Heritage Elephanta, India

With a fascination of exploring heritage structures especially in India and revisiting history , it took me decades to visit an absolutely awesome place so close to Mumbai. We have toured around various parts of India and abroad visiting places with ancient history but like they say “Ghar ki murgi dal barabar’, inspite of being an Mumbaikar (a term we born and bought up in Mumbai love to call ourselves ) it never did occur to visit a place so close to our city brimming with history and heritage.

Elephanta Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site . Located on Elephanta Island or also known as Gharapuri they are about 11 kms northwest from Gateway of India. The island has a coastline of 7 kms with two hillocks seperated by a narrow valley . The island has three small villages Raj Bunder,Shet Bunder & Mora Bunder which are still inhabited by people .

Travel : Elephanta Caves can be reached by the daily boat service operating from Gateway of India . The ferry service starts at 9 am and the last ferry from Elephanta is 5.30 pm. The travel lasting for 45 mins is quite smooth and comfortable and the sea gulls hovering around the boat waiting to be fed with tidbits make the journey enjoyable

Sea gulls encircling our boat enroute to Elephanta Islands

Our colony club had arranged for a one day picnic to this beautiful island . We had heard that it would be a 120 steps climb to reach the caves and would be tedious. I was very apprehensive on hearing this but the love for exploring heritage places won the battle raging in my mind and after seeing the magnificent caves , there was not a moment of regret. Though the steps leading upto the caves are built of stone, they are quite broad and not very steep . Both sides of the steps are lined with stalls selling clothes, costume jewelry, artifacts cold drinks, eatables so stopping at stalls admiring the items on display made the climb very easy

Our Colony excursion group

The Elephanta Caves are a collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.The Main cave is an unusually large excavation supported by rows of massive pillars which rest on a square stone base.

On the left of the main entrance is the main sanctum enshrining an Linga and with four doors on either side having Dwarpalas or Doorkeepers . There is a big fair held every year during Mahashivratri . The island was captured by the Portuguese in 1534 AD. They have destroyed many sculptures and defaced them . Presently these Caves are a protected site under the Ancient Monuments preservation Act

The Shiva Linga in the main sanctum
A Dwarpala on one of the entrances of the main sanctum

The sculpture of Maheshmurti which is the most famous and iconic image associated with Elephanta Caves. The Central face depicts a calm Shiva or Mahadeva . The Destroyer image of Shiva or Bhairava image to the left depicts Shiva with a cruel mouth, moustache and hooked nose with skulls and serpents . The face on the right is a peaceful Shiva with feminine expressions holding a lotus.

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One side of the Maheshmurti sculpture is the Ardhanarishwar Shiva sculpture depicts Shiva, one half of body is female leaning against his Bull Nandi, the upper hands holding a snake & a mirror. The lower part of the sculpture is slightly damaged

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Ardhanarishwar Shiva

On the other side of the Maheshmurti is the Gangadhara Shiva Sculpture. The main sculptures are of Lord Shiva & his consort Parvati. According to mythology the mighty river Ganga was trapped in the matted locks of God Shiva. The Goddess Ganga has been depicted as the three headed Goddess above his hairlocks .

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Gangadhara Shiva

There is a sculpture of Natraj Shiva or the Lord in the Dancing Pose .However the lower portion of the sculpture is completely missing

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Natraj Shiva

A beautiful sculpture opposite the shrine is a scene showing Lord Shiva’s marriage to Goddess Parvati

Kalyanasundara Murti ( Marriage of Lord Shiva & Parvati)

On the north of the main entrance is a sculptured panel depicting a serene Shiva as a Mahayogi sitting in meditation on a lotus

Mahayogi Shiva

Many sculptures were damaged or defaced during the Portuguese invasion

Dwarpal sculptures which are damaged

Damaged structures of the Dwarpals ( Doorkeepers)in the background

There are other smaller caves also near the main caves ,but many of them do not have sculptures of great importance and are in a derelict condition

The trip to Elephanta is half a day trip. It is recommended to start the trip early in the morning to escape the heat and the milling crowds which start in the second half of the day

Historical Cambodia

After our sojourn at Vietnam we departed early morning at 7 am by a luxury bus Mekong Express from Ho Chi Minh for Cambodia. We reached the Immigration Office of Vietnam by 9.30 am where the Departure Immigration formalities were completed at the Bus station and by 10.30 am we were in Cambodia. Our destination was Siem Reap where the Historical Angkor Wat is situated.

We had to pass Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia 230 kms from Ho Chi Minh which we reached at 3.30 pm . The journey time from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap as per Google maps is 9 hrs 30 mins but with immigration formalities , a sumptuous lunch of Khmer Chicken Curry & Rice and tea breaks we reached Siem Reap by 8.30 pm . The journey was quite comfortable and watching the countryside with paddyfields, villages made it all the more pleasant .

Cambodia is also a South East Asian country sharing borders with Laos,Vietnam & Thailand . The name Cambodia invokes memories of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime under the dictator Pol Pot and the atrocities committed on the citizens . It is basically a agricultural country and also thrives on tourism mainly because of the the UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat.

