A Golden Afternoon on India’s Elephanta Island

Wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of manic Mumbai, we boarded a boat at the city’s Gateway of India monument bound for Elephanta Island. The island’s former name Gharapuri (meaning ‘place of caves’) is fitting given Elephanta boasts numerous caves with elaborate Hindu and Buddhist carvings – considered to be some of the finest in India. They’re thought to have been created and carved between AD 450 and 750.

During the boat ride on the Arabian Sea we spotted massive Indian naval vessels, crowded passenger ferries, and a sea of plastic rubbish. A man sold chai and spicy snacks onboard while we and other passengers allowed ourselves to unwind.

After an hour gliding on the water our boat docked at lush Elephanta, which is heavily carpeted with mango and palm trees. Having read that macaques inhabit Elephanta Island in large numbers, we couldn’t resist bringing our trip mascot Mango the Monkey along.

Opting not to take the miniature tourist train from the docking area to the base of the hill leading to the caves, we walked on a sizzling concrete lane. The sun was ablaze overhead, but we enjoyed conversation with a young boy who was eager to show us a catch of tiny fish in his bicycle’s basket. Ladies in sparkly saris joined us on the walkway, as did vendors selling corn on the cob. We also learned that it was the Portuguese that renamed the island Elephanta because of an enormous elephant statue that was once at a cave’s entrance. They’d tried to take this statue home but it sunk to the bottom of the sea given their inadequate chains. Later the British moved the statue to a Bombay museum.

Our ascent on a long series of stairs – past souvenir salespeople marketing carved teak, glittery boxes, and Indian bronzes – was rewarded with a glimpse of the first cave. Again, we deflected opportunities for alternate forms of transportation, this time in the form of porters who would have carried us up on special chairs for 500 rupees or about $10 USD.

The first cave on Elephanta Island is dedicated to Shiva, who is viewed as the universe’s creator, destroyer and preserver. A massive three-headed rendition is featured prominently in the cave.

Outside, mischievous macaque monkeys pilfered bottles of juice and potato chips, in between grooming rituals and playing hide & seek and tug-o-tail. We stowed away our sunglasses and little Mango for fear that they might be stolen by the monkeys as playthings.

Seeking to escape the heat and absorb more Indian culture, we strolled about from cave to cave on the island. Some visitors left offerings at shrines.

The hours passed swiftly and before we knew it, it was time to rush back to the dock to make it onto one of the last boats bound for Bombay. We could not have timed our return better for the Arabian Sea was sparkling, reflecting the sun’s late afternoon rays. Flocks of snow white birds gracefully soared, as if they were flirting with the water.

We were eager to see the silhouette of the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel for the formidable structures would signal our return to Mumbai. Though we’d left the city of 18 million feeling overwhelmed, we returned in a relaxed state – thanks to our Elephanta Island getaway.

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • To reach Elephanta Island, catch a ferry by the Gateway of India. The ferry ride takes about 30 minutes each way.
  •  Need more inspiration as you plan your travels in India? This link contains an index of all my posts from India.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

44 thoughts on “A Golden Afternoon on India’s Elephanta Island

    1. So happy to hear that you enjoyed it, Rachael. Yes, aren’t those boxes eye-catching? I think they’re made in the state of Rajasthan (north India). I chose a pretty teal-colored one during my trip to India in 2008. This time we were traveling lightly, so my only trinket purchases were silver charms for my travel bracelet.

      1. India is on my list, I do travel a bit with my work, unfortunately india isn’t one of the places i go, i’ll have to save that for a holiday, check out some of the places I’ve been on my blog rigmover.com
        thanks Mark

      2. Mark, you’re lucky to be able to travel with work! Your posts on Norway make me want to explore that area more – particularly since a branch of my family came from there.

    1. Thank you, Jessie. And the boats represent such a contrast too – in my part of the world, it normally represents a recreational moment (a superb way to escape and unwind, for example) whereas for most of the people in Asia, it’s a functional one (getting from home to work).

  1. Wonderful post Tricia!!
    Being a Mumbaikar myself, its great to see the way you have admired our culture… The most interesting part which I found was the Hindi words you have used like chai, lord Shiva, gharapuri etc…
    Thanks for the post!!

    1. Hello Yogi – so nice to meet – shukria for dropping in! My husband and I really enjoyed our time in Mumbai. Yes, it’s jam-packed with people and it stimulated our senses greatly at times, but that’s what makes it such a joy to explore. And, I’m glad I got the Hindi words right. After leaving Maharashtra, we went to Goa & Kerala – so many languages to learn! Which do you speak?

      1. Well, I speak Marathi…. Native language from Maharashtra..
        Hope u enjoyed ur stay in India….
        Will certainly await for updates from your future expeditions! :)

      2. We had an extraordinary time in India – from the delicious food, to the friendly smiles & greetings exchanged, to the complex, beautiful & diverse cultures, it was really special.

