Across the sea from the Gateway of India in Mumbai, lies the island of Elephanta, home to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Elephanta Caves. The Elephanta Caves- 7 in number- contain rock-cut temples dating back to the 5th century AD. The temples, dedicated to Lord Shiva, were created by carving out rock and creating the columns, the internal spaces and the images. The entire temple is a huge sculpture through whose corridors and chambers one can walk.
Elephanta is famous for the statue of 'Trimurti'. Here, Lord Shiva is depicted into three moods as the creator, the destroyer and the preserver. It is a masterpiece in itself. The temple complex covers an area of about 5574 sq metres and it consists of a main chamber, two lateral ones, courtyards and several subsidiary shrines. Above the temple is the mass of natural rock.
There are no elephants in Elephanta. The name was given by the Portuguese as there was a large elephant sculpture in the island when it was held by the Portuguese. Otherwise, Elephanta Island was known as Gharapuri. Elephanta Island is known for its great cave shrine, excavated in the 6th century. The island lies 10 km northeast to Appollo Bunder or Gateway of India in Mumbai. The Elephanta Island came under the rule of atleast half a dozen powers over the centuries. There ruling dynasties include Chalukyas of Badamai, Silaharas, Rashtrakutas, the Mauryas of Konkan, Trikutakas, Kalyani Chalukyas, Yadavs of Devgiri, Shahi dynasty of Gujarat, the Portuguese, the Marathas and also the British.
Elephanta is considered to be the glorious abode of Lord Shiva. Many of the carved figures have been unfortunately destroyed by the Portuguese. They turned the pillared hall into a shooting gallery and let the famous stone elephant fall to pieces. The broken pieces of great elephant structure in black stone were removed in 1864 by the British with the intention of taking them to England. However, statue was later returned to India and now stands at the Victoria Gardens in Mumbai.
The centre piece and the star attraction of the Elephanta Cave Temple is the image of the three headed Lord Shiva called 'Mahesh' the great Lord. They represent Shiva as the Creator, Protector and Destroyer.
Another popular sculpture at Elephanta Caves is that of Ardhanarishwar. Ardhanarishwar is Lord Shiva in his half male and half female form. The deity is composed of Shiva and his consort Shakti. The Ardhanari form also illustrates how the female principle of God and Shakti is inseparable from the male principle of God and Shiva. 'Ardhanarishwar' is a combination of three words 'Ardha', 'Nari' and 'Ishwara' means 'half', 'woman' and 'lord' respectively, which when combined means the lord who is creative amalgam of male and female niceties.