Elephanta Island, and the spirit of E. M. Forster
I visited Elephanta, an island that lies in Mumbai’s harbour, about seven miles north-east of the jetty in front of the Gateway of India. I went down to the Gateway and bought a ticket for the ferry to the island (Rs 150 at time of writing), and then queued up on the jetty with groups of Indian families and pairs of predominantly European tourists. The boat was a wooden, two-storey vessel, and we sailed around the corner of the harbour wall, past the Navy docks.
This was very interesting because you cannot usually see the naval ships at all, since from the angle of the Gateway and promenade along Colaba you cannot see the naval dockyard. The Navy uses a large area of land in Fort too, but is shielded from view by a high wall, so you cannot see it from the land side either.
I found myself on the sunny side of the boat, as I always seem to end up by accident unless I am conscious of deliberately avoiding it. I’ve realised this happens as there is always far more space on the sunny side, be it sitting on the wall beside the Gateway, finding a seat on a boat, or standing beside the doors on a train – because most people naturally head for the shade. It did not matter really as there was a breeze across the harbour and I just gazed out at the water and the passing boats and ships, watching the land slide away.
The water of the harbour looked brown and clouded. However Mumbai is the third largest city on the planet, home of 16 million people, and the biggest slum in Asia, and is a major port with freight ships coming and going all the time.
At the rim of almost every horizon was the misty line of skyscrapers, coloured a distant purplish-grey under a blue sky. The city stretched out around the harbour, surrounding us, seeming so limitless that it envelops even the sea.
After about forty to fifty minutes on the ferry crossing, we arrived at the pier at Elephanta. The island is made up of hills, and our approach was surrounded by mangroves – green leafy trees growing thickly together out of the salt water.
Elephanta is a small island, with seven caves excavated at the top of a hill. As I was leaving the ferry, a man approached and told me that the last ferry back was at 6pm. He seemed friendly, so I talked to him. He had been born on the island and has lived here all his life, and he was in college in Mumbai but left last year due to not having the funds, and is trying to save up the money to go back. When conversation turned to occupations, he casually mentioned that he was a tour guide, and I realised then that this was a sales pitch. I thought I’d better tell him as soon as possible that I was not looking for a guide. He said he could show me his village and other places I wouldn’t see by himself, so I asked him the price, and he said the government guides were 1800 rupees but that he would only charge Rs 1500 (£18.75) for two hours.
He said ‘There is no point seeing the island at all if you don’t have a guide; you will not get anything out of it.’ I said I was sure I was capable of finding the caves and where to go on my own.
‘But you are my first customer!’ he said, although it was by then 2pm. I was not surprised, since his price was so high, and nobody would be likely to pay that for a two-hour tour around a few caves.
The caves are accessed via a short climb by steps up the hill. It is not far, and everything is well signposted. Indeed there is no need for a guide at all. Along the steps up the hill are beautiful souvenirs laid out on open stalls: jewellery, soapstone carvings, wooden carvings, precious stones, paintings, beaded bracelets, incense boxes, statues of Lord Ganesh. At the bottom of the hill, between the start of the pathway up to the caves and the jetty, there are a few cattle wandering around: very gentle, small, dark cattle.
Cave 1 has a main hall with six rows of columns, and huge ornate carvings cut into the rock of the surrounding walls. There are smaller shrines leading off from the main cave, including a Shiva lingam shrine in the central hall. The caves are still used as places to worship Shiva, and are very well-attended on certain auspicious days in the Hindu calendar. For example on Mahashivrati, the most important day of the year to worship Shiv, people visit temples and pour milk on the sculptures, including the Shiva lingam shrines at Elephanta.
While on the ferry on the way over to the island, I had been observing the other tourists with some amusement, and thinking of E. M. Forster. Forster was quite merciless in critiquing fellow Europeans and their behaviour when abroad, and I found my own thoughts taking a similar bent. Most of them were dressed and behaving with no attempt at cultural sensitivity at all. From a young couple openly kissing, to an aging, obese and sunburnt lady in shorts far too short and a vest top, who would not have been a pleasant sight on the beach in Blackpool, even – they were pretty awful, and I saw them through Forster’s eyes. Only two girls pleased me, as they sat contentedly on some water barrels when the seats on the boat had run out, and then moved without complaining when the crew wanted to access the barrels later.
While I was touring Cave 1, an altercation occurred at one of the subsidiary cave shrines, and I was caught up in the commotion. A man was yelling loudly and aggressively at a security guard, and women were yelling at the man who was yelling, and other men and women were yelling at both of them. The security guard was blowing his whistle. I walked around the parts of the cave I hadn’t yet seen while the arguments were ensuing behind me, and then when several of them started pushing each other, and more security guards appeared, I decided to move a little distance away.
‘What has happened?’ a man asked me, an Indian. I did not know. I was surprised he had not gathered himself, from what they were shouting about. I presumed it was an accusation of theft or mugging, since there were many people sitting on the steps of that interior cave entrance, with belongings scattered around them.
When the first security guard blew his whistle, this summoned the guard in the next cave. He came and also blew his own whistle, summoning the third guard away in another cave. It went on like this until I left the cave entirely, each security guard whistling to call upon more support.
I thought of the echoes of A Passage to India in that scene in Cave 1. The whole novel hinges on a confused incident in a cave, and whether a crime was committed there. If security guards had been manning each cave in Forster’s time, the whole muddle embroiling Adele and Aziz might have been cleared up immediately!
I wandered around to the other caves, past dogs laying in the shade, and marauding monkeys.
The other caves are not as extensive or as fully excavated as Cave 1, so their chambers are smaller and fewer. Some of them seem to emerge from the rock itself, having been partially concealed for centuries.
You can read more about the Elephanta caves on the websites of the Archaeological Survey of India and UNESCO:
I will also be posting a photo gallery for Elephanta Island.