When we arrived in Mumbai in the late afternoon, after another long, uncomfortable overnight train ride, I felt relieved and also slightly sentimental that we had finished our last railway journey in India.
This time around we had no problems getting on the stupendously overcrowded suburban commuter trains that had taken us 3 goes to pluck up the courage to fight and squeeze our way onto the first time.
We easily navigated our way back through the grand UNESCO listed architecture of the Chhatrapti Shivaji Station, through the streets of Colaba to our favoured Cafe Universal and successfully negotiated a reasonably priced taxi and wound our way through the hawkers around the Gateway of India with considerably more ease than on that first overwhelming day!
After taking in the colonial architecture, frenetic atmosphere and visiting Dharavi slums on our first visit to Mumbai, our last day in India was spent visiting the Elephanta Caves that are situated on an island in Mumbai harbour about 10 kms away from the city.
From the Gateway of India we jumped on one of the many boats and watched as the iconic views of the Apollo Bunder – including the Gateway of India, the Taj hotel, the Mumbai skyline and docks faded into view and all around us was fresh sea breeze.
As the wooden boat passed large freighters and fishing boats, Indian families dressed in their best elaborate sarees passed the time on the boat by throwing crisps into the air to feed the seagulls who swooped over the open topped boat.
The name Elephanta island comes from the gigantic Elephant statue that the Portuguese found at the entrance to the island but this has now been moved to the Victoria Gardens (now called jijamata Udyan) in Mumbai.
After over an hour the boat docked at the small, forested Elephanta Island. By clambering through a few more similar wooden tourist boats moored up together we reached the long jetty where hawkers in small stick shacks touted snacks, books containing stories of the various gods and flowers for offerings.
A miniature train ran noisily on narrow tracks along the jetty until we reached the start of the steep steps that lead up to the caves. We climbed quickly through this gauntlet of steps that were lined with tourist stalls all clamouring for our attention and selling all kinds of tacky souvenirs.
When we emerged at the top and we took in the views and fresh air with some monkeys who had managed to learn how to remove the tops off plastic bottles and were enjoying a drink stolen from a tourist.
The Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO world heritage site consisting of two networks of caves carved into rock temples, a smaller Buddhist group of caves and a larger group of 5 caves, cut from rocky hillsides facing the sea, that contain impressive rock cut sculptures representing the Hindu god Shiva.
The date and attribution of the caves is unknown but the rock cut architecture is thought to be dated between the 5th and 8th centuries. The identity of the creators of the caves and sculptures is not known for sure, but local tradition says that the caves are not man made but created by Pandava, the demon devotee of Shiva.
The most complete and impressive of the caves features large carvings over 5 meters tall of Shiva, Parvati and other deities depicting various legends and stories of Shiva.
The cave temple has several halls, wings and shrines all excavated from rock and held up with massive stone pillars and large sculptures of guardians.
The most significant sculpture is a central relief of the ‘Trimurti’ which is over 6 meters high and depicts a three-headed Shiva. The three different faces represents the three qualities of Shiva – creation, protection and destruction.
All the caves and sculptures were painted in the past but now only traces remain and the sculptures themselves are faded and worn, which is not surprising given their estimated age, but many carvings are so damaged it is difficult to envisage.
It’s just incredible to think that so long ago people managed the amazingly difficult task of cutting these caves, temples and carvings out of solid basalt rock and that the deities they represent are still relevant and worshiped today as you can tell from the offerings that people have left on some statues.
As the boat rocked and swayed over the sea the hazy skyline of Mumbai slowly came ever closer into view. The sun set hastily, giving the hazy outline of Mumbai’s skyscrapers and shacks a deep amber glow. As the familiar shape of the Gateway of India came back into view the Indian sun lowered behind the outline of the Taj hotel bringing a hazy, magical, amber glow to our final moments in India.
As we stepped ashore it was with relief but also sadness that we made our way to the airport and the end of our first Indian adventure, that I already knew would not be our last!