Thought to have been built between the 5th and 8th century C.E., the five Hindu and two Buddhist caves collectively known as the Elephanta Caves have survived through centuries of habitation, invasion and neglect to still stand and draw in thousands of tourists in present-day Mumbai. The island and its resident caves received the name ‘Elephanta’ from Portuguese invaders after the discovery of a black stone sculpture of an elephant on the island, now housed outside Mumbai’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
While the creators of the caves remain unknown due to a lack of surviving records, local legend credits various mythical and non-human figures with the creation of these temples. The earliest surviving records identify Elephanta Island as Puri or Purika, the capital of the Konkan Maurya kingdom during the 6th century C.E. though their role in building the caves remains debated amongst historians.
Most of these caves are in ruins but the few structures that remain are enough to suggest the grandeur of what must have once been. The Great Cave is the most intact among what remains. It was an active place of worship for the island’s Hindu residents well until the 1500s, when the Portuguese took control of the island. The caves suffered much damage under the Portuguese, with its stone sculptures even being used for target practice by soldiers. Regardless, the impressive 6m high Trimurthi sculpture, which features three faces of Lord Shiva survived and remains the highlight of the caves. Many aspects of the caves’ internal design, including sculptures and wall carvings, bear resemblance to the Shiva temple at the Ellora caves. Another structure that remains somewhat intact, in comparison to the other dilapidated caves, is the Sitabai Temple, a large prayer hall featuring walls adorned with rich and intricate sculptures located near the great cave.