The Elephanta caves near Mumbai are one of the popular places for a half-day trip from the millennium city. These rock-cut cave temples on Elephanta island are an interesting UNESCO world heritage site. During one of my Mumbai trip, I decided to explore Elephanta caves. I was staying in Colaba so I reached the jetty at Gateway of India early morning.
Elephanta caves are located 10 Kilometers from Gateway of India in Mumbai on the island of Gharapuri that is popularly known as Elephanta Island. Most of the caves are dedicated to Lord Shiva and a fine example of Indian sculpture art.
It was a fun experience visiting the Elephanta caves. The journey to the caves by high sea was fun with seagull flying with the boat, it felt as they are chasing us. Elephanta caves are not as vast and intricate as Ajanta Ellora caves still they are unique in its way. It was pleasant in the morning when we went but it got muggy & hazy by the afternoon when we returned.
We have to walk a lot to reach and explore the caves. It took us around 5 hours to visit Elephanta caves including travel time from Gateway of India. Here is everything you need to know about the Elephanta caves and island before planning a trip.
Read more about the best places to visit in Mumbai
How to reach Elephanta caves
The Elephanta cave temples are situated on the Elephanta Island which is 10 km from the Gateway of India ferry point. Though the nearest mainland jetty is JNPT Mumbai which is a commercial cargo port so tourist boats do not operate from there.
The nearest airport is Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport of Mumbai.
The nearest railway stations are Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus formerly known as Victoria Terminus and Churchgate station. Take a taxi from the station for the Gateway of India and walk to the ferry terminus from where the taxi drops. The taxis are allowed to a certain point due to security reasons. Also, note that autorickshaws are not allowed in the Fort area (Colaba) so you will get only a taxi.
There are two city buses also, number 111 and 112 that depart from Mumbai CST and Ahilyabai Holkar Chowk respectively and drops at the Gateway of India bus stop.
Take a ferry for the Elephanta caves from the jetty at Gateway of India after buying a ticket from Maharastra tourism development corp (MTDC) counter.
Elephanta caves ferry cost
There are two types of boats/ferries for Elephanta caves.
One is with the benches and it costs 150 INR for a return ticket.
Another one is with the plastic chairs and it cost 200 INR for a return ticket.
If you want to sit on the upper deck then pay 10 INR inside the boat. You get a good panoramic view on the upper deck and the crowd is relatively less.
It takes one hour to reach the Elephanta island from Gateway of India.
Elephanta caves entry fees
The entry ticket costs 40 INR for Indians and nationals of BIMSTEC countries.
For all other foreign travelers, it is 600 INR.
There is no entry ticket for children under the age of 15 years.
Every visitor has to buy an additional “village entry ticket”, which costs 10 INR.
There is no ticket for still cameras or mobile phone cameras. For video cameras, you have to pay 25 INR.
There is a small toy train known as a lazy train. This train operates from the pier to the bottom of the hill. Lazy train ticket cost is 10 INR. The base of the hill is approx 600 meters from the pier.
The Elephanta caves timing and the best time to visit
The Elephanta Caves remain open from 09:30 AM to 05:30 PM.
The first ferry leaves the Gateway of India jetty at 09:00 AM. There is a ferry every half hour from the Gateway of India for Elephanta. The last boat for island leaves at 02:00 PM
The first ferry returns from Elephanta island at noon and the last one at 05:30 PM.
It is better to take the first ferry or as early as possible because during the day it gets hot and muggy on the boat as well as on Elephanta island.
The Elephanta caves remained closed on Monday and there are no ferries on this day.
The caves remain open throughout the year but in case of the choppy sea or bad weather, ferries don’t operate. During the monsoon months between June to September, the chances of ferry cancellations are maximum.
In terms of weather November to February is the best time to visit the Elephanta caves.
Importance of Elephanta caves
Elephanta Caves are significant due to their location and stone carvings. Most of the cave temples in India belong to Buddism while these caves are unique because of the influence of Shaivite traditions and mythology from the Shiva Purana.
The layout of the site is in-line with focal points considered as important energy centers. The main cave is famous for its carvings to show the glory of Shiva, who is shown in various forms and actions. The cave consists of a square plan mandapa and its sides measure about 27 meters.
The rock-cut cave temple complex covers an area of 60,000 sq ft consisting of the main chamber, two lateral ones, courtyards, and subsidiary shrines.
There is a total of seven caves, out of which 5 belongs to Shaivite tradition and 2 belongs to Buddhism.
Elephanta caves island map and details
Elephanta is a small island of 16 square kilometers located 2 km from Jawaharlal Nehru port.
There are two hills on Elephanta island. Cave number 1 to 5 is on the western hill and cave 6 & 7 on the edge of the eastern hill. Both are hills are connected with a walkway.
Elephanta island is divided into three villages named Shentbandar, Morabandar, and Rajbandar, of which Rajbandar is the capital. All the caves and stalls are in Shentbandar. Morabandar has mainly covered by a thick forest.
There is no accommodation for tourists on the Elephanta islands. Tourists are not allowed to stay overnight on the island.
Some details about Elephanta caves Mumbai
It takes about an hour to reach the island from Mumbai and you need a minimum of 2 hours to explore the cave temples.
There are a total of 7 caves. The cave number one to five are dedicated to Hindu god Shiva and cave six & seven are Buddist caves. Cave one is the biggest and has maximum carving on its wall.
Who built Elephanta caves and its history
The five Hindu and two Buddhist caves are collectively known as the Elephanta Caves.
There is no confirmed archaeological evidence when these caves were made or who made these caves on the island. Archaeologists studied the design of these caves with the similarly designed caves in Maharashtra.
