In defence of Elephanta

Published: Nov 10, 2011, 17:13 IST | FIONA FERNANDEZ |

For decades, Elephanta Island has quietly carried the enviable tag of being home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Largely ignored by the powers-that-be despite its cultural and natural riches, it now stands in the eye of a storm, with conflicting reports of it being converted into a naval base. Reaching out to the local guide at Elephanta, the big bosses at Mantralaya and the custodians of our heritage, Fiona Fernandez tries to put the pieces together

For decades, Elephanta Island has quietly carried the enviable tag of being home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Largely ignored by the powers-that-be despite its cultural and natural riches, it now stands in the eye of a storm, with conflicting reports of it being converted into a naval base. Reaching out to the local guide at Elephanta, the big bosses at Mantralaya and the custodians of our heritage, Fiona Fernandez tries to put the pieces together

On December 7, 1987, members of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Paris declared the Elephanta Caves that stand 11 km north east of Apollo Bunder, a World Heritage Site (WHS).

The Eternal Shiva or Sadashiva image is carved in full relief and is
approximately 7m high.  Pics/ Pradeep Dhivar

Thousands of miles away at ground zero, oblivious to this crucial elevation, life continued as always -- thousands of tourists spilled out from ferries to witness the splendours of sixth century rock-cut artistry. Local tourism thrived, and the island's residents were content that the site offered them a steady source of income.
Fourteen years later, the island's 1,600 odd locals have woken up to unpleasant news. Over the last one week, sections of the mainstream press have reported about the Indian Navy's interest in the island to expand their defence activities, with them approaching the state government to seek the required permission. Unnamed Navy officials were quoted saying the island was vital for strengthening security around Mumbai, particularly for its nuclear plants and the BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre).

Since then, the Indian Navy has dismissed the reports, calling them "baseless, and totally false". The Western Naval Command's Office conveyed its displeasure, saying, not a single statement was submitted from the Navy's end. Narendra Vispute, assistant PRO, Indian Defence added, "The Navy has taken offence to these reports. There may have been sporadic security activity on Elephanta, which alerted the press. However, the Navy isn't ready to take over the island as a security base."

When confronted with comments made by Raigad forest officials, and Navy personnel in Mumbai and Delhi affirming the move, he added, "Even if the Navy has submitted any request to the state government, they are not liable to disclose it publicly under the Official Secret Act of 1923."

Alibaug's Deputy Conservator of Forests, Ahmed Anwar admits to meetings being held between the Navy and the Collector of Raigad between August and September 2011, expressing intent to use part of the island as a naval base. "I have read correspondence exchanged between both sides. Since then, we haven't received any formal, concrete request from the Indian Navy. In the early 1900s, certain sections were handed by the British Government to the Navy for drills and exercises -- that was the extent of their presence on the island."

While the denial may come as relief to Elephanta's residents, the move has already let the cat among the pigeons. Maharashtra's Tourism Minister Chhagan Bhujbal says he has been informed of the development although he is yet to receive the file on the matter. "If (this is) true, tourism cannot and should not be banned on the island. I don't mind if the Navy needs to take over the island for security purposes, but not at the cost of tourism. The Navy has options to set up a naval base in nearby Mandwa. Besides, terror threats can emerge from anywhere."

By the time we stepped off our bobbing ferry at the Elephanta jetty four days after the reports were published, the islanders had caught wind of the news. Ramesh Patil, a ticket collector on the toy train that takes visitors from the jetty to the base of the steps leading up to the island, and our genial guide Rajesh Koli, wondered what would become of those who relied on tourism to feed  their families. "I've been a stall owner here since the 1950s. There are about a hundred stalls spread across the 120 steps that lead up to the caves. Where will we go if the Navy decides to take over?" asks an emotional Manohar Mhatre.

Mhatre runs a stall that sells knick-knacks that visitors often take home as souvenirs. He is also the Police Patil of the island, a locally appointed security head. "Let them do their work, we'll do ours -- we are peaceful people," he says.

We trudge to the end of the steps only to be reminded of the unbelievable numbers that throng this site. "At least 3,000 visitors on weekdays, and 5,000 on weekends," Koli tells us. Three Scandinavians are wiping beads of perspiration off their foreheads in between taking swigs of bottled water. But they aren't complaining about the harsh October sun. "We read about these amazing rock-cut edicts, and decided to visit. They are mindboggling... it'll be sad if the world doesn't get to see them," says one of the trio, when told of the security base.

And still, this recent proposal is only one of multiple maladies. Graffiti is rampant and water seepage is an issue the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that is responsible for its upkeep, is grappling with. Tasteless restoration of some of the fluted pillars in the left wing of the main cave, often using cement, is an eyesore even to the untrained eye.

To the right of the main cave, an asbestos sheet is fitted in a haphazard bid to ensure the water from the roof of the caves flows into a natural well below. "The ASI installs the sheet every monsoon," Koli says. "The caves are cleaned using chemicals every five years but it's not enough. They need to be protected," he says, while running his finger over the defaced head of a lion that stands guard at the lingam shrine in the east court.

To the side lies a pool of stagnant water littered with aerated water bottles that float aimlessly. For those who wonder what the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation is doing to preserve the monument that's an economic asset, Joint Director-MTDC Avinash Dhakne says, it's the ASI's job. "We only look after the upkeep of what is outside. The Government of India has sanctioned Rs 5 crore, and the state government has granted another Rs 2.5 crore. We plan to utilise the funds to install dustbins, create garbage pits, beautify the jetty, build toilets and put up signage across the island."

