Monday, June 30, 2008

Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island is only accessible by ferry, which must be caught from the begger-and-vendor nightmare that swirls around the Gateway of India. I was determined to make the damn ferry that day - I had had two seperate boat vendors tell me that going in the morning was an awful idea while the other told me it would be terrible, terrible to go in the afternoon, so I decided to go when I damned well pleased.

I had an excellent lunch of bhel puri - puffed rice with lots of chutney and fried things and onions and deliciousness - and tandoori gobi (cauliflower) then walked industriouly over to the ferry area. I bought a 100 rupee ticket, elbowed my way to the front of the line, and found a chair that wasn't covered in gunk to enjoy the boat voyage to Elephanta.

I love boats: they comfort me and sustain me, remind of my early childhood spent motoring around on tarpon fishing expeditions in Florida's gulf. I can sit on a ferry and be transported instantly to a land of happy memories and relaxation: I am well known for falling asleep on aquatic transportation, lulled away by something or another. This time was no different: I nodded off almost immediately, ignoring the soda vendors.

I arrived at Elephants at a decent time. The boats dock at a big cement jetty that extends out rather far into the water: a small train is set up to accomodate the lazy or terminally ft who don't want to walk in the heat and brave the snack vendors. Curiously, Mumbai's miserable tropical ferment disappears on Elephanta: the island really IS a dry heat.

All the shops and restaurants are spread out on the side of the large stairway that leads to the top of the hill and the caves, all of which must be braved before reaching anything of historical interest. I bought a Diet Coke and was sipping it leisurely when a shop keeper waved me over: "Watch out for the monkeys - they'll steal your food." "Even the Diet Coke?" "They steal everything," he said with grim resolution. I took his word for it and chucked the Coke and began the climb up the hill. (The lazy and terminally fat can take palanquin chairs up to the top but as we all know this is for pussies.)

I made it to the top and the entry area for the caves, staffed by a bored looking park manager. A very large school group was there as well, composed of what appeared to be fifth graders. Their malicious teacher had equipped them with cute little autograph books and apparantly entreated them to get foreigner's signatures. The kids were friendly and cute and all but my hand got pretty tired after signing fifty-plus kids books (also no one ever had a pen which meant everyone got to fight over two or three available pens.) Because of course if one girl got a signature from the Glamorous Foreigner then damned well everyone ELSE needed one.

I managed to satisfy the fifth graders whims and entered the park, which was fairly empty - a few foreign tourists with cameras, courting couples, and families defending their picnics from the usual packs of stray dogs. An ambitious looking young guy offered to be my guide and looked crushed when I turned him down (he proceeded to follow me in a not very subtle way the rest of the day, doubtless hoping I'd have a historical question/ask him to inspect my underwear. Preferably the latter.)

This is the entryway to the primary temple structure, accompanied by a lovely tree.

I walked into the first cave, which is accessed through some impressive and not-very-Greek type columns (to hold everything together.)

The primary temple is very large and very impressive, full of images of Shiva, completed between 450 an 750 A.D. I am the last person you should ask about Hinduism (though admittedly many of my Indian friends find it pretty incomprehensible themselves), but I definitely was impressed. The huge temple complex is filled with monolithic and expertly carved images of Shiva, crowing doorways and erupting surprisingly out of rock walls, such as this one:

The archetypical serene images of Shiva were also present. Note the multiple arms.

This is a particularly intricate wall mounted statue display - it's astonishing how much detail has survived. I especially like the voluptuous woman to the right. Someone Who Actually Knows Shit About Hindu Art: is she the feminine incarnation of Shiva?

I was particularly struck by these guys guarding the doorways, who seem vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, except they look a lot more blissed out. And less flat. (As you may be able to tell, I am a art history expert.)

This is a neat display of three aspects of Shiva - warlike, calm, and feminine as I recall, going left to right. They are really very large which is not obvious in the photo.

Unfortunately, some of the statue's faces were missing - I'm not entirely sure what the reason was, but I imagine it was one of those usual morality-enforcing ancient art defacement rampages people like to go on.

The main cave complex is rather large and takes a bit to walk through. Once you come out on the other end, you find yourself at the top of a hill with a rather lovely view of the harbor below you and the other islands associated with Mumbai, set in a dry scrub environment that is very strange to encounter after time on the tropical and sweaty mainland.

And again:

The trail leads you around to the other historical sites, which are not much to see after the main cave - a few columns and rather empty abandoned temples and a Shiva lingam or two, and all that jive. The walk itself was very pleasant, and I dragged myself to the very top of the island, which did indeed feature an even more commanding view (and also my stalker, who was really trying very hard to blend into the bushes. I thought it was funny.)

In any case, I wandered back down the hill, successfully avoided the monkeys, and caught the launch back, where I proceeded to fall back asleep again. The rest of the evening passed uneventfully - (maybe i should make up something about hooking up with a bollywood star here but it would be a lie. but more entertaining then reality.)


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