        Glad to have new readers in India to offer some authentic input and keep me on my toes. :) And, we’ll have to learn some Marathi phrases should we get back to Mumbai soon!

  2. Love your photos, my Elephanta Island experience wasn’t quite as serene, it was brutally hot, a monkey grabbed my dress and freaked me out, and I was stared at the whole way home on the boat. That’s India for you though, it may have been a low day for me, but I still look back on it fondly and loved reading about and looking at images of your experience.

    1. Oh, that does sound like a trying afternoon, Sarah! Perhaps I didn’t emphasize the sweltering temperatures. We pretty much experienced the high heat & humidity everywhere except Munnar, where it was pretty chilly at night.

      Fortunately, I didn’t have any monkey attacks as I know that those little guys can be really aggressive. We saw a mother monkey sink her teeth into a tourist’s arm for a few seconds in Bali. That experience left me rather skittish at Elephanta – so much so that I didn’t want to pose next to the little urchins for very long for fear one would hop on me. I still find them fascinating to observe though!

      Did you make insta-friends elsewhere? :) We found it fun that locals in India and beyond would ask us to be a part of their group picture. I guess they wanted some exotic flair in their images. We felt a bit like politicians in a campaign – holding babies and posing with new friends of all ages.

  3. The Arabian Sea sounds delightful in your description. Our over-riding memory of the same trip was the disgusting sea of sewage and floating sandals. Guess we weren’t wearing our rose coloured glasses. We certainly did not feel the trip was worth it. We have travelled reasonably extensively in Rajasthan and Kerala, which was much better.

    1. Hello Jean, thank you for stopping by. It’s a shame that your experience wasn’t as special. We also lamented at the sea of plastic bottles, and we sizzled in the roasting heat, but overall it was an enriching experience.

      How I’d like to see more of Rajasthan! Do you have any spots that you’d recommend? In 2008 I had a brief visit to India, and was able to squeeze in only Jaipur and Pushkar. Both were wonderful, particularly since they were windows into a very new culture for me!

  4. Hi Tricia,

    My husband and I loved, absolutely loved visiting Elephanta Caves as a nice day break from Mumbai. Your pictures captured the essence of the place beautifully!

      1. Hi Tricia,

        No, they are all here in the US. My husband and I grew up in Mumbai and absolutely love the city. PS. Looks like our travel paths have intersected quite a bit. Look forward to staying in touch.

      2. I can see why you enjoy Mumbai so much! Of course we found it to be overstimulating at times, but there was so much to explore around each corner. I miss the thalis we enjoyed there and throughout India. Just haven’t been able to find that great Indian fare back in Europe or in the United States.

        So glad we connected – until next time! :)

      1. Definitely the trekking. The majesty of the Annapurna ranges is something one never forgets. Kathmandu was pretty good but the pollution is pretty bad, you only need a few days there. Chitwan national park near India is fun. When I go back though I will just do the trekking with the guide I know, and spend more time in the mountains, it’s where you will find the real Nepal :) I will post some images in the next few days on my blog, am moving house at the moment or I would have done it for you now

      2. It all sounds quite serene! I shall look forward to seeing your images. Having just gotten back from hiking around Meteora, Greece with a great guide (where there are majestic monasteries perched on unusual rock formations) I understand why you choose to trek with one too. It was well worth it getting off of the well-trodden path!

        Good luck with your move and until next time.

  5. You brought me back to the caves! This was actually my favorite part of India and an excursion I cannot wait to experience again. Thank you for the excellent pictures and bringing Elephanta Caves back to life!

    1. Andrean, coming from bustling Mumbai makes Elephanta Island even more of a welcome escape, doesn’t it? We especially enjoyed the relative calm, those mischievous monkeys, and the art history.

      I see that you also traveled in India solo (something I did before meeting my husband). How much time did you spend in the country?

      1. I spent a total of 10 days and I wish it was more! Although I was skeptical when I first left, I met such heartwarming and gentle people during my travels. Every taxi driver made sure I was safe, there were men I met on my tour to the Taj that wanted to ensure my safety since we arrived back to Delhi late. I will love to go back again and see the rest of this beautiful country!

      2. My first trip was also about the same length as yours – enough time to whet my appetite for a return trip, and the chance to explore a different part of the country. (I first focused on the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’: Agra, Delhi, Jaipur, and also Pushkar, and like you didn’t experience any challenges, rather just hospitable people who invited me in for a traditional dinner, or the chance to chat aspects of their culture in temples, etc.) On this, my second trip, my husband and I focused on the south: Mumbai, Goa, Munnar, and the Kerala Backwaters.

        I do hope you’ll get the chance to get back again, Andrea. We did just recently read that India has instituted tourist visas-on arrival, so that makes a return even easier.

Join the conversation.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: