The ancient carvings at Elephanta Caves are fading, and no one cares

Time, pollution and unplanned tourism threaten the centuries-old carvings

January 04, 2020 04:30 pm | Updated January 05, 2020 11:53 am IST

Tourists at Elephanta Caves

Tourists at Elephanta Caves

The logo of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation shows a 20 ft high monolith of the three-headed Trimurti Sadashiva representing the three aspects of Shiva: the right half-face signifying life and creativity; the left half-face, its obverse — the deity as a destructive force that can reduce the world to ashes; and the central face shows Shiva deep in meditation, as the protector of humanity. This awe-inspiring piece of carving, hewn out of rocks similar to Ellora in the same State, is the focal point of the Elephanta Caves, a small island about 10 km from Apollo Bunder on the Mumbai mainland adjoining the Gateway of India. The silhouette of the iconic gateway looms behind the Shiva image in the same logo.

Both the Gateway of India and the Elephanta Caves are huge tourist attractions, and every year thousands of people from India and abroad visit the caves, whose carvings, dated mostly between the late 5th and late 8th centuries, narrate Hindu mythologies and depict various magnificent figures of Shiva. There are also ancient Buddhist stupa mounds on the same island. It can be reached by an hour-long boat ride. Originally known as Gharapuri, the island was renamed by Portuguese invaders after a giant stone sculpture of an elephant, which was removed from the island and now stands outside the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

The Elephanta Caves in their entirety, and the forested areas around them, were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1987. Legislation to shield the island monuments has existed since the 1950s but only in name. Both the Maharashtra government and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which is supposed to protect them, turn a blind eye to the gradual, but visible, degradation of the spectacular carvings in the caves and the pollution of the Arabian Sea whose waters lap the mangrove forest around the island .

Tourists at Elephanta Caves

Tourists at Elephanta Caves

“Over the years the Island has been exposed to a great deal of stress as it is located in the midst of the Mumbai harbour,” states the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). “Pollution caused by port activities, the risk of explosion from nearby chemical storage facilities and oil silos as well as underwater blasting are among the environmental threats to the island. It is also situated on a fault line that runs through the island,” it adds.

Sludge and scraps

As I disembark from one of the rickety boats that ferry tourists from the Gateway of India, and jump — at great risk to life and limb — across the fleet anchored around the jetty to reach the causeway that leads to the island, I cannot help but notice the thick layers of sludge that sully the shores and the mangroves encircling the island. The tourist boats use old, polluting diesel engines. Scraps of plastic bags cling to the mangrove roots, and debris lies scattered around the shore during low tide.

“The sludge comes from ships, refineries, underground pipelines. There is a large amount of industrial pollution, pollution caused by port-related activities, and the discharge of untreated sewage,” says Debi Goenka, executive trustee and founder of the NGO, Conservation Action Trust.

Plastic and oil could choke the mangroves, but the domestic sewage, says Goenka, could encourage the growth of mangroves.

The boats cross a high security zone — research reactors of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre are not far away — and as the Gateway of India and the two Taj hotels are swallowed by the horizon, liners and ships and rows of cranes and rigs crowd out the shadowy skyscrapers along the Mumbai skyline. A cluster of tiny, multi-coloured houses of local inhabitants, amidst the thick cover of trees, comes into view as the boat draws closer to the island.

As I walk along the causeway strewn with garbage, I notice a signboard offering a toy train service to the caves. Toy train to an important archaeological site? Is this a zoo? Does a World Heritage Site deserve such treatment?

Toy train at Elephanta Caves

Toy train at Elephanta Caves

Sure enough, tourists occupy all the seats of the diesel-fuelled toy train. The narrow gauge line takes about 10 minutes to reach the foot of the hills. The number of hawkers selling snacks and water grows as I approach the caves, and they swell into a crowd as I come closer to the steep and uneven stairway that leads to the caves. They have erected shacks all along the causeway and the 120 steps that are covered with plastic sheets meant to shelter their wares, mostly gewgaw. Tasneem Mehta, former vice-chairperson of INTACH and honorary director of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, says the local people have no other means of livelihood save peddling trinkets, but “let’s regularise them. Let’s do it in a sustainable way.” Why is the State government reluctant to set the hawkers’ stalls in order? “Tourism is the mainstay of the island. The government is generally unable to regulate these kinds of activities,” says Goenka.

This uphill track can leave you out of breath, and the plastic canopy makes it even more stifling. Eateries offering everything from fruit juice to lunch occupy all the space along the steep gradient. And with crowds ceaselessly walking up or down, a sudden panicked rush is not a remote possibility. One doesn’t have to stretch one’s imagination to envisage the scale of the resulting disaster. Then there is the monkey menace. Troops of macaques are ubiquitous and are adept at snatching food from tourists.

In a letter to the then director-general of ASI, dated February 20, 2004, Richard A. Engelhardt, UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, had written, “Elephanta is the ‘crown jewel’ in the necklace of cave art sites along the coast of Maharashtra.” He expressed his concern over the proposal to upgrade tourist facilities on the island, which had been prepared without the approval of the Elephanta planning committee and “without appropriate input” from ASI or INTACH experts. “Most worrying, the proposals appear not to be in conformity with the approved management plan for safeguarding the heritage values,” prepared by INTACH for ASI.

Entrenched politics

In 1997, ASI appointed INTACH Mumbai to prepare a management plan for the Elephanta Caves, says Mehta. “INTACH’s efforts have been to develop a holistic engagement with the site to address not only the needs of the visitor but also the community.” Despite several years of work and many reports being presented to the government, very little work was undertaken at Elephanta Island. Mehta ascribes this to “deeply entrenched politics” involving this “money-spinner”.

Tourists at Elephanta Caves

Tourists at Elephanta Caves

Engelhardt’s letter reminded ASI that in 1995, Sir Bernard Feilden, UNESCO-appointed expert, found that “the state of conservation in the core zone had deteriorated dramatically... Sir Bernard had warned that the situation at Elephanta was so serious that unless corrected, Elephanta could be removed from the World Heritage List.” How would Sir Bernard have reacted to the mess at the Elephanta Caves today?

So why didn’t the government implement the INTACH proposal? “Probably because the ASI and the Maharashtra government did not want an independent agency in the picture that can rock their boat,” replies Goenka.

Goenka is concerned by the construction of the new airport and its impact on the island too. “I would expect that a lot of the finer particles from the quarries have been washed into the sea around Elephanta. The overflights would definitely affect the rock-cut caves. Thirty years ago, the blasting carried out for Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust was believed to have caused some damage to the caves,” says Goenka.

The imposing rock carvings inside Cave no.1, which is the pièce de résistance, have for ages been defaced and vandalised, but whatever remains is stupefying enough. Yet, Indian tourists busy taking selfies hardly notice these outstanding rock carvings. As in Ellora, some of the visitors clamber on the carvings at the Elephanta Caves in their narcissistic quest for a better selfie. Guards busy explaining the ‘history’ and ‘myths’ behind the carvings have no time to notice the errant visitors, and the visitors seem to be impervious to the fact they are breaking the laws meant to protect the site.

Incredible India indeed.

The author is a heritage and culture writer from Kolkata.

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