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 !!

Door Guardians – part 1, Elephanta

I had been wanting to run a series on Door guardians for some time. We have already seen a few like the massive ones in Tanjore Big temple, the mace carriers in Mangadapattu – these lovely sculptures in their myriad forms are a delight to watch, sadly not many people even spend a second looking at them – to marvel at the detailing of their costumes, assortment of weapons and fangs and their facial expressions. Will start to showcase them one by one from now on.

I am choosing this particular one to start the series formally – ones of my favorite sculptures and is part of our site’s logo. Also mumbai has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently and the scene of that mindless violence is near to our subject today.

The door guardian from Elephanta.

Why i chose this sculpture as the logo for this site, is the message this work in stone conveys. Having stood the test of time, sculpted to protect its master from peril, this particular door guardian is badly mutilated, he has lost all his limbs and the bare torso remains. After a 1000 years of dutifully discharging his role the door guardian met his match – with the Portuguese in the 17th C. What it takes in a man however barbaric to use such an immaculate sculpture for target practise for their rifles defies my mind. Even the hardest hearted men, would stop to appreciate the artistic beauty of these creations. The guardian was more a symbolic protector, sculpted to reign in the mind, to create a sense of awe amongst the visitor, to channel his mind to the main deity, to ensure that he rid himself of all other thoughts and focus purely on the God. The rough stone worked on by the skilled craftsmen, toiling long hours to shape these marvels in stone – were no match for the Portuguese guns – is it the punishment for the door guardian to be so left – maimed and to suffer this fate for failing in his duty?

No, one look at his proud face, tells you that he is indeed the victor. The radiance emanating from his calm face, if anything has multiplied by the disfigurement. Truly the triumph of art, its universal appeal and lasting quality – sheer poetry in stone. Hence he finds his pride of place as an apt carrier for our site’s logo.

To give you an idea of his location, here are more pictures – next time you go to Mumbai please do not miss to take the boat to Elephanta and see him.


Now to give you a sense of scale of this creation, i am posting this picture – these are the same scale as our man, but are on the adjacent side of the same wall.

The delicate coils of snake, in stone

We had earlier seen the dance of shiva in many forms and how the cobra is unsettled by the speed of his twirling dance…here you see a different pose… 719 Elephanta Nataraja…the snake has thrown in coils around shiva’s spear and is trying to cross over to his neck…what a wonderful depiction ….mimicking how a snake would swing from one branch to another…( you can see the Lord of creation …the four headed Brahma…just above the snake seated on a lotus pedestal) 722729 What graceful postures of shiva…despite all the ruins and amputation…the grace and calmness in his face is radiant…his many arms kind of portray his fast dance moves….his body twisted in the classic tribanga ….three flexions across the axis so masterly used by the sculptor… 727 sadly these amazing sculptures were not understood or seen in the right perspective and used for target practise by invading Portuguese… 725731