all were asked to board the same ferry.

Along with me were another 50 who in usual Indian style played musical chair until some found themselves nudging elbows or stood in disgust projecting their rear on a disgusted passenger’s face. The journey had not even started and the calmness of the ocean was split wide open with a series of expletives from a couple who seemed to be threatened by a lone passenger wanting to sit on the lady’s lap owing to lack of space. Before words could come to blows, a humble samaritan parted them and suggested the lone man should go to the roof and enjoy the sun. He gladly followed instructions and disappeared in no time. For those who were inspired by Bollywood perched over the rickety railings that pretended to protect its petrified passengers. Interestingly, right above their heads one could find words of caution that was colourfully written with some visible typos and claimed to take no responsibility of life or luggage. They did not retreat until some sane heads reminded them of their stupid acts.

It is almost a 90 minute journey one way and if the weather is good, you would not experience motion sickness due to the choppy waves under. Also, a bright day would also let you see the harbour from a distance and enjoy the waters replete with Navy ships, Cargo ships, Oil Tankers and smaller boats. You may occasionally get to see the rich and famous enjoy their speed boats. A look at the dirty brown water tells you how polluted it is and you begin to empathize with the marine life below that has to put up with all of it. The long journey gets you a little thirsty and hungry. The knick knacks sold on board allows the passengers to munch away. The apathy being almost all forget to discard the waste in the prominently placed waster paper basket. They choose the sea instead. Appalling!

We reached the drop off point where a mini train awaited passengers who would be dropped before the steps to the caves. I needed some exercise after the long ride and chose to walk down the aisle instead. The steps require some effort to get past and while you are on them, sheltered stalls on either side will grab your attention with the various souvenirs on display. Not to forget the macaques who are a few feet away from you and always on the look out to grab anything from your hands that they find interesting. Carrying food along the way is a bad idea. Finish off all the eating and drinking at one of the many restaurants that you see.

Once you are at the top, an entry ticket gets you access to the five caves. Unless you know a thing or two about history, there is nothing that a tourist will be able to relate to besides knowing that he is around some serious past. This place has also been marked as a UNESCO World Heritage site considering the art within. The Portuguese who ruled Mumbai back then did enough damage to the sculptures by practicing rifle shooting. Modern day tourists leave their marks either by scribbling their beloved’s names or by just scratching surfaces at random. Though I had not read much about the place, it was evident it belonged to Lord Shiva.

I spent about 2 hours around the five caves and began my descent back to the jetty where I was dropped off. On my way back to the harbour I spotted some flying sea gulls that I could photograph. I could see the iconic Taj and the Gateway from a distance. As the city drew closer I turned around for one last time to get a glimpse of the horizon. The island was a mere spec and I knew that it shall continue to lure tourists alike.

Now that was Elephanta. I spotted shrewd monkeys, crazy tourists, interesting souvenirs.

But, I was still left wondering where did the elephant go?

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