Devdutt Pattanaik: Old gods near Mumbai

Updated: Aug 12, 2018, 07:44 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

Some of the earliest images showing the story of Shiva from the Shiva Purana, is again found in the Elephanta caves, just a boat ride off South Bombay

Devdutt Pattanaik: Old gods near Mumbai
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt PattanaikWhile Delhi flaunts monuments from the Islamic period that can be over 500 years old, Mumbai does not talk much about monuments around it that are over 1,500 years old.

For example, one of the oldest images on Indra is found in the Bhaja Caves on the old Mumbai-Pune highway. This is the first time we see how ancient Indians visualised Indra. This image is about 2,200 years old and shows him seated on an elephant with his consort by his side, who is probably Sachi. In the Vedas, Indra is associated with Indrani but is visualised on a horse-pulled chariot. There are no images of this period. The idea of him riding an elephant comes in later periods, in Puranic Hinduism and in early Buddhist scriptures. These caves are clearly Buddhist in nature and here we find for the first time, Indra riding Airavat, a common motif in later art.

Some of the earliest images showing the story of Shiva from the Shiva Purana, is again found in the Elephanta caves, just a boat ride off South Bombay. It is about 1,500 years old, built by, probably the Kalachuri kings. Here we find Shiva visualised as Shivalinga, Shiva with multiple heads (Trimurti), Shiva as Yogeshwara, Shiva as Nataraja, Shiva getting married, Ardhanareshwar, Shiva's family being troubled by Ravana, and Gangadhar Shiva catching Ganga on his head. This is the first elaborate visual depiction of Shiva for the world. The earlier ones, on Indo-Greek coins made 500 years earlier, are not so elaborate.

In the Kanheri Caves located inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, we find one of the earliest images of the multi-headed Bodhisattva. As we know, Buddhism started in India 2,500 years ago, in the Indo-Nepalese border, in Bihar. About 500 years after the Buddha's death, the idea of the Bodhisattva emerges, the compassionate one who delays his Nirvana until he can help all other suffering people.

Bodhisattva's first images come from North-West India in Gandhara, where we see a very kindly man, his eyes open and looking downwards, hearing the cries of people. Gradually, the mythology emerged that in order to hear better and help people better, he develops many heads and many hands, so that he can hear better, see better and help better. The earliest image of this multi-headed, multi-armed Bodhisattva, in stone sculpture, is in North Mumbai! It is also roughly 1,500 years old, created around the same time as the Elephanta Caves . This reveals that Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted in this region and the artists took advantage of the rocks in the area, to create caves and to embellish these caves with images of their respective icons, Shiva in one case and Buddha in the other.

Not far from Mumbai, are the Ellora Caves, where again we find one of the earliest images of the Goddess Tara. Buddhism is avowedly masculine, where women play subsidiary roles but, 1,000 years after the Buddha, the idea of a female Buddha or a Buddhist Goddess called Tara emerges, who becomes a very dominant part of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. The earliest image of Tara is found in Ellora. It is about 1,300 years old. She holds a lotus in her hand. Before her in Mahamayuri, the goddess of learning, with a peacock dancing next to her and student writing on a desk. Perhaps one of the earliest depictions of Saraswati, who like Lakshmi, was simultaneously a Buddhist, Jain and Hindu goddess. Thus, just in and around Bombay, if you are interested in seeing how gods came to be visualised, these are places you must visit.

The author writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at

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