Food Travails : Cambodia is not so famous for its cuisine as its neighboring countries like Vietnam & Thailand but has delicious Khmer food. Kuy teav made from pork/beef ( similar to Pho of Vietnam),the delicious Fish Amok (Cambodia’s signature dish fillets of freshwater fish cooked in coconut milk) , eggs, fish sauce and palm sugar steamed in banana leaves are some of the famous dishes.

Like Vietnam , vegetarian dishes and restaurants are difficult to find in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh so unless you have time to scout for a vegetarian hotel , it is advisable for vegetarians to carry along some non perishable food stuff or else subsist on fresh fruit available in the local markets.

Currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian Riel . One Cambodian Riel = 0.018 INR However since we had planned only two days in Cambodia we did not convert our currency and used USD for shopping. Shopping is cheap and bargaining works.

After checking into Hotel Park Lane ,we proceeded for dinner at the market place in Siem Reap. The nightlife in Siem Reap is bustling . The souvenir shops / restaurants / hotels in the market place are open late into the night till 1 am and the streets are crowded with locals and tourists even late at night. After a typical Khmer dinner comprising of fried rice with chicken, Khmer Roast Duck, Amok we decided to shop at the souvenir shops and walk around the lanes in the market area.

Next morning we left for Angkor Wat which is 5.5 kms from Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat , ‘ the city ( which became a ) pagoda ‘ is a temple complex in Cambodia and one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Wat is the name for a Buddhist Temple. Originally constructed by King Suryavarman II in the first half of the 12th Century both as a Capital and as a State Temple temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century . The outer limits of Angkor Wat entire temple is set by a broad moat ,faced in laterite and sandstone. It is an architectural wonder and a treat to the eyes

The area surrounding the Angkor Wat

The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last shaped like a pyramid

The inner square in the AngkorWat Temple and the interlinked galleries

Offerings being made to a Vishnu Statue

The central temple complex consists of three storeys, each made of laterite, which enclose a square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries.
The corners of the second and third storeys are marked by towers, each topped with symbolic lotus-bud towers

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There are various carvings in the galleries dedicated to the stories of Rama & Krishna ( believed to be avatars of Vishnu). A special mention must be given to the intricate carvings depicting the Battle of Kurukshetra which is in the West side Gallery,South section.

In the middle is the central tower, which gives the whole grand ensemble its sublime unity . The stairs to the upper level are immensely steep and open to a limited number per day with a queuing system.Unfortunately the day we visited , it was closed .

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The Central Tower

The approx sightseeing time for Angkor Wat takes about 3 hours though there are tourists who stay for a week to sightsee the temple and its surrounding areas in detail.

After that we moved to Angkor Thom ( Great City) which are basically ruins of one of the largest Khmer cities and about 20 mins away from Angkor Wat. It was founded by Jayavarman II and his successors and was the capital city for atleast a few centuries . The entrance from the South side has sculptures of Asuras and the Devas depicting the Sagar Manthan .

Depicting the Sagar Manthan

The other side of the Entrance

The Bayon is a richly decorated Khmer temple which stands at the centre of Angkor Thom.  It is a mass of face towers to create a mountain of ascending peaks .It has vast displays depicting the various gods, goddesses, and other-worldly beings from the mythological stories and epic poems of ancient Hinduism . Mingled with these images are actual known animals, like elephants, snakes, fish, and monkeys

Face Towers of the Bayon Temple

A Part of the Bayon temple

Face Towers of the Bayon Temple

From there we proceeded to the The Ta Prohm ( Tree Temple ) which was a temple monastery with temples and other additional enclosures. The main attraction are the gigantic trees . Fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart, as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. Trunks of trees twist amongst stone pillars .The entire viewing takes about 2 hours.

Ta Prohm
The trunk of the gigantic trees in Ta Prohm

The monuments,Face Towers,Island Temples in the entire Angkor area are very wide spread. Ideally you should have atleast 3 days or a week if possible . Absorbing the atmosphere , examining the details and exploring the Galleries and the sections , temples in detail cannot be completed in a day.

However , if you are short of days and wish to complete atleast the major sites then you can cover the main Angkor Wat temple,South Gate of Angkor Thom-Bayon-Terrace of Leper King-Elephant Terrace-Ta Prohm in a day or two. If you plan to stay for more than 2 days then Phimeanakas & The Royal Enclosure,Prasat Kravan -Pre Rup-East Mebon-Ta Som can be included to the previous itinerary.

Else even a day is sufficient to tour Angkor Wat and the surrounding structures like Angkor Thom,Bayon,Elephant Terrace & Ta Prohm unless you need to go deep into history The only place to stay when visiting Angkor is Siem Reap . So if you plan to visit only Angkor Wat then 2-3 days is ideally sufficient for your stay at Cambodia unless you plan to visit other places like Phnom Penh .

After a fulfilling trip in Cambodia we were ready to fly at night to Bangkok for four days of the beaches and shopping