Elephanta- The Cave of Siva

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Elephanta is the home of Siva. Siva (Shiva) also has numberless other temples and homes. When encountering Elephanta, there are three levels of understanding that could be used. The first is the level of seen physical attributes. The second is the level of unseen physical attributes. The third is the level of unseen mythological and spiritual attributes. The home of Siva at Elephanta is the center and most powerful of all of the Hindu Siva temples.

Architecturally, this temple is more than merely a cave. Although as a cave, it is sound and secure, it is not a cave alone. As well, the temple itself is a masterpiece of art, it cannot be taken out of its own physical context; this would invalidate a good part of the religious power. Everything about Elephanta promotes an abandoning of an everyday world. Three journeys must be taken in order to approach the temple. A passage across water, a mountain must be climbed, and a cave entered, gives a worshiper the sense of duty and preparation to be in the home of Siva. This is one of the most important factors of the temple. There are Guardians surrounding the temple. No one shall enter the temple who is unworthy. There have been great lengths taken to provide Siva of privacy. Many (mythologically) have entered the temple uninvited, only to be cast out, or destroyed. There are three entrances to the temple on the north, east, and west sides. The inside of the cave is easily understandable. The area is divided by columns, creating equal rows and aisles. Toward the west is a square sanctuary detached from the walls. Inside this sanctuary is a monolithic Linga. Panels deeply carved into the walls are located on both side of the three entrances and along the south wall. While all of the texts that I read gave different meanings and terms of the icons and characters on the panels, I will try to convey the scenes of the panels here.

East Porch: Siva Parvati seated atop a mountain (gambling), Siva and Parvati on a mountain with a demon figure beneath (Kailasa). North Portico: Siva as an ascetic (Yogi), Siva in an attitude of dancing. West Portico: Destructive Siva slaying a demon (Andhaka), a marriage scene of Siva and Parvati . Center South Wall: Siva beneath a river goddess and next to Parvati (Ganges), three-faces of Siva (Eternal Siva), opposite a half-female image of Siva on the other side (Androgyny). The east court include the eight Divine Mothers, and the west court includes Ganesha and Karttikeya.

The two icons of greatest mythological and architectural importance are the Linga and the Eternal Siva. It seems that the entire temple at Elephanta was patterned specifically around these two icons. The easiest way to look at this is geometrically. If one were to create two axes (North-South and East-West) through the middle of the temple, they would pass through the Eternal Siva (South) and the Linga (West). Now make two circles, diameters in 1:2 proportion encompassing the center of the temple, that also coincide with the positions of the Linga and Eternal Siva. Connect the four corners of the circles with the axis creating diamonds. Now you can create tiles inside of the bigger circle. There will be 37 squares each approximately 5.5m. The map you have created is the actual plan for the temple of Siva, at Elephanta. There are columns at each of the intersecting points of the squares, and have focal points at the diagonals passing through the squares. Look at the axis once more. These are free of obstruction passing North-South and East-West. Movement east-west is a transportation beyond the world of forms and meanings. It is toward the linga. This is the most significant point within the cave. It has doors with guardians, both graceful and powerful. This houses the sanctuary and worship site. The Linga is otherwise refered to as the phallus. The stone of the linga is literally a "sign" of the god. It is a small physical space, to represent and reflect. Man is constantly trying to move outward from himself, into larger and larger spaces. Reflection on the inside, coming back to oneself, is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT, and is a process to be mastered here, amidst all the godly energy. Movement north-south is very different. One passes under the beams and down toward the Eternal Siva. Once one has reached the deepest point, they are engulfed in near darkness while approaching the triple-face image(Mahadeva Maheshvara, Mahashamurti). Whether these are signs of good vs. evil, or past, present, future, this is the inter sactum, sanctum sanctorum. The physical space is a series of circles from the Eternal Siva outward. The inner circles represent what is Godly, and the outer circles represent the outer world, filled with commercialism, greed, and crime. The inner spheres are pure, and may be hard for us to understand, because it is "of the gods." The panels surrounding these sculptures are not random. They are purposely placed by each other to resemble the paradoxes of life, and energy. The Marriage of Siva and Parvati: Siva came to Parvati in disguise, and tested her. She passed and they wed. Shiva Holding the Ganges: King Sagara's sons were burnt, and he asked Ganges to come down and rescue them. She agreed, but needed Siva to break her fall. He agreed, and stood on the Himalayas as Ganges (the river) cascaded onto his head. Since then Ganges is considered the wife of Siva because the incident was seen as an adulterous act. Ravana Lifting Kailasa: Ravana (demon king) was insulted that Siva and Parvati were making love on Kailasa mountain. He lifted the mountain, but Siva pinned Ravana under it. Ravana escaped to worship Siva for a thousand years. Siva and Parvati Gambling at Dice: When gods throw dice, it is a reflection that our fate is the result of both accident, and the whims of the gods. Siva always wins-cheating or not, and Parvati angers him by pointing rules out. Siva angers quickly and blots out the sun. Shiva as the Androgyne: Brahma, the creator, tried to produce living creatures, but they could not produce. Siva offered to split his body, creating an androgyny. The two forms separated, creating what we know today as male and female. Shiva Alone Impaling the Demon Andhaka on his Trident: Andhaka was a son of Siva who fell in love with Parvati (Oedipal content inherent). Andhaka tries to steal Parvati, and is destroyed. Siva danced for Andhaka and transformed him, took him back into the family and restores him. This can be seen as a god who has compassion and blesses those whom he has destroyed. Lord of the Dance: contains two dances. The lasya, dance of creation, and tandava, dance of destruction. Siva, disguised as a beggar, came to the villages to prove that villagers had not repressed their anger. He danced for them in the nude, and the villagers ordered him castrated. His phallus fell to the ground, and the villagers saw what they had done. They begged for forgiveness, and received it, on the condition that they worship his phallus forever. The Lord of Yogis: This image represents both this cosmic power and the ideal form of the human yogi.

Elephanta itself is like a book. It has a message, a meaning, a portrayal. It may not be the same every time, and it may not be the same for every person. That may be why some of the definitions are different in every source of information. The one thing that is certain is that there is energy in the house of Siva. This energy is released by the icons, by the architecture, and by Siva himself. The energy of the Linga radiates in four directions, just as the Eternal Siva radiates it's own energy. I cannot wait to be in the presence of that energy, to feel the power, understand the mythology, and honor its presence.


  1. Asher, Frederick M. The Art of Eastern India, 300-800. (University of Minnesota, Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1980)
  2. Kramersch, Stella. The Presence of Siva. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1981)
  3. Collins, Charles Dillard. The Iconography & Ritual of Siva at Elephanta. State University of New York, Albany, New York, 1988)
  4. Berckson, Carmel. Elephanta: The Cave of Shiva. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1983)

Stuart Edeal, August 30, 1994, Global Semester, Mac Gimse