This is my second visit to India and the focus this time is on the Southern states. We flew into Mumbai (formerly Bombay) which is India’s largest city and financial center. From here we will venture to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, and then further south all the way to Cochin and Kerala. Mumbai is the most densely populated city in India and is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. You really need to be there to experience the sounds and smells, the hustle and bustle, and the crazy energy that make up this chaotic metropolis. For our brief visit to Mumbai, we stayed at the Four Seasons Mumbai in a relatively newer neighborhood. I have to say, the Four Seasons here doesn’t feel like a Four Seasons. Both the hotel itself and the level of service are not really up to the typical Four Seasons standards.
We spent most of our first day going around to the main sights in Mumbai, like the Gateway of India, the Victoria Terminus, and the Prince of Wales Museum etc.
The Gateway of India stands on the Mumbai waterfront and is built by the British Raj in 1924 to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay. It used to be the first thing visitors would see when arriving by boat and has since become an iconic symbol of Mumbai.
Gateway of India
Gateway of India
The Taj Hotel facing the Gateway of India
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is formerly known as the Victoria Terminus or better known to the locals as VT. It is a mixture of Gothic and Mughal architecture, with carved wooden ceilings, granite columns, and stained glass windows. The terminal became a symbol of the “Gothic City” of Bombay. It is one of the busiest train stations with trains pulling in and out and commuters hopping off trains before they have even stopped.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or more simply, the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, is one of the top cultural museums in India.
Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is also known as the Laundry Ghat where endless rows of troughs are filled with stones where the clothes are washed and then line dried. We were told that only men work here at the Dhobi Ghat.
Haji Ali Dargah is a whitewashed Islamic shrine dedicated to the Muslim saint Haji Ali and during high tide, the mosque looks like it is sitting on an unreachable island.
On our 2nd day in Mumbai, we headed out to the Elephanta Caves. The caves sit on the island of Gharapuri or Elephanta Island about 10km from Mumbai and are made up of a series of rock-cut caves dedicated to the cult of Shiva. The island and caves are so-named because when the Portuguese first arrived there was a large rock-cut black elephant statue near the landing area of the island. These cave temples were constructed in the mid-5th to 6th centuries AD and were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. They were created by removing rock and carving columns, reliefs, rooms, and sculptures. The entire cave temple structure is like a giant sculpture made from a single piece of rock. The hour-long boat ride to Elephanta Island departs every 30 minutes from the Gateway of India starting from 9am everyday except Mondays when the caves are closed. Try to take the first boat out which usually fills up quickly and leaves slightly before 9am or whenever it is full. Upon arrival on the island, it is about a half hour walk up to the entrance of the caves.
Ferry to Elephanta Island departing from the Gateway of India
Arriving at Elephanta Island
Local traditions believe that the Elephanta Caves are not manmade. Instead, they are created by Pandava princes from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, and Banasura, the demon devotee of Shiva. All the caves here used to be painted but you can barely see any trace of color nowadays. The main cave here is the Great Cave (Cave 1) with large stone pillars and was a Hindu place of worship in the past. The Great Cave is decorated with large carvings of Shiva in different forms, such as a half-man, half-woman representation of Shiva, and legends, such as Shiva’s marriage to Parvati, Shiva slaying the demon king Andhaka, etc. Each interior wall has large carvings (over 16 feet high) of Lord Shiva. The most important sculpture is the Trimurti relief at the back of the cave. This 20-feet high image of the three-headed Shiva represents the three essential aspects of Shiva: creation, protection, and destruction.
Chairs for rent to carry those too lazy or unfit to walk up to the caves :)
Entrance to the Great Cave
In Hinduism, the Shiva Linga is a symbol of Lord Shiva. It is a symbol to remind devotees that the omnipotent lord is formless and is usually placed in the inner sanctum in the center of the temple or cave in this case.
The marriage of Shiva and Parvati
Trimurti sculpture with Shiva in his three-headed aspect: as Creator (facing right), Protector (facing the center), and Destroyer (facing left, with serpents for hair).
Our visit to the Elephanta Caves gave us some basic information on rock-cut temples as well as Hindu legends which better prepared us for our upcoming visit to the amazing Ajanta and Ellora Caves. Stay tuned!
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