[Travelogue] Exquisite Elephanta!

On our second day in Mumbai, drove through extra-heavy traffic to the historic Gateway of India to sail onward to Elephanta Caves, an island off the mainland of Mumbai. The thing is, neither does Elephanta have elephants nor does it have natural caves. Elephanta was called so because when the British landed on the island, a huge stone elephant welcomed them and they decided to give that name. Perhaps, they fell so much in love with the statue that they decided to appropriate it for the mainland!

The caves were carved out of a single stone by the hand of man to proclaim the glory of his God. In such a cave here, as I observed panel after panel of the stories of Lord Shiva, I was immediately transported to the Chola temples of Tanjore. Both were celebrations of this same God on stone! The story of Shiva was depicted with such elaborate detail. I could touch the nails of the guardians of Shiva in the central temple of the Lingam and appreciate the delicately nuanced design on the necklaces and crowns of the gods therein.

The moods of quirky Siva were well captured. No doubt, he was an interesting chap to anyone from any age. And no wonder, so many kings that lived on this land were enamored by the charisma of this God. Be it his ferocious anger, artistic sublimation, yogic meditation or playful teasing, no one could express it like this God. Still, I saw the true God in the hands of those artisans who had patiently carved out panel after panel of such beauty out of a single Basalt rock. The emotions speak to you, as if it’s a movie playing on stone. There are so many interwoven stories in each panel, the expression of each character in the panel saying something fascinating.

What shocked me was how Portuguese soldiers had mindlessly destroyed many of these sculptures. Some of their bullets are still wedged within the stone. An arm gone, a face disfigured, a form distorted! In spite of this atrocity, the supremeness of art triumphs over this petty minded vandalism. How could any one not see the extraordinary beauty in this work? There is no need for belief in any God to appreciate art.

The moment reminded me of the present time when these same atrocities are being committed in Syria. If such men could somehow be made to see that their own children and children’s children would shudder in disbelief that their forefathers could even think of something like this, then perhaps the world has hope. In art, there is God or at least, man seeking to come closer to the notion of God. What does it matter what’s the name of that God?

From gazing at this piece of art, my reflections seemed to have travelled in directions, both local and global. That indeed is the power of art to inspire, to enthuse and to give human beings, the intuition to connect the seemingly disconnected and to realize, in the end, we are all but one.

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