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Elephanta Island Travel Guide: 7 things to know before you go

I strolled down the path, vaguely glancing at the market stalls on either side. My small bag hung on my back and I clutched my phone in one hand. With the other, I swung a plastic bottle of water loosely, half-full, by its neck.

Spotting a monkey sitting on a low wall next to the path, I was intrigued to see that he seemed to notice me back.

This may or may not have been the guilty party. Elephanta Island travel guide

This may or may not have been the guilty party.

I stopped walking as I neared the monkey, contemplating my chances of getting a good photo. The monkey, when I stopped, jumped down onto the path. I took this to mean that he meant to cross to the greenery on the other side, but watched him carefully anyway.

When he turned to walk straight toward me, I tensed. “Can monkeys carry rabies?” flashed through my mind. Nearing me, the monkey suddenly reached out with both hands, grabbed the water bottle dangling from my fingers and gave a surprisingly strong tug. I tried to hang on, but didn’t have a good grip when the monkey yanked again.

Scampering away with the spoils, the monkey expertly gave the lid a twist to unscrew it, chugged several swallows of the water, then dropped the bottle, jumping back to his place on the wall.

The stairway path where this happened. Elephanta Island travel guide.

The stairway path where this happened.

Surprised, I rather ridiculously shouted, “Hey, that’s mine!” As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized how idiotic I must seem. The monkey may be able to open a screw-top, but somehow I doubt that he would listen to reason.[tweetthis]The monkey may be able to open a screw-top, but somehow I doubt that he would listen to reason.[/tweetthis]

Turning, I headed toward a small restaurant I’d just passed, embarrassed to see that two young men were standing in the doorway and had seen the whole thing. One – an Afghan tourist, surprisingly – held out the bottle of water he’d just bought and offered it to me. Thanking him, I politely refused it, and bought another inside.

This is all a rather roundabout way to say the first of my things to know in my Elephanta Island travel guide:

1. Watch out for monkeys.

I wasn’t surprised to see the monkey. When I first arrived here on Elephanta Island, off the coast near Mumbai, I had seen several of them, and they’d startled me as they jumped onto the tarps shading the path. I had read that the monkeys could be aggressive, but I’d made the mistake of assuming that was about food.

So now you know: they may grab food, but they may also grab water bottles.

2. Cave 1 is stunning.

The main attractions on Elephanta Island are the Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The caves were cut into one of the two hills on the island in the 5th to 7th centuries AD, and contain carvings representing various Hindu stories about Shiva.

the entrance to Cave 1. Elephanta Island travel guide

the entrance to Cave 1

By far the most ornate and intact cave is Cave 1, the first you will arrive at after you climb the hill. This cave is 39 meters deep, with rows of columns to support the roof. It has gateways on three sides, and ornate bas-reliefs covering the back walls. The doorways to the internal shrine cut into the rock are guarded by looming statues, as tall as the ceiling. In niches here and there you can make out more bas-reliefs, also intricately carved.

This is a 360 degree panorama, taken from about the middle of Cave 1.

This is a 360 degree panorama, taken from about the middle of Cave 1. Hopefully your device will let you drag from left to right to see the full circle. You can see the tall statues next to the shrine room. Inside the shrine is a very simple stupa: just a stone cylinder on a square base.

All of the statues, according to the sign outside this cave, represent manifestations of Shiva. The most impressive is on the back wall, depicting the three-headed Maheshmurti Shiva. According to Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, the three heads represent creation, protection and destruction. Read the Wikipedia article for the full details.

The three-headed Shiva in Cave 1

The three-headed Shiva in Cave 1

The bas-reliefs to the left and right of the three-headed Shiva are also pretty spectacular, despite some damage. They represent different manifestations of the same Lord Shiva.

This bas-relief is to the left of the three-headed version of Shiva.

This bas-relief is to the left of the three-headed version of Shiva. Look at how intricate it is!

The other four caves are almost entirely bare of carvings or statues and show evidence of pretty extensive damage. Apparently all five caves were once painted as well as carved, but I couldn’t spot any remnants.

The reason the island is called Elephanta, by the way, is that when the Portuguese arrived there, they found a large statue of an elephant, now on display in Mumbai. That was also the moment that the caves stopped being an active Hindu place of worship. The Portuguese solders were responsible for much of the damage to the statues.

This is from one of the side niches in Cave 1. While the central figure is heavily damaged, notice the detail of the smaller images to the left.

This is from one of the side niches in Cave 1. While the central figure is heavily damaged, notice the detail of the smaller images to the left and right.

3. Gun Hill is not particularly worth the effort.

If you follow a dirt path to the right of the entrance to the caves, skirt the stray dogs blocking the path, climb the unmaintained and crumbling stairway up the hill, then follow the dirt path from there, you’ll eventually reach a British-era gun emplacement in an open circle in the woods. The large gun – some sort of cannon – dates to the turn of the 20th century.

