Why the Elephanta Caves matter

It’s easy to get a wide, sweeping vista of the Arabian Sea in the monsoon. Barring oil tankers, cruise liners or steamers heading towards the natural harbour, one gets an uninterrupted view of a grainy skyline that includes the city's islands neighbours as well as lighthouses.

During the monsoon, the ferry services to one such neighbour, the Elephanta Island, are discontinued, which means tourists from Mumbai and from the rest of India have no access to its world-famous, rock-cut caves. This tends to have a huge impact on the economy of the tiny island where a large chunk of its nearly 1,600-strong population relies on tourism for its employment.

The city of caves must be saved from neglect

During a visit in November 2011, when the tourist inflow was in full swing, we were both happy and pained at the sight that awaited us. The jetties at both sides were packed as ferries jostled for elbowroom amid choppy waters. Clearly, they were doing brisk business. More tourists meant a healthy economy on the island, which comprises of three villages - Shetbunder, Rajbunder and Morabunder. Apart from tourism, islanders also travel to Mumbai or Uran for employment or engage in fishing, rice cultivation, livestock rearing and boat maintenance.

The island is home to the Brahmanical-themed reliefs that date back to 4-9 AD and were made from basalt stone sculpted from of the hill itself. These contain a series of stunning sculpture panels that showcase one of the world's most important collections honouring the cult of Shiva. While the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987, the past few years have witnessed serious neglect due to vandalism of worst kinds. From doodles and juvenile attempts at artwork to breakage among the sculptures, it made for more than an eyesore.

If one were to go by the history books, it reveals that these caves were always at the receiving end. According to a few Portuguese accounts, sections of the caves were already in ruin, damaged by weather, time and cattle by the mid 1500s. Target practice by negligent soldiers may have also damaged a few sculptures. Unchecked destruction within the cave site continued under British rule and it was not until 1909 that the main cave was declared a protected site under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act.

Today, lack of tight security and civic sense as well as an abysmally low entry fare to the site appear to have contributed to its further ruin, as one walked around the 7-km wide (in circumference) cave site. Basic cleanliness norms are flouted, the use of plastic is rampant; the lesser said about the interiors of the cave site, the better. One shudders to think what will befall this treasure, which lies barely 11km north off Apollo Bunder, if serious remedial measures aren't adopted.

While heritage conservation organisations like INTACH have worked tirelessly on the island to salvage things, it's the same old red tape/bureaucracy hurdle that prevents an all-out plan to ensure a sustainable and long-term solution that doesn't disturb the sensitivity of the average islander. One shall wait for that day to dawn.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY¬†

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