Elephanta is Buddhist, see the elongated ear of Trimurthi. If it is Shiva, show me the snake!

With the tools that google, wiki and the world wide web place on our hands, its very easy to make up a convincing article, but we must take care to ensure that we try and present our posts with utmost care. You may ask, why this sudden concern, but off late there is an overpowering outflow of emotionally charged writing on the net, and poetic license is being twisted to promote half baked theories and a hidden agenda to increase viewership by featuring titillating content. Religion and Castes are thrown in for good measure, with scant regard for communal unity, for they are subjects that we need to handle with caution and the clarion call is to be more responsible in what we put up on the net including contributions to every growing efforts like Wiki.

Couple of years back, an interesting discussion on Iconography, was punctuated by a certain person, who put up this photo of the magnificent Trimurthi or Mahasadhasiva Shiva from Elephanta. He obviously read that there were Hindu and Buddhist caves in the same vicinity and added for good measure that the entire site was an earlier Buddhist cave usurped by Saivites. He went on to showcase the Serene face of the main ( centre) form and its elongated ears and then as a final encore, asked everyone – if its Shiva where are the snakes?

This was the image he put up. I presume he had taken it from this site

Temple net transposed photo

Now, early readers would get easily influenced by this, hence we took on the task of answering his questions.

First of all, there was something wrong with the image. It didn’t look correct. Do you notice the large mustache of the face on the left of the sculpture ( right as you see it) – thats Rudra Shiva , its not supposed to be that way. The image he had ( the site and many more such sites) seem to have put up is a transposed image. ie. the sculpture is rotated right to left. Below is the correct view

The question on snakes was very easy to answer and its clear that he has never been to the site.

See this post and its photos

India Temple Blogspot post

Do you notice what he is holding in his hand?

Pl navigate to the 12th image in the ASI website

ASI site

Mr. George Michell has brought out a book titled “ELEPHANTA” and is a wonderfully illustrated work. I am showing some low resolution images from his book – for there is one more snake which i wanted readers to observe

Now, that we have settled the snake issue, lets take up the elongated ears.

Without getting too much into Agama / Iconography texts, ( for the more seriously inclined – please read the ref from Elements of Hindu Iconography by Sri Gopinath Rao – attaching relevant pages), the canons for Iconography were common for Jain, Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

For, eg, I am taking an illustration from his book, which gives the proportions as per silpa text cannons for an ear.

Lets, compare this against our Elephanta sculpture and see how it measures up against the standards. ( This is not a research work done to scale, but just to give you an idea)

Interesting exercise, but would this ` Ear Test’ give sustained results on a definitive Shiva sculpture. So why not test it, not against any sculpture, but a chola bronze, not any chola bronze, but a dated chola bronze – Who else but our Rishabantakar.

Need to get a good straight shot of his ear, here we go!

The ears


How do they match up?

He went on to state that the sculptures in the Hindu caves are all converted from Buddhist ones. I wish he had at least went through the Wiki pages properly. These are monolithic sculptures carved out of base basalt rock. The below link gives you the detailed layout and the location of each of the icons.

Wiki layout of Elephanta

Main Hall

1. Ravana lifting Kailash
2. Shiva-Parvati on Kailash
3. Ardhanarishvara
4. Trimurti
5. Gangadhara
6. Wedding of Shiva
7. Shiva slaying Andhaka
8. Nataraja
9. Yogishvara
16. Linga

East Wing Shrine

10. Kartikeya
11. Matrikas
12. Ganesha
13. Dvarapala

West Wing Shrine

14. Yogishvara
15. Nataraja

Indeed a stunning location, sadly not a single inscription is there to ascertain its date. We are forced to assign a 8th C CE date and Gupta / Chalukya authorship for them.

The truth is out there !!

29 thoughts on “Elephanta is Buddhist, see the elongated ear of Trimurthi. If it is Shiva, show me the snake!

  1. Good one, Vijay, and very comprehensive.. If anyone had any doubts, they should have been cleared by now….. But I wish we would pay more attention to the place and take better care of it than disputing about such things… While it was always crowded, elephanta is now almost a mess.. it is no longer a very enjoyable trip, and only makes me feel sad…

  2. thanks Anu. Real History must come out – thats our quest.

    On the current state of our heritage treasures, the less said the better.

    But then, we hope we can create awareness through our efforts and hopefully people will start realising the treasures that our land holds for them !


  3. முழுமையான தகவலை அறியாமல் தன் மனதில் தோன்றியதை வைத்து இணையத்தில் பதிவு செய்பவர்களுக்கு நல்ல பதிலடி. மேலும் உங்கள் இடுகையின் மூலம் பல வரலாற்று சின்னங்களையும், பழங்கால சிற்பங்களையும் காணவும் அதனுள் பொதிந்திருக்கும் பொருளை/கருத்தை அறியவும் ஆர்வம் கூடுகிறது. நன்றி.

  4. Best wishes and prayers for your efforts…. Informative post… Wish to see the place.. The sculptures looks aaaaawesome!!!….

  5. feels very sad to see the state of the sculptures now…. Wiki says that these caves were also painted when it was made.. guess it would have looked like heaven when it was fresh…

  6. thanks vardhini, the flip side to the internet.

    yes, sriram

    annapoorna – the ardhnari is possibly one of the very best i have seen

    btw, the logo of poetryinstone is a door guardian from there!!


  7. That taught me something. Never noticed that Shiva’s stretched earlobe could be empty of an earring. But looking at the Sadashva closely He seems to have earrings resting on His shoulders.
    I’d never heard that anyone thot it was once Buddhist! Fascinating!

  8. Yes VJ ardhanari super a erukaru… andhaka samharam, Gajasamharamurthy are also awesome… eppadi sir evalu azhagu… They must have had some efficient king who must have brought these ideas.. Must have been a great personality… Thank God our Rajarajan has left enough inscriptions to help us know him..

  9. dear Radhik – thanks

    @ Rathakrishnan – to clarify the objective of this post is not what you have inferred. it was purely an objective analysis of a sculpture. Quite often we tend to mix objectivity with beliefs. the conviction of our beliefs shouldn’t affect our reasoning. the core essence of all religions is life and love and in that is his greatness – whoever he is and in whatever form or formless that he is.


  10. VJ you assigned the Gupta/Chalukya period for the origin of Elephanta. You said it also contained Kartikeyas (which is significant). Like Pallavas had several images of Soma-skanda (indicating their knowledge of Murugan or Karthikeya and depicting him as a son of Shiva), their contemporaries, the Chalukyas are not known to have depicted Karthikeya in sculptures. (Do comment on this aspects). Yes, some north Indian kingdoms like the Chhedis or Chandelas and Rajasthani kingdoms have depicted both the Anantasyayi and Karthikeya (in addition to Siva and Ganesa).(Guptas have Varaha and Narasimha but no Anantasyayi). The Trimurti is believed to be a creation of the Vakatakas who were primarily Buddhists but were also secular to other faiths. Based on this I hesitate to assign Gupta/Chalukya origins to Elephanta in case all creations came from one or two sources only. You know in Ellora and other places, beautiful creations of Karthikeya primarily in the hilly belt of Maharashtra came from whom? It was the Rashtrakutas. What do you say?

  11. hi srini


    see note 13

    An enigmatic gold die-struck coin issued by Vikramaditya I (655-681 A.D) of the house of the western Chālukyas of Badmi (Karnataka) bears, on its reverse, the figure, of Kārttikeya.13 Here the deity is standing to left; his left hand hangs downwards while the right hand gently rests on the right hip. A peacock with its huge plumage is vaguely discernible between the legs of the deity. Near the deity are a snake with raised hood and a boar. One should remember that Kārttikeya is mentioned as the patron-deity ofthe Badmi Chālukyas in some of their copper plate grants.

    The above Chālukya coin portraying the war-god Kārttikeya was probably a ‘special issue’ minted to commemorate the ruler’s victory against the Pallavas of Kañci. Moreover, the coin which weighs around 120 grains is reported to be based on the weight standard of Kushan-early Gupta currencies. It is likely that the very concept of portraying Kārttikeya on coins was learnt by the Chālukyas from the Kushans and the Guptas. Incidentally, the term mayūra gadyāņa literally meaning ‘peacock gold coin’ occurs in inscriptions of a later date in Karnataka region.

  12. Vijay, thanx for the clarification. I was wrong about Karthikeya iconology (in sculptures) by the Guptas etc. Your reply is of course, adequately clarificatory, but I think we are not in the clear about one thing. I remarked about Chalukyas not depicting Karthikeya in their sculptures. If you leave aside the current topic on Elephanta where there are indeed Karthikeyas, have the Badami Chalukyas mainly, been known to have sculpted Karthikeya in stone? I have strong doubts. But do reply? Thank you again in advance.


  13. super…super ..and the discussions too..read it the first day it was posted and i thought i should wait for the interesting comments 🙂 On your way to becoming an ENT specialist too 😉

  14. Rhoda…noses yes for sure. Tongue hmm. Only ones that come to mind are the tongue of the mother cow in the mallai govardhana panel and the tongues of the snakes which muyalagan holds in nataraja bronzes


  15. wow …tongues of snakes which muylagan holds in nataraja holds….need to check it out. (i really think you have extra eyes)

    btw..ENT normally includes Ear, Nose & Throat…and now Tongue too in the sculpture dictionary of VJ 🙂

  16. he just didn’t want to see that Nag anywhere!
    For me the other greatest masterpiece here is the Andakasuramardana. So powerful!

  17. Dear Shrinivasan, There is an Aihole temple near the Ravalaphadi cave with Kartikeya flying high on the ceiling -HuchhimalliGudi. Send me your email address & i’ll get it to you. It’s among the earliest there.

  18. friends the shivlinga is nothing but stupa’s as buddha didnt wanted to be prayed in statue form.so monks built stupa’s as his symbol.later buddha’s statue came in existense.NOTE-please read the book in pdf format published by asi india-NALANDA,then a book of shri prabodhankar thakrey father of balasheb thakrey…u all will get urdesired answers…1 thing more next tym visit 2 caves dedicated to buddhism in east of elephanta.

  19. Dear Raj,

    Good wild assumptions. I do not see any weight in yours, however, if your works quoted are scholarly editions, please provide the links. Else kindly restrict comments to what is discussed in the post – you are free to disagree provided you have something to say in your defense.



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