The beginning of the path up to Gun Hill, complete with lounging dogs and litter.

The beginning of the path up to Gun Hill, complete with lounging dogs and litter.

People seem to be using the space under the gun – which would have been a command center, I suppose, or storage – as a garbage disposal, so there was no way I was going to explore it. There’s not much to see here, and the trees obscure what was probably once a spectacular view.

The walk up the hill and the vegetation, by the way, reminded me a lot of what I saw on Lamma Island in Hong Kong.

The gun on Gun Hill

The gun on Gun Hill

Speaking of views, you can continue up the dirt path to the top of the hill, where the view is purported to be 360 degrees and beautiful. There’s also another gun emplacement up there. I only walked long enough to make out a small segment of the view. I realized that the hazy pollution we’d been experiencing all week was so thick that all I’d get was a very blurry, grey view. At the same time, the flies were divebombing me and I was sticky with sweat after the climb in the hot humid weather. I turned around and headed back down.

4. You’ll see garbage. Lots of garbage.

This note isn’t exclusive to Elephanta Island. Clearly Mumbai in general has a problem with trash. On the island, garbage is strewn everywhere, mostly food wrappers and plastic bottles. Garbage thickly populates the water line and beaches, such as they are, and the path up the hill above the caves as well. The stairway up to the caves and the UNESCO site itself are well-swept, though.

Just to give you an idea what I'm talking about, I passed this view on the walk from the jetty to the base of the hill. You can see the jetty in the background.

Just to give you an idea what I’m talking about, I passed this on the walk from the jetty to the base of the hill. You can see the jetty in the background.

5. You’ll need to walk a lot.

Getting to the caves involves a lot of walking, or perhaps it just seems that way because of the heat and humidity. The boat lands at the end of a jetty, several hundred meters long, I’d guess. You can walk the jetty to the island or take a miniature train for 10 rupees.

Next, you climb a stone-paved stairway up the hill. The stairway is lined with souvenir stalls, so expect hawkers to hound you to look at their merchandise. The good part about the hawkers, though, is that they’ve extended tarps across the stairway, offering shade the entire way up.

If you are mobility impaired, be aware that this historical site is not at all accessible. You can take the small train from the end of the jetty, and you can hire a chair and be carried up the hill, if you need it. Nevertheless, you’ll still have to climb stairs to get in and out of the ferry and in and out of the caves. (Please don’t hire a chair if you don’t really need it: it would be just plain offensive to have men carry you if you’re able-bodied, not to mention the neo-colonial overtones.)

Chair carriers wait for work. Elephanta Island travel guide.

Chair carriers wait for work.

6. Come prepared.

Did I mention that it’s hot and humid in this part of India? Bring water, but carry it in a bag, so it’s not visible to the monkeys. Wear sturdy shoes. If it’s clear, wear a hat and apply sun lotion. Plenty of food is available, including packaged snacks that you can be sure are safe, so you don’t need to pack a picnic. And bring cash rupees, because …

7. Every step of the way, you’ll have to pay.

By western standards, though, the charges aren’t steep at all.

To get to Elephanta Island, you have to take a ferry from Gateway of India: a huge archway built in commemoration of the visit by King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911. When you arrive at the Gateway of India, you’ll see a small, low building to the right of the security entrance to the plaza. Various tickets are sold there, and you can get the ferry tickets to Elephanta Island at the third or fourth window from the left. The round-trip ticket costs 180 rupees (€2.35 or $2.80). Step through the security check and cross the plaza to just left of the Gateway. The ferry dock is right behind the Gateway itself; someone will point you to which boat to board. They leave frequently each day starting from about 9:00.

I took this as we were leaving the dock. The archway on the right is the Gateway of India. The ornate building on the left is the Taj Hotel, an extremely elegant colonial-era building. In the foreground, moored ferries.

I took this as we were leaving the dock. The archway on the right is the Gateway of India. The ornate building on the left is the Taj Hotel, an extremely elegant colonial-era building. In the foreground, moored ferries. Notice the general haze in the air. That’s not a fault of my photography; it actually looked that way. During my visit (November 2017), the particulate levels in the air were very high.

If you want to ride on the top deck of the ferry, you’ll have to pay an additional 10 rupees (€0.13 or $0.15) once you’re on board.

The ride takes almost an hour. When I did it, the pollution was so thick that there wasn’t much to see, apart from scattered moored ships. We also passed an island fortress of some sort.

When you arrive, you’ll have to pay 5 rupees to enter the island, plus another 10 rupees to take the train, if you want to. At the base of the hill, there’s a toilet: 5 rupees to use it.

After you climb up to the caves, the fee is 500 rupees (€6.50 or $7.75) to enter the UNESCO site (only 30 rupees if you’re Indian). And if you can’t make the climb and want to hire people to carry you up in a chair, that’ll cost 1200 rupees (€15.60 or $18.60).

Another bas-relief from the back wall of Cave 1. Elephanta Island travel guide

Another bas-relief from the back wall of Cave 1

Is Elephanta Cave worth it?

Yes, it’s worth it, primarily for Cave 1. The carvings there, even in their damaged state, are exquisite. It was also pleasant, if only for a couple of hours, to escape the constant noise of horns honking that forms the backdrop to life in Mumbai. I wouldn’t plan a whole trip to India around visiting Elephanta Island, but if you’re in Mumbai anyway, it’s worth the half-day it will take to see it.

Have you been to Mumbai or Elephanta Island? What did you think of it?

Please pin this image!

Please pin this image!


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28 Comments

  • Jo Castro

    November 27, 2017 at 8:06 am

    This looks a fascinating place, but thanks for your honesty. I’d also be wary of the monkeys. In Bali they are at many of the temples and a friend had to be taken to hospital after being bitten by one for anti rabies jab.

    Reply
  • Suzanne Fluhr

    November 29, 2017 at 3:42 am

    I suspect I might never make it to India. I’m not even sure I particularly want to visit there. Unfortunately, your description of Elephanta Island has not dissuaded me from my jaundiced view: Extreme heat and humidity; stray dogs, and trash. Fortunately, the surviving carvings in Cave 1 look remarkably like some of the carvings at Angkor Wat in Cambodia which was actually a Hindu site before it was converted to Buddhism.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 29, 2017 at 10:27 am

      I’d hate for this post to turn you off India entirely! This short glimpse made me want to visit much more, despite the heat, etc. I found the crowds, the slums, everything, exciting and stimulating and fascinating. I was staying in quite a luxurious hotel (I was in Mumbai to lead a workshop, for which all my expenses are paid.) which made it all easier for me and my western sensibilities. If it all felt too much, I could retreat to the hotel. I think I’ll do the same when I next go to India: find good quality hotels to stay in so that I can always comfortably retreat.

      Reply
  • Travelling Times from Canada

    November 30, 2017 at 12:49 am

    My experiences with India relate to Rajasthan, but I had to smile at the tipping part. It nearly drove me into orbit! It all adds up, and you must have noticed the Indian tourists simply refuse. As for monkeys, I had a Barbary Ape grab my bag when I walked through their den coming down the Rock of Gibraltar…but that’s a different story!
    I found India fascinating, but each state is very individual. I still have Goa on my list.
    Thanks for your very honest coverage.

    Reply
  • travelnwrite

    November 30, 2017 at 6:19 am

    The monkeys sound much like those of Gibralter! Nice report on the caves, which are one site we opted to skip during a two-day trip to Mumbai a couple years ago. We had far too much to see in the city itself but thanks to this post, I’ll put it on the ‘next time’ list!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 30, 2017 at 6:37 pm

      There’s a lot to see, and I only had one day to see the rest. But I particularly enjoy historical sites, and UNESCO sites are generally the best, so this was one thing I definitely didn’t want to miss.

      Reply
  • Ruth

    December 5, 2017 at 3:49 am

    Super interesting since a lot of the things in here are not what I was expecting from a monument or World Heritage Site. Sad to learn the place is littered even though you have to pay to access some areas. Monkeys are so intelligent. I have seen them opening faucets, drinking water and then closing the faucet. #TPThursday

    Reply
    • Rachel

      December 5, 2017 at 8:54 pm

      Wow, they close the faucet? Do they think about conserving resources?! The litter, etc. on Elephanta Island is not within the UNESCO site itself. It’s on the way to the site.

      Reply
  • budgettraveltalk

    December 5, 2017 at 10:48 am

    I can imagine I would like to visit the island. I acclimatise quite well to humidity, although walking a long way in it is tiring. I also like boat trips and the rubbish is just a fact of life. It is a pity about the pollution – that isn’t good. Liked reading your description.

    Reply
  • Nancie

    December 6, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Rachel. Your experience with the monkey was deja vu. I had the same thing happen to me in Bali. However, the monkey was extremely annoyed when he realized there was only water in the bottle. I guess he had expected something sweet. The cave looks gorgeous. That would be worth the trip. Thanks for co-hosting this week. #TPThursday

    Reply
  • Reena Barot

    February 1, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    I understand what you must have gone through your experience back when you were in India. But I really do not appreciate the way you have written about Elephanta unfortunately. It’s really deceiving

    Reply
  • Verity

    March 27, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    Discovered your blog from this post. Your blog is what I aspire mine to be!

    I also have a similar monkey story to you from Elephanta Island where I lost my ice-cream to a monkey.

    Keep up the good work.

    Reply

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