Rising above voices that dodge responsibility, is Tasneem Mehta. The Vice-Chairperson of INTACH and Managing Trustee of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum believes a system of regulating tourist traffic by bringing in the Navy can in fact, help solve the the security dilemma. "INTACH has been working towards protecting the island and its caves since 1997. This is a serious development if the Navy gets a go-ahead. Instead, they should consider setting up a security department to help monitor and screen tourist traffic, using methods like pre-booking, which is common in sensitive destinations like Israel and the Vatican. The government has failed to regulate traffic and control movement at Elephanta, and I think the Navy can be of service if they step in."
The area, Mehta stresses, needs to be governed by stricter regulation. Ad-hoc construction and CRZ violations have led to mismanagement on the island.

The closure, in full or partially, of a heritage site such as this is unthinkable. "It is too precious and sacred to be lost. Such arbitrary decisions shouldn't unfold in a democracy. They will have serious implications on all heritage sites across the country, and the image of tourism in India."

In addition to being a seat of culture, Elephanta is an ecological treasure, supporting myriad species of fauna. Deepak Apte, deputy director of Conservation, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), who has worked with India's defence forces for 13 years, says a balanced view is vital. "If the decision is okayed (setting up a Naval base), thorough mapping and assessment of the area is necessary, depending on the scale of the project.

Ideally, an independent authority like the BNHS should be allowed to investigate the implications of the move on the environment." He shares that the Indian armed forces have been pro-active in nature conservation, with a fantastic track record, and their eco battalions have done noteworthy work. "Let the full nature of this operation emerge, whether the need is for partial or entire custody and so on," he urges.

But for Elephanta's residents, there is no second option. Premanand Shevakar, a local who ferries to the mainland every day for a job he holds at the General Post Office, has one question: "For over 60 years since independence, there has been no security threat. Then why this sudden need? Lokanchi aatma ikde aahe (residents share a soul connection with this place)."

Visit: The caves are open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Boats leave the Gateway of India every half hour, and the journey lasts an hour. Tickets can be purchased on the boat or at booths along the Gateway.

Why you should bother about Elephanta
Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, house one of the greatest masterpieces of early Hindu rock-cut art in India.

The Brahmanical-themed reliefs made from Basalt stone sculpted from the hill itself contain a series of stunning sculpture panels that showcase one of the world's most important collections honouring the cult of Shiva.

These caves met the stringent criteria laid down by UNESCO in a 10-point agenda, and since 1987 they are part of an elite group of 936 properties across the globe. Apart from New Delhi, no major Indian city can boast of a World Heritage Site in its backyard.

In 4-9 AD, using the architecturally superior beam-and-column system, a group of islanders silently went about excavating and carving a hill on a nondescript island, unaware that it would capture the imagination of world travellers who have mentioned the site in their accounts since the 1500s.

Despite being situated on a fragile property threatened by medium and long-term industrial development from Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Butcher Island, petrochemical installations, the nuclear plant at Trombay and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Elephanta Island remains a cultural and environmental hotspot.

It is one of the most popular destinations on itineraries of Mumbai-bound Indian and international tourists. No wonder, nearly 90 per cent of locals earn their living from tourism-generated employment.

The island is home to rich fauna: Kingfishers, Pond Herons, Plovers, Magpies and Mudskippers (a fish that is found in marshlands) can be spotted in its mangroves while its forests are home to Kites, Bulbuls, Drongos and Minivets, Paradise Flycatchers, Rhesus, Bonnet and Macaque species of monkey as well as numerous butterfly species.

What UNESCO says
Giovanni Boccardi, chief of Unit, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Paris the Elephanta Caves was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987 for its cultural value. When a development project (like a military base) is proposed at or in the vicinity of a World Heritage property, which may have an adverse effect on its universal value, provisions of para 172 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention apply. Accordingly, when the World Heritage Centre receives information from a third party concerning proposed interventions that may impact the conservation of a property, it first contacts the responsible national authorities to verify it. If the allegations are confirmed, further discussions ensue with the State Party where the property is located, often leading to a report to the World Heritage Committee and, if necessary, to a monitoring mission to the site. This would be carried by consulting with national authorities. It would result in a comprehensive, new report based on which the World Heritage Committee would take its decision and make its recommendations regarding the issue that has triggered the mission.

Elephanta Island (original name: Gharapuri/ city of caves) lies about 11 km north-east of Apollo Bunder in Mumbai while the world famous caves lie 7 km from the shore on the mainland. It covers an area of 7 km in circumference and the local population is spread across three villages: Shetbander, Rajbunder and Morabander.

The Elephanta Caves were built between 4-9 AD, following which there is very little documentation. In 1534, Elephanta along with the islands that were to constitute Bombay, went under Portuguese control. Elephanta was first rented to Joao Pires for the annual amount of 105 pardaos ( �4). When the Portuguese spotted a Basalt stone elephant near Rajbunder, they decided to rename Gharapuri, Elephanta. By then, according to Portuguese accounts, sections of the caves were already in ruin, damaged by weather, time and cattle. Target practice by negligent soldiers may have also damaged a few sculptures.

The Marathas occupied the island in the 17th century. Later, Elephanta didn't figure in the marriage settlement between Catherine of Braganza and Charles II. In 1774, the English took control of the island by setting up a garrison in order to help monitor the increasing defence requirements of Bombay. 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.

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