Thursday, March 27, 2008

ELEPHANTA BECKONS

A chance visit to the Gateway of India brought with it a barrage of old memories. It was here, where for the first time 128 Idol Three contestants from all over the country & abroad had gathered together. I hardly knew a soul back then, and this is where my Idol fellowship first began. As we’d all stood against the Gateway, the waterfront had been dotted by numerous boats & steamers. One of them was to be ours for the evening. The memory of that “boat party” remains vivid in my mind. It was the beginning of an unforgettable journey…

This time round, things are different. The Gateway “beautification” project has begun. The erstwhile open space around the gateway is now congested with cement & stone, yet a sense of lingering sameness wafts around. Back then, it would have been impossible to saunter around unescorted without getting mobbed. Now, many dawns & dusks later, life is more chilled out and I dare to walk around the Gateway, oblivious of whether I’m being looked at or not. As I make a final circle around the monument, the beckoning chatter of a government guide draws my attention to Elephanta caves. I’ve been coming to Mumbai since I was little but have never visited this relic of the ancient past. Without much contemplation, I board the grandiosely christened “cruise”, which is nothing more than a rundown fishing boat, now re-styled to accommodate more people.
The boat journey is long. At the end of it, the sudden gust of soothing winds takes my attention away from the annoying humidity to the approaching pier. The backdrop of tiny hills adds a good first impression. The seagulls and the abandoned fishing boats give me an indication of the good things to come. Alighting from the “cruise”, I walk towards the toy train which runs from the docking point to the beginning of the ascent towards the caves. The “khatar-khatar” of the slow, dilapidated train adds a certain charm to the journey. The climb uphill is tedious, but I have all the time in the world and move slowly & leisurely. Innumerable monkeys dot the route and it is most amusing to see simian families playing around with, believe it or not, puppies & kittens. A hot & sweaty trek later, I face the now familiar encounter at the ticket office. As most of us know, foreigners get charged more than local tourists at all heritage sites in India. On this occasion, I’m asked to produce my identity proof (for obvious reasons). I do what I usually do in such situations – I flash my best smile & say, “Kya bhaai, ek saathi Bharatiya se ID maangogey?” (hey bro, you gonna ask a fellow Indian for an ID?) What I get in return is a sheepish smile from the ticketing fellow & the handing over of a “local” ticket.

I enter the first cave and am immediately engulfed by darkness. My eyes take some time adjusting to this new environment. There are lots of tourists at the cave, prominently groups of foreigners with their typical hats & backpacks. Among them is a woman who has come alone, confused, yet dignified. This svelte Swiss maiden is unlike any lady I’ve ever come across. A conversation is struck in those ethereal surroundings and what follows is an exchange not only of kind words & smiles, but also something special through that magical pathway called the eyes. Co-incidence or not, a romantic Hindi number is playing in the background. We part ways to feast our minds on objects other than each other, hoping to catch up at the end of that day’s tour.

















There are five caves in all, but the most scenic & worthwhile is the first one. This cave was crafted as an uninterrupted tribute to Lord Shiva by his devotees and it depicts him in his utmost glory. Snapshots from various periods of his life are carved beautifully in the now crumbling stone and are a visual treat. My interest is piqued by one massive piece which depicts Shiva alone as the Holy Trinity of Hindu mythology – the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer (contrary to the trinity being Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva). This further engrains the theorem how mythologies of all cultures can be so contradicting. The centre of the cave has a Mahalingam, that divine symbol of male fertility, the four-sided entry of which is guarded by imposing 11 feet stone sentinels. I move from this massive cave to the other smaller caves which, much to my disappointment have nothing more than tiny dark chambers.
Surely, there must be more to see, I tell myself. The travel-bug in me wants to explore more and I hot-foot it on the small hills around. The uncharted & rubble-laden path ahead leads to the top of the hill, aptly titled Tope (cannon) hill.
There are 2 massive cannons here, which look more like giant pistols and a glance in the direction where they’re pointing gives one an idea where the enemy would’ve been most likely anticipated from. A look at its foundation surprises me. The construction of the cannon is a mix of new technology & old machinery. There are the usual inlets for cannon fodder, and systematic outlets for spent cartridges. The foundation leads to an inner chamber where not too many people venture because of the abject uninviting darkness. Since I’m armed with neither torch nor matches, I advance gingerly & place my faith in the light from the camera flash to show the way. After many well & ill-placed steps (often into animal poo), slivers of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel shine through. What was the purpose of this cellar, not even the guides could tell. A war shelter, perhaps? I could only hazard a guess.With the sightseeing over, I move back on my tracks.


The trek downhill is brief & swift. I feel exhausted & dehydrated, and a much needed meal later, I walk my way back to the dock. I look out longingly for those hazel eyes which had taken my breath away for some brief moments at the onset of this adventure. I find silence instead. With a heavy heart, I take a quiet journey back towards Mumbai shores, staring at the waves gently sweep by....