Mumbai Surprises: Maneckji Sett Agiary and The Elephanta Caves

I have to admit that Mumbai is probably my least favorite city in India. I find it too expensive and way too modern. Indeed, except for the fact that it is full of Indians it feels like it could be any other modern city in any other part of the world.

So imagine my surprise on finding just south of the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminal a real Zoroastrian Fire Temple! The Maneckji Sett Agiary or Fire Temple was built by the Parsi community in 1735. Except for the very interesting sculptures that flank the outside, the building itself is quite unremarkable.

While catching up with my correspondence in an email cafe, I became engaged with a Slovakian tourist who was experiencing extreme gastrointestinal discomfort. I am an avid proponent of Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs, and had brought a boatload of Po Chai pills to combat just such a problem if I encountered it myself. As I offered him two vials of the pills I saw fascinating photos of caves with beautiful sculptures. I asked if he had just visited Ajanta or Ellora. He replied that he hadn’t visited those sites yet, but had just returned from the Elephanta Caves. I asked where they were located, and practically fell off my chair when he told me they were “in Mumbai.” I knew I had to see them.

The Elephanta Caves are a network of sculpted caves located on Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour, 10 kilometers east of the city of Mumbai. The island, located on an arm of the Arabian Sea, consists of two groups of caves—the first is a large group of five Hindu caves, the second, a smaller group of two Buddhist caves. The Hindu caves contain rock cut stone sculptures dedicated to the god Shiva.

The rock cut architecture of the caves has been dated to between the 5th and 8th centuries. All the caves were also originally painted in the past, but now only traces remain.

The island was called Gharapuri (literally “the city of caves”), and was a Hindu place of worship until Portuguese rule began in 1534. The Portuguese called the island Elephanta on seeing its huge gigantic statue of an Elephant at the entrance.

To get to the Elephanta Caves, go to the counter at the Gateway of India and buy a round trip ticket. There is a fee to get into the caves as well as another small fee that you pay on arriving on the island. It is very important that you do not take food or drinks because the place is crawling with monkeys. I’ve seen families on the boat who’ve packed lunches and expect to have a picnic there. The monkeys end up with the food!

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