Being able to finally see Cave 1 at Elephanta was so helpful in understanding all of the plans I came across in my research. I was interested in understanding what art historians were discussing in regards to circumambulation in Cave 1. This topic struck me as interesting because we understand circumambulation as a clockwise motion around a temple in which the deity is always at the center; however, at this cave, devotees circumambulate counter-clockwise and the deity is off-centered. This motion is opposite of mangala, meaning auspiciousness, which confused me further. One scholar that I believe provided a strong argument for this unusual motion is Charles Collins. He gave detailed descriptions of each relief and explained how certain ancient texts and stories supported the understanding of the reliefs in a counter-clockwise manner.
Another scholar who studied this cave is Hirananda Sastri. Sastri created a plan of the cave in which he labelled the reliefs in a counter clockwise fashion however didn’t explain why he did this. In this plan, Sastri wrote “pradakshina patha” and “circumambulatory passage” around the main linga shrine in this cave and the smaller linga shrine to the east, but didn’t include either of these phrases around Cave 1. Other scholars I came across explain the reliefs at each entrance and how they relate to each other. For this reason, I concluded that devotees can circumambulate anyway around the cave and find ways in which each relief relates with the one before and/or after it.
After seeing the cave, the size of the cave was way larger than I thought. The reliefs were so tall and the columns were colossal! I also hadn’t realized how set back the sculptures are in the niches they are carved into. This allowed the sculptors to add much more detail and really bring the stories to life. I wish we had more time to explore the cave because I wanted to take Professor Hingorani’s advice to look closely at each of the sculptures and see if there are any signs of continuity or discontinuity in the artists’ depictions. Despite the lack of time, it was amazing to see the skill that these artists had. They were able to see this masterpiece in the face of a rock! We think we are so much more “advanced” in our technology today, but after seeing such artwork and detail, I think we have back tracked. Elephanta was so much more than I expected.
You can find out more information about the scholars’ research that I studied here:
Collins, Charles. “Elephanta and the Ritual of the Lakulīśa-Pāśupatas.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, no. 4 (1982): 605-617
Sastri, Hirananda. A Guide to Elephanta. Dehli: Manager of Publications, 1934.
I loved seeing the sculpture Ardhanarishvara in person at Elephanta. I enjoyed seeing the unity and balance between male and female first hand. I was especially captivated by the specific parts of the sculpture where you could clearly decipher the male versus the female because it seemed really exaggerated. Examples include the jutted out hip, difference of earlobes on both ears, etc. It was like the artisans clearly wanted you (the audience) to know exactly what it was they were trying portray in this relief.
A point that was brought up about the sculpture that completely stuck with me was that, besides unity and balance, this piece can represent how inseparable the female and the male are. This point was further explained with the example that both the male and the female are needed for creation to occur. I found this piece of information completely shocking because I had never thought of the relief in that light before. Another part of the relief that was further talked about was we know that Shiva is the male counterpart of the figure, but we do not know who the female is. However, people tend to always assume that the figure is Parvati. I had been one of those people who assumed that the female counterpart was Parvati. I loved realizing my mistake in that moment because it raised so many questions for me and made me wonder. The most powerful part about seeing Ardhanarishvara was all the new information I acquired from people who were more familiar with the sculpture.
Presenting my research in front of the reliefs that I have read for months about has been an out of body experience. It was amazing seeing the Shiva and Parvati Seated on Mount Kailash and Ravana Trying to Lift Kailash in person because I could see a lot more details in the work that the pictures I have been looking at didn’t pick up. Being there enhanced my understanding of the reliefs because I could clearly see the evidences scholars used to support their works and ideas. My research focused on which myth variations can be seen on the reliefs and how these different myth interpretations illustrate the power dynamics of Shiva and Parvati’s relationship.
The most popular variations in interpretations of the reliefs either depict Parvati as Shiva’s equal or gives Shiva all the power in the relationship. There are many scholars that support either side with clear evidence which makes it hard to clearly state which interpretation of the myth the artists portrayed in their work. On Shiva and Parvati Seated on Mount Kailash,you can see Shiva cheating while gambling with Parvati. In the relief, Parvati has her back turned away from Shiva and is using her right hand to hold a servant as support for standing up off of the ground. Neema Caughran interprets Parvati’s back to Shiva as an action of disdain. She is fuming with so much anger about Shiva cheating and not owning up to it that she can not stand to be in his presence. Ravana Trying to Lift Kailash shows Parvati embracing Shiva while he roots the mountain with his toe, trapping Ravana. George Michell states that she is clinging onto him because she is terrified and he assumes the role of the protector by pressing down the mountain. In this interpretation, despite Parvati being a powerful deity herself, all the power is seen in Shiva as he protects her from Ravana.
There are many more interesting points from the reliefs that scholars use to prove that the reliefs are either meant to glorify only Shiva or portray Shiva and Parvati as equals. Seeing the reliefs in person reignited my passion for this topic. I would love to continue researching the topic by starting to compare interpretations said to be depicted in these reliefs to others with the same myth, such as Ravana Shaking Kailash at Ellora Cave 16.
Recommended readings for more information include:
Neema Caughran, Shiva and Parvati: Public and Private Reflections of Stories in North India (American Folklore Society, 1999), 514-526.
George Michell, and others . Elephanta, the Cave of Shiva, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).
Don Handelman and others, God Inside Out : ‘Siva’s Game of Dice, (Cary, US: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Learning about the reliefs at Elephanta in class was one thing, but being there and experience it puts you in a different state of mind. Just the impressive size of the sculpted figures was enough to leave me in awe. The stories behind each sculpture brought the piece to life and it was nothing short of extraordinary!
My research was focused on the Gangadhara relief which depicts Shiva receiving the river Ganga in a lock of his hair [link to the myth]. This dynamic relief also featured Parvati – Shiva’s wife – along with Vishnu, Indra and other celestial beings and ganas. I was trying to demonstrate the physical evidence to support claims made by Wendy Doniger and George Michell stating that the positioning of Parvati is indicative of her jealousy of Shiva receiving Ganga. With close inspection of Parvati’s posture, you can actually see that her feet are carved from different stones which give her the ‘uneasiness’ that Doniger points out. Seeing this in a photograph is almost impossible to understand, it is something that much be seen firsthand to draw the connection. Other indications of her apparent jealousy are quite evident in the relief: her body tilted, looking downward, and Shiva’s consoling touch on her right shoulder. By viewing the sculpture up close, it was very noticeable that Parvati’s unusual posture reflects her feelings towards Shiva receiving Ganga. Familiarizing yourself with the following references will give you a better understanding of Parvati’s anger/jealousy and appreciation for the massive Gangadhara sculpture at Elephanta.
Berkson, Carmel, Wendy Doniger, and George Michell.Elephanta, the Cave of Shiva. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Michell, George and Bharath Ramamrutham.Elephanta. The India Series. Bombay: India Book House, 2002.
Leaving the airport in Mumbai was quite an experience. As soon as we were on the road, there was just chaos which I knew was coming however I didn’t know the extent of it. There were multiple times in which I thought that we were going to witness an accident but it didn’t happen. Everyone makes their own path however they are so in sync with each other! It just amazes me. Another part of Mumbai that I didn’t understand the extent of was the slums. The streets are lined with dilapidated buildings housing many people and their businesses. There was one street we traveled down where we saw the polarity between the wealthy and the poor. On one side of the street there were large, well-kept buildings such as hotels, apartments, and car dealerships, and on the other side were the slums. Driving and walking through such areas caused me to reflect on my time here. There were people sleeping on the street outside our hotel where we were treated like royalty. It’s heart-wrenching to be in a country where tourists are pampered to the nines while so many it’s own citizens are struggling for the necessities, which isn’t a unique situation to India. It’s a global issue.
Despite the fact that more than half of the citizens in Mumbai are living in slums, so many people are laughing and smiling. The sense of community within the part of Mumbai we visited is so strong. Leaving the airport we saw so many people hanging out outside and talking with each other. Families were out walking and children were playing with each other. It seemed as if the distractions of the world today were gone and all focus was on each other which is something I really admire.