It’s interesting how karma works. I came to India for many reasons. I had just finished a big project and felt empty inside, not empty as in “soulless,” but depleted. I had given my all to my fable, down to the very last word, and it was time to move on, to explore different shores. What better place to feed the imagination than India?
Which brings us to Elephanta Island.
One sticky morning Denise and I passed the Gate of India in Mumbai and clambered aboard a two-story ferry, along with any number of natives and tourists. We sat in the center of the lower deck to avoid the sun. Excellent ride. Saw an aircraft carrier parked off the coast, oil rigs that stretched a quarter mile, cargo ships piled high with containers, rusting tankers dead in the water and billionaire pleasure craft. Opposite us sat a family on holiday from Delhi as well as a heavy-set, unshaven man in a tee shirt and his pretty young wife. A black robe graced her slim figure and a starry veil framed her exotic face, a face worthy of a poem in Sanskrit. Halfway to our destination, she put down her smart phone, rose from the bench and grabbed the pole near the bow, where she stood facing the breeze. Winslow Homer could have done wonders with that flow of black, set against the green sea.
The hour passed quickly. Denise and I hopped onto the dock, choosing to walk rather than ride the little choo choo ashore. Respecting the heat, we took the 1,000 ancient steps slowly, passing hawkers lining the edge and small monkeys scurrying among the palm, mango and tamarind trees. Our destination? The ancient caves dedicated to Lord Shiva, the androgynous, multi-limbed god of destruction.
At one time, a colossal elephant guarded the entrance, a basalt monolith, which led to the Portuguese name for the island. In ancient literature, the island was known, according to the guidebook (Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, Mumbai), as “Gharapuri.” The first component denotes the “Gharis,” the sudra priest of the temple. Sudra is a lower caste of laborers and artisans. “Puri” means town, thus Gharapuri, the town of “Ghari-Priests.” Their legacy is something to behold.
The main cave is a wonder in engineering and persistence. Fifteen-hundred years ago, around 600 A.D., these priestly artisans dedicated themselves to carving into the thick basalt, from top down, layer by layer, year by year, decade after decade.
How glorious it must have been to see those massive pillars and the shapes of Shiva appear beneath their tools. Past the entrance, we admired a sculptured panel of Shiva as Lord of Yogis, perfectly at peace on a lotus. Shiva challenged this westerner’s imagination. I wanted to know more.
Karma, or blind luck, led us to Ramanand, a government-sponsored guide in a white lungi and a purple shirt rolled at the sleeves. A slight man with a long white beard, he had a twinkle in his eye and a soft voice. The man could have been 50 or 80. Along with another couple, he led us to the east court, to Shiva’s shrine. He asked us to please remove our shoes, and we entered the dark chamber, which offered a respite from the heat. I caught a flicker of gold on the statue but could not make out the details of this Shiva. Silence descended. I heard water dripping. “Close your eyes,” Ramanand said. “Open your hands. . . Ahhhh . . . Ohmmmm!” His voice filled the chamber, singing an ancient prayer that ended with the sweetest of chants: “Shanti . . . shanti . . . shanti. . . .”
I did not want to leave right away. I wanted to absorb what I had experienced. In the sunlight he asked what we had felt.
“A centering, a sense of flow,” I replied.
“Peace,” said Denise.
“Are you a mystic?” asked the young woman.
“I’m on my way,” he replied with a smile.
Ramanand showed us Shiva the dancer, “the one who creates energy.” The flow of arms and legs, the sense of joy on the face, even if she happened to be squashing some form of life beneath her foot. It was all part of the dance. We also met Shiva the aggressor, Shiva the sexual, and Shiva the enlightened. The cobra rises in rebirth. Demons of distraction swirl. Shiva pays them no mind. Before the north wall, she towers over the tourists, a rather sizable breast on her right side, a warrior’s chest on his left. Confusing, but wonderful.