Backpacking in India: Touring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Elephanta Island

Backpacking in India: Touring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Elephanta Island

Backpacking in India: Touring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Elephanta Island

In my first week in India, I left the mainland for a few hours by boat to visit the famous Elephanta Island. Not only is this a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, but the journey there and back is somewhat a bonus and a backpackers dream. Encore une fois.

Backpacking in India: Touring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Elephanta Island

Backpacking in India: Touring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Elephanta Island

As the Mumbai skyline rises into view on your return you can relax and admire a somewhat smoggy sky and some gaping grey skyscrapers. It just felt like my first trip to China. That smoggy air of uncertainly dwelling over an over worked city of mayhemic traffic. Amongst all this madness, an AFC Bournemouth shirted gentleman finds a way out of the chaos, but only just.

Backpacking in Mumbai - Taj Mahal Palace Hotel Palin-esque.

Backpacking in Mumbai – Taj Mahal Palace Hotel Palin-esque.

Booking a Ticket to Elephanta Island
After my night train from New Delhi to Mumbai, I was based in Mumbai city at the Travellers Inn and headed south to the famous India. India Gate is down by the harbour front and it was built by the British in the 1920s. Its distinctive gateway acts as an introduction to India for many, including Michael Palin in the 1980s documentary “Around the World in 80 Days”, he stayed at the TMP Hotel. So head down to India Gate and there are ticket booths.

Doing the Palin pilgrimage to the TMP Hotel.

Doing the Palin pilgrimage to the TMP Hotel.

It seems to be a generic tourist price of 180 Rupees for a return ticket to Elephanta Island and back. Some touts will come over and try to flog you tickets, ignore these tw*ts and book it in one of these two places:

1.The Official Ticket Booth just before the bag check to India Gate.
2.A man standing next to a boat at the back end of India Gate.

Generic ticket - 180 Rupees

Generic ticket – 180 Rupees

Generic ticket - 180 Rupees

Generic ticket – 180 Rupees

We booked our tickets direct from this guy, we trusted this more as the boat was behind them, and because Indians were also buying tickets from him. Don’t go through a tour operator – they will try to rip you off. Do everything yourself.

Boarding the boat to Elephanta Caves

Boarding the boat to Elephanta Caves

You get issued with a ticket for Elephanta Island and it’s a return ticket. They rip the first part off when you board in Mumbai, keep the rest of the ticket for the return journey. You board the boat and sit where you want – board the next boat leaving. The boats generally leave when full, running from around 9am to 4.30 pm each day. There are no night boats and the Elephanta Caves are not open at night.

Boarding for Elephanta Caves

Boarding for Elephanta Caves

Important – Closed on Mondays
It’s important to note that the Elephanta Caves are completely closed on Mondays, so factor this in – if you only have one day to see Mumbai (we had a hat-trick), then make sure it’s not a Monday.

Elephanta Caves - closed on Mondays

Elephanta Caves – closed on Mondays

The Journey to Elephanta Island
Onboard, the boat gets busy and strangely my friend Katia and I are the only two foreigners. Everyone else is Indian and there are a lot of families.

On board the boat to Elephanta Caves

On board the boat to Elephanta Caves

The journey is smooth and relaxing, the highlights are when we pass the fort and when a load of seagulls flock by next to the boat.

Birds go flying at the speed of sound to show you where it all began

Birds go flying at the speed of sound to show you where it all began

There is also a kiosk on the boat to buy food and drink.

Boat kiosk

Boat kiosk

The trip to Elephanta Island

The trip to Elephanta Island

The trip to Elephanta Island

The trip to Elephanta Island

Things to See and Do at Elephanta Island
Once you get on the island, you will see the huge welcome sign, behind which, there is a mini train that takes you to the front entrance to the Caves.

Arrival at Elephanta Island

Arrival at Elephanta Island

The train

The train

On the train

On the train

From here, you walk up some steps to the top, through a market.

The market area at Elephanta Caves

The market area at Elephanta Caves

There are plenty of souvenir stalls here as well as food stalls and a few restaurants. One of them even serves beer. We didn’t go into any of them, but I did pick up a souvenir fridge magnet.

On top of the 180 Rupees return boat fee, there are two more payments needed, and both issue you with a ticket.

Ticket for Elephanta Caves

Ticket for Elephanta Caves

The first is an odd 5 Rupee entrance fee gate. I am not sure why there is a fee for this, but 5 Rupees is about 5 pence and you get a ticket so it’s all official.

The 5 Rupee charge

The 5 Rupee charge

At the next entrance gate at the very top of the steps, foreigners have to pay 250 Rupees to enter. It’s a lot cheaper for Indians of course. I joked with the guy that I was Indian, but when he’s looking at you and you are white, you are unlikely to get it for the Indian rate! So I paid 250 Rupees, again you get a ticket and in you go.

Inside the main cave

Inside the main cave

The main cave

The main cave

The main cave is the most important thing to see here and it’s on the right. Head inside and prepare to be overwhelmed by the sculptures. Carved into stone in this cave are many sculptures of Hindu rulers.

Carved sculptures

Carved sculptures

The rock cut architecture of the caves dates back to between the 5th and 8th centuries, although the identity of the original builders is still a subject of debate. The caves are made from solid basalt rock. All the caves were also originally painted in colour in the past, but now only traces remain.

Carved sculptures

Carved sculptures

The main cave (Cave 1, or the Great Cave) was a Hindu place of worship until Portuguese rule began in 1534, after which the caves suffered severe damage. This cave was renovated in the 1970s after years of neglect, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to preserve the artwork. Now it’s open 6 days a week to tourists.

Inside the main cave

Inside the main cave

Aside from this there are viewpoints into a Forest, a village on the island and another cave round the corner. It reminded me a bit of my Cave tour in Israel, the Batu Caves in Malaysia, the caves in rural Belize, the Jenolan Caves in Australia and that crazy mining tour in Bolivia’s Potosi.

Touring one of the other caves

Touring one of the other caves

A shrine in one of the other caves

A shrine in one of the other caves

Monkeys at Elephanta Caves

Monkeys at Elephanta Caves

Hills and views at Elephanta Caves

Hills and views at Elephanta Caves

Why the Name Elephanta Island and Elephanta Caves?

It came as no surprise that the name comes from an Elephant. But apparently it was the Portuguese that gave this name in the 16th century. They came here and saw a sculpture of an elephant and they stole it. They dropped it into the sea in the end and the British nicked it and it is now inside the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England!

Fridge magnets at Elephanta Caves

Fridge magnets at Elephanta Caves

Warning – Beware of Monkeys
Please do not buy any food here or carry