Northeast of the Gateway of India in Mumbai Harbour, the rock-cut temples on Gharapuri, better known as Elephanta Island, are a Unesco World Heritage Site. Created between AD 450 and 750, the labyrinth of cave temples represent some of India’s most impressive temple carving.
The main Shiva-dedicated temple is an intriguing latticework of courtyards, halls, pillars and shrines; its magnum opus is a 6m-tall statue of Sadhashiva, depicting a three-faced Shiva as the destroyer, creator and preserver of the universe, his eyes closed in eternal contemplation.
It was the Portuguese who dubbed the island Elephanta because of a large stone elephant near the shore (this collapsed in 1814 and was moved by the British to Mumbai’s Jijamata Udyan). There’s a small museum on-site, with informative pictorial panels on the origin of the caves.
Pushy, expensive guides are available – but you don’t really need one as Pramod Chandra’s A Guide to the Elephanta Caves, widely for sale, is more than sufficient.
The ferries dock at the end of a concrete pier, from where you can walk or take the miniature train (₹10) to the stairway leading up to the caves (it’s lined with souvenir stalls and patrolled by pesky monkeys). A passenger tax (₹5) is also charged. Wear good shoes (those opting to walk are looking at 1.2km). Doli-carriers charge ₹1200 to carry up the aged or disabled.