After a thorough study of caves using scientific analysis, it is concluded that initially some caves were constructed around 6th Century AD by the king of the Kalachuri Dynasty or by Chalukya Dynasty rulers. While the cave temple of Lord Shiva was constructed between A.D. 757-973 by the Rashtrakuta kings rule. This cave is known as cave number 1 and also known as the Mahesa-murti cave due to the grand statue of Shiva. Local people used to prey at these caves on special religious occasions.
In 16th Century Portuguese acquired this island from the Gujarat Sultanate. They found a sizeable rock-cut stone elephant statue on the island (This statue of the elephant is now on display outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai). They named it Elephanta Island after the big statue of the elephant.
British gained control of Bombay in the 17th century and with that, these caves also came under their control. By the time caves and sculptures were quite damaged still, people returned to worship at the caves. The archaeological dept of India took control of Elephanta caves in the late 1970s and restored them as a tourist site. Now it is managed by the Archeological Survey of India.
In 1987 these rock-cut cave temples were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cave number 1 or Grand Cave
The cave number one is also known as the great cave. The architecture of the cave is similar to Buddhist Vihara (Monastery), a central square court which is surrounded by several pillared cells. The cave is 39 meters deep from entry to the end. The main entrance is small considering the length of the cave. There are two side entrances on the east and west side.
The sculptures in cave number one depict different forms and manifestations of Shiva in the form of larger-than-life sculptures. The centerpiece of the Grand Cave is the Trimurti or Sadasiva. The Trimurti is depicting Shiva with three heads and it’s facing the north entrance. The three heads are the symbol of the holy trinity and present the three important aspects: creator, preserver, and destroyer. This also symbolizes the Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma.
The other interesting sculpture is of Gangadhara, which is on the right of the Trimurti. On the east of the Trimurti is a damaged four-armed Ardhanarishvara carving, still, it looks quite intriguing.
Other important sculptures in the cave are Nataraja, Shiva slaying Andhaka, Yogishvara, the wedding of Shiva with Parvati, Shiva & Parvati on Mount Kailash, Ravana trying to lift Kailash, and Linga shrine.
East wing of the cave is dedicated to Shakti i.e. Female power and energy. West wing has several other traditions statues and a grand Nadi. Unfortunately, these wings are damaged badly and partly closed.
Despite the destruction inside the cave, there are several things to see in and is the most important place to visit on Elephanta Island. We spent maximum time in this cave.
Cave number 2 to 5
These caves are located on Cannon Hill he part of the island. The cave 2 was damaged badly during Portuguese rule but it was restored by ASI when they took control of Elephanta island in the 1970s. This cave has four square pillars and two small cells.
Cave 3 has a portico with pillars, a mandapa with pillared and there are inner chambers around it. There are three chambers after portico. The central chamber looks like a damaged shrine, it seems there was a lingam here but now there is nothing left of it. There are some damaged sculptures left on the sides of the door.
Cave 4 is mostly in a ruinous state with a verandah without pillars. There are three cells at the back of the cave for monks with a chapel at each end of the verandah. There is a lingam in the shrine at the back of the cave.
Cave 5 is mostly damaged or was left unfinished. There is nothing to see in this cave.
Cave 6 and 7
Cave number 6 is on the eastern hill across the cave number 1. This cave is also known as the Sitabai cave temple. The cave’s portico has four pillars and a big hall with three chambers at the back. The central chamber is a shrine. There is no decoration in this cave except for the door of the central shrine, which has a rectangular column with a frieze decorated with lion figures.
This cave is significant historically because it was converted into a church during the Portuguese rule.
Cave number 7 has a small verandah and three chambers. This cave is abandoned due to the crack in the rock.
There is a dry pond towards the eastern side of cave 7. It is believed that this was a Buddhist water tank because there are several Buddhist cisterns along its banks. Near the cistern is a huge mound, this is identified as a Buddist stupa that dates back to 2nd Century BCE.
Important travel information for planning a trip to Elephanta Island
* After disembarking from the ferry walk 1-kilometer to reach the base of the caves or take a lazy train from the pier to the base of the hill.
** You have to climb 120 steps to reach the caves. Wear comfortable shoes.
* The ascent up the hill is all under the tarpaulin and the path is lined with souvenir stalls on both sides. You can buy souvenirs like necklaces, anklets, showpieces, and keychains. Bargain to get the god price.
** If you are traveling with elderly people or someone has a problem in climbing the stairs then hire a Palanquin chair available at the base of stairs.
* Take care of your belongings as there are several monkeys and they can grab your eatables.
** There are heavy crowds on weekends and public holidays. Expect long queues at ferry points near Gateway of India. At times there is chaos so be prepared.
* There is a point between Gateway of India and Elephanta caves where seagulls will accompany you in the journey. It’s a wonderful experience.
** If there is a storm or heavy rains then the boats won’t go to the island. Check the weather conditions before planning a trip.
* Hire a guide if you need information because there are no boards to explain the sculptures.
** Safety standards on the boats are not up to the mark. There are life jackets on the boat but no one gave us a demonstration or how to wear these or informed of any emergency procedures. The safety of the people on the boat is worrisome.
* Don’t throw garbage like wrappers or empty bottles as I have seen scrap in mangroves and water.
The food at Elephanta caves and island
There are several eating joints on Elephanta island. They serve vegetarian and nonvegetarian food. The fish fry is very popular in the bazaar area of Elephanta caves.
Several street stalls and vendors are selling raw Mango, cucumber, star-fruit, berries, and other local fruits.
Hope this information and practical tips from my trip will help you plan a hassle-free trip to Elephanta Island.