Interview with Dulari Qureshi on the Elephanta caves

Interview with Dulari Qureshi on the Elephanta caves

in Interview
Published on: 17 May 2018
Dulari Qureshi, Mumbai, October 2015

Interview with Dr. Dulari Qureshi on the history, dating and iconography of the caves


In western India most of the caves are located around the hills or there is one single group of caves that is Pitalkhora, which is in a valley, so that is also unique, but otherwise most of the caves are on the hills. This one single group of caves which you see in Elephanta, which is on an island. One has to take a ferry to go and see these caves. There the environment is very beautiful. It is a forest area which is covered with tamarind and mango trees. It is a different experience altogether.


Then the craftsmen who carved it had to be ferried in and out everyday. They would start working in the morning and stop by the evening. During those days, in 2nd century BC or even 5th- 6th century AD, they did not have anything in the island. Food was not available. So they had to get back to the city. So this must have been quite a challenge.  


Otherwise carving there was something which was easy. It is a part of Sahyadri ranges and is called Basalt rock or Trap rock. It is one of the hardest rocks. It is called Trap rock because it is a horizontal based rock with staircases. Trap actually means staircase. The composition of this rock is in layers, one upon another, and is very hard. So carving on them is very easy.  You have those rocks which are one upon another and they are very hard. That is probably why the entire Western ranges was used for carving.  


The rock at Elephanta was probably one of the best for carving. Because if you see the sculptures, you know the kind of depth and recesses they have been carved in. It is three-dimensional. If you see, it is free from all the three sides except the back side. They have been able to carve some of the best sculptures. Some of the panels are even better than Ellora and they are all very tall. The kind of height which you see at Elephanta is not to be seen in Ellora. If you see the Maheshvara panel, it is 18 feet high. It is gigantic. Such panels are carved here, which is very unique. So Elephanta has some of the most unique sculptures in the entire Western ranges.  


Actually when the Portuguese came here, they found a rock edict with carvings and inscriptions in very clear letters. It must have been something about Elephanta as it was found very close to the rock temples. But unfortunately they took it out from the island so that some Britishers could decipher it. However the inscriptions were first deciphered only around 1857 by James Prinsep. The Portuguese had come in 1661. There is a time gap of 150 to 200 years. The inscriptions are now lost. Nobody will be able to find out what exactly they said. What scholars are talking about today are simply based on assumptions. Some have dated it to the times of the Mauryas, somewhere between 2nd century BC and 3rd century AD. This is very early. Maybe the stupas are datable to that period, but not the Hindu caves. Hindu caves were never carved so early. They could have been carved somewhere during the 6th-7th century AD or 7th- 8th century AD.


We have scholars like Stella Kramrisch, Benjamin Rowland, James Burgess, James Fergusson etc. who have talked the dating of Elephanta. However, they have not been able to justify their stand. Y.R.Gupte was the first person who tried to justify his contention. V.V. Mirashi too did the same. While agrees with Y.R. Gupte on other issues, he however was of the opinion that the caves were excavated by the Kalachuris. This was based on the fact that Kalachuri coins were found there.   


Walter Spink also claims that it was the Kalachuris. Shobhana Gokhale has also written an article on why the Kalachuris are supposed to have carved these caves. Again the same evidence, that of Kalachuri coins being found there, is given. Dr. R.S. Gupte, who came later, differs from the earlier scholars on this. He has written a long article on why it has not been carved by the Kalachuris or the Mauryas, but by the Chalukyas. He supports this by saying that the Chalukyas worshipped the Saptamatrikas, Kartikeya and Ganesha, and all these deities are carved in Elephanta. He also talks about the maniyajnopavita and pushpayajno pavita. The maniyajnopavita was generally used by the Chalukyas, not by the Kalachuris. Also Chalukyas had a lot of resources. They were richer than the Kalachuris and could afford to carve the caves. They have done it in Ellora too. Aurangabad caves were also carved during the time of the Chalukyas.    


So Chalukyas have precedents. Also there is a lot of similarity between Ellora and Elephanta. We see the same kind of sculptures, the same panels, Saptamatrikas, Kartikeya and also the kirtimukha symbol. Kirtimukha symbol has been used by the Chalukyas. R.S. Gupte has given all these justifications I support of his argument. Considering all this, I suppose his argument is valid. One needs to get into the details of what Walter Spink, Shobhana Gokhale, Mirashi and others are talking about, and with a little more research some conclusion can be reached. Because even till today there is no agreement on this.   


The Buddhist caves came before. Some archaeological evidences have been found which suggest that it was probably during the period of the Mauryas, which is very early. Wherever the Mauryas are, you have the Brahmi script. Here they have not found any script as such, but still if you take the architecture of these caves, the typical stone rafters found in the Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Aurangabad are to be seen here. Even at Ellora you have them. So it can be anywhere between 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD. But since it looks more refined it possibly belongs to a later period, that is the 2nd century AD. They were probably excavated during the time of the Mauryas. But then one needs to find more archaeological evidences. More excavations need to be conducted.  


More archaeological surveys need to be conducted under the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). But the problem faced by ASI is that Elephanta is not under one particular body. It is under Forest department, Urban Utility department and Town planning also. So there are a number of other bodies without whose permission ASI cannot proceed. All these bodies need to agree to allow the site to be excavated. A lot of remains could be found, if excavated. For instance, there is a lot of brick work there, almost in the shape of a stupa. That is worth excavating as wherever there is brick work of this kind, one always finds archaeological remains. In Ter and Bhokardan too this kind of brick works were found. They are all ancient cities. So on that basis if they try to work around this particular brick work, which looks like a stupa, maybe they will find a lot of archaeological remains.  




Maheshwara is an extremely unique composition. This kind of a sculpture is not found anywhere in this world. It is so alive, so energetic, so dynamic and so vigorous. It is an 18 feet high bust. If you see the expression on the faces, it symbolises creation, protection and destruction. The creation part of it is feminine. The central face is very peaceful and represents the protective aspect. The third side represents Aghora or the angry aspect. The jatas and snakes add to the representation. Such a composition is not to be found anywhere else. The creators have put in a lot of life force in it. Even in the 21st century I doubt if anyone can make such a composition.




Kalyanasundara-murti is one of the most beautiful compositions in Elephanta. Unfortunately the Portuguese have used these panels as a target to practice their firing. So many holes have been created in it because of that. Hands, shoulders and other parts have also been destroyed. If you look at the composition, it depicts the story where Shiva and Parvati are getting married after a long time. This is supposed to be the second rebirth of Parvati. She is born as a daughter to Himavan and Menaka. She wants to marry Shiva who is in deep meditation.  She prays and prays. Finally, Kamadeva hits Shiva with an arrow of love. Shiva wakes up and sees Parvati and falls in love with her. Then they get married.  In the composition you can see that she is touching Shiva’s hand. You can see that she is blushing. You can feel that she is blushing. You can feel that they are actually getting married. Brahma is supposed to be the priest so he is conducting the rituals. So you actually feel that you are watching a marriage.  




Ardhanarishwari panel is also a beautiful composition. Ardhanarishwari is where Shiva and Parvati come together in one form. The mythology behind this composition is that Bhringi offends Parvati by only worshipping Shiva and not her. Parvati meditates and becomes one with her lord. Bhringi still refuses to worship her and only circumambulates around Shiva. Of course there are different theories. Another theory is that Brahma created Prajapatis and then expected creation to start. But that did not happen. Shiva appeared with Parvati in one form to show that for any creation both male and female are required. Brahma then understood that creation could start only when female and male get together. Then he created females too. So this is also one theory.  


Need for conservation efforts


Because Elephanta caves are located amidst the Arabian Sea, the salinity has badly affected the caves. Also because of the strong monsoons there has been a lot of water seepage. What kind of preservation steps can be taken? What can be done? Should chemicals be applied or should the top entirely covered with cement? Maybe a drainage system can be made where the water will just pass off instead of gathering at one place. So, ASI and other bodies need to decide on such ways to preserve the caves. Impact of tourism also needs to be taken into account. Industries are also coming up. Keeping all this in mind, ways of preserving the caves need to be thought of and implemented.   


Need for more research


So far, people have focused more on Ajanta and Ellora. Actually they have focused more on Ajanta and less on Ellora, and even lesser on Elephanta. Scholars need to gradually deviate from Ajanta and come more to Ellore and Elephanta. Ellora is still untapped. Elephanta is even more untapped. Young students from Bombay University should start working more and more on Elephanta and explore new topics.


One big challenge is that ASI has many rules now. They don’t allow photography. They do allow research. But no research can be conducted without photographs. They say that rays from powerful cameras affect the sculptures. But the sculptures have already been affected so badly that I do not think the cameras will impact much. Also for any kind of photography for research you have to take permission of ASI, Delhi. Most of the permissions are rejected. Permission to foreigners are given but not to Indian scholars and researchers who are more sincere and for whom this place is more accessible compared to the foreign researchers who comes once in a while. Actually foreign researchers have more finance and more resources. So I think Indian scholars also need to be given more resources, more encouragement and more financial aid so that they can do better work than others.