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Elephanta Island

Started: 2016-01-28 18:59:43

Submitted: 2016-01-28 20:36:52

Visibility: World-readable

2 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator visits the UNESCO World Heritage site at Elephanta Island in Mumbai harbour

Saturday, 2 January was my parents' last full day in India; they had their flight home scheduled for Sunday. Willy was also heading back to Jaipur on Sunday. Calvin and I were scheduled to fly home on a flight awkwardly-timed to leave just after midnight on Monday morning -- so we'd technically be in India all day Sunday, but only if one allows for heading to the airport at the end of the day.

We had one more thing we wanted to see in Mumbai: the cave temples at Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour. To get there we took a taxi to the Gateway of India and caught a ferry across the harbour to the island. We ended up on one of the slower, cheaper, more-atmospheric regular ferries, which gave us a great view of the working harbour, including an Indian Navy base, container ships sailing to and from the container port on the other side of the harbour, oil tankers docked at the oil terminal, and other boats whose purpose I couldn't identify.

Seagulls stalk the ferry Al-Nawaz in Mumbai harbour
Seagulls stalk the ferry Al-Nawaz in Mumbai harbour
Oil tanker Desh Shakti docked in Mumbai harbour
Oil tanker Desh Shakti docked in Mumbai harbour

We disembarked when we reached the island and caught the toy train that shuttled tourists from the end of the pier where the ferries docked to the shore, which proved more amusing (and slightly faster) than simply walking along the pier. We passed a number of vendors selling bottled water and soda and snacks, as well as one vendor selling corn-on-the-cob roasted on a little charcoal fire on her food stand, seasoned with some sort of masala seasoning salt and lime. I was amused to see what I consider to be a stereotypical American food sold on the street in India. We each bought an ear for a snack before heading up the hill.

Willy, Grandpa, and Uncle Willy eat roasted corn on Elephanta Island
Willy, Grandpa, and Uncle Willy eat roasted corn on Elephanta Island

Heading up the hill proved to be an adventure on its own, as the stairs leading up the hill had been colonized by a long series of vendors hawking various trinkets, including sculptures, other souvenirs, and toys (which I tried to keep Calvin away from, with moderate success). I kept an eye out for anything interesting; I decided I wanted a carved Ashoka column, and Montse our au pair had requested a Taj Mahal keychain. I did not see any Ashoka columns in the piles of sculptures of Hindu gods and other idols, but I did spot a Taj Mahal keychain (despite being hundreds of miles away from the Taj).

At the top of the stairs (and the gauntlet of vendors) we turned away from the cave temples themselves to look at the old coastal defense battery. The battery featured two guns, maybe 200 meters apart in the jungle, each dug into the ground under a thick concrete shield. Each gun was a breech-loading artillery piece that looked capable of firing an 8-inch shell. Each gun had an attached tunnel leading to an underground storage bunker that presumably held the magazine, and possibly secure crew quarters.

Tourists pose on a coastal defense battery on Elephanta Island
Tourists pose on a coastal defense battery on Elephanta Island

Calvin and I looked at both guns and found the spotter's post and administrative office. I joked that I have a degree in modern warfare, 1850-1910, from Wikipedia University, which equipped me to understand the coastal battery, despite the complete lack of any sort of interpretive signs.

Calvin with a coastal defense gun on Elephanta Island
Calvin with a coastal defense gun on Elephanta Island

We visited the cave temples, carved directly into the rock on Elephanta Island. There were several caves open for tourists; after a trip to the restroom, next to the fifth cave, Calvin and I worked our way back from the last cave, armed with a book documenting the caves, while the rest of the group headed in search of a guided tour. The caves were in various state of disrepair, excavation, and renovation; the last cave was just a hole in the ground, and as we continued the caves were more excavated and more renovated, including some patches obviously done by reinforced concrete.

Cave temple on Elephanta Island
Cave temple on Elephanta Island
Calvin circumnavigates a Shiva lingam on Elephanta Island
Calvin circumnavigates a Shiva lingam on Elephanta Island

The last cave we visited was cave number one, the largest cave temple, with the most statues, some in various stages of destruction. As we made our way through the cave I tried to everything to Calvin from my guidebook. Halfway through the cave I pointed out a new statue to Calvin and he said, "Let me guess, it's Shiva." It was, in fact, another depiction of another aspect of Shiva, but I had to confess that I was having trouble keeping track of all of them. I pointed out to Calvin that he now knows more about Hinduism than any of his classmates, but he didn't seem impressed.

Cave temple on Elephanta Island
Cave temple on Elephanta Island

The centerpiece of the main cave was a large three-headed Trimurti statue, showing three different aspects of Shiva at once. This was the only statue that remained undamaged, and it was impressive, though I had to confess that I still find it somewhat inscrutable.

Three-part statue of Shiva on Elephanta Island
Three-part statue of Shiva on Elephanta Island

We met up with the rest of my family in front of the cave; the guided tour they were trying to catch was hourly but stopped at 14:00 -- so I probably had a better tour with the little book I bought on the pier.

We ate lunch at a little restaurant at the top of the hill, where I ate the "veg lunch" menu item -- a thali plate with a bunch of different curries -- and Calvin enjoyed a (single) boiled egg, as part of his greater protest statement on Indian cuisine in general.

Crowded market on stairs leading down from Elephanta Island
Crowded market on stairs leading down from Elephanta Island

We ran the gauntlet of vendors back down the stairs to the pier, and I stopped into one of the actual shops to look for an Ashoka column. I several different pillars carved out of wood, at various sizes and price-points. I liked the size of the biggest one, but I didn't really want to pay the price they quoted. The salesguy claimed it was really sandalwood and that it was no longer being produced. I bargained the price down, to two-thirds of the asking price, and the salesguy threw in the middle-sized pillar I was also looking at, which had a cracked base. I may not have paid a good price after all but at least I now have a neat trinket: a foot-tall carved wooden pillar with four lions at the top, facing in four directions, which modern India has adapted as its seal and logo.

Floatilla of ferries return from Elephanta Island
Floatilla of ferries return from Elephanta Island

We made our way back across the pier and caught a ferry to head back to Mumbai. Multiple ferries were tied up at the dock, so our ferry had to navigate around several stationary ferries to make its way into open water. When we returned to Mumbai each pilot was fighting for himself to get a berth at the pier under the Gateway of India, which resulted in a lot of confusion and inefficiency and seemed quintessentially Indian.

For supper we walked to Burma Burma, an all-vegetarian restaurant serving Burmese food. The waiter recognized that we were newbies and stumbling our way through the menu and recommended a set meal for us, which I thought was great, though I did need to bribe Calvin with chocolate cake to convince him to behave during the meal and at least try some of the dishes. (I will concede that the dishes were ... different ... but I thought they were good. I understand most six-year-olds do not have especially adventurous tastes, so I suppose I should be glad that he'll eat anything Indian or South Asian at all.)

We caught a taxi back to the hotel, at the end of our second-to-last day in India.

For more photos from Elephanta Island, see Photos on 2016-01-02.
We reject kings, presidents, and voting.
We believe in rough consensus and running code.
- Dave Clark, 1992