Elephanta is a silent world just off a busy coastline of Mumbai. In contrast to the modernity of the Mumbai shores, Elephanta speaks loads of the fantastic past of Classical India.
This is not just a gateway to a rock cut world of the Kalachuri dynasty that stood up to it's rival in Buddhism, but a much more silent world of divine shaivism practised on earth. This rock cut cave is the only one of its kind, during the period 6th century AD. There are none other for the next visible iconographic structure comes up about 2 centuries later at Ellora - Kailashnath temple.
The beauty of Elephanta is not in the extravaganza of the rich iconography of Shiva, it's a far deeper world into it's living presence during that period, and these are it's salient features that I read, beyond what the books and the guides say.
1) This is the first of it's kind defining Hinduism, but it visibly takes cues from it's counterpart, a much stronger and prominent Buddhism. It is an amalgamation of Chaityas and Viharas. It seems to have both temple - place of worship, and place of residence.
2) Elephanta's main cave is much larger than any of the other Buddhist caves ( that I have seen so far). The images are larger than life, breathing in vibrance into the Saiva way of living. (Left me absolutely miffed with the Portuguese for destroying this sacred works, as they were narrow minded believers of the Christian faith, couldn't stand any of the others).
3) The shaiva way of life is in seclusion much like Buddhism, hence the choice of an island away from regular life seemed to be the perfect choice.
4) Shaivas lived a ritualistic lifestyle, hence the dominance of yagnas seems apparent here. The presence of a central court used for potential rituals is possible, as the ground has been raised to a slight platform just outside the main cave.
5) A central garbha griha hosting the Shiva Linga, which is the most important aspect of Shaiva worship. This is
Elephanta expresses a certain mysticism around itself, through it's ruins and larger than life iconography. Mahadeva in the central panel exhibits a certain calmness of higher yogic practice. The presence of Yogishwara Shiva dominates 2 panels, bringing home the point, that of the life of an ascetic, a secluded existence for higher consciousness. The realm of Kailasa is richly depicted, the presence of Shiva's exploits are elaborately carved.
Mahadeva - 4 Headed Shiva
Isana, Tatpurusha, Vamadeva, Aghora
The intensity of Shiva worship was experienced here. Imagine a day here, ritualistic worship offered to the sacred fire of enlightenment. The yagna holds the sacred verses that emphasize the various forms of Shiva, which are depicted on the walls. As the Rudram rolls, and all the shaiva monks sing in the silence of the cave, the rumbling sound of the damaru can be heard, emphasizing the primordial sound of OM, reverberating through the ancient rocky walls.
The central shrine depicts Mahadeva, the 4 faces of the Lord - Isana (The angry face to the left) Vamadeva (the benign feminine form to the right), Sadashiva Mahadeva to the center and possibly Aghora behind which is not visible but conceptually there. There is a fifth face, that is Sadyojata which is part of the original Sadashiva form, also not visible here. As is popularly believed, this idol should not represent the trinity as much as it should represent Sadashiva, the highest form of Rudra Shiva, with 5 heads, 2 of which are not visible but conceptually there.
This is a wonderful world of Shaiva orthodoxy that possibly was, with a different way of living, completed with the Abhishekam of the linga at the central shine, within the sanctum guarded by the dwarapalas of Kailasa. The imagination coupled with the actual ritual on a remote inland was thought out and designed under the ruling patronage, to take shaiva aspirants closer to their one and only deity - Lord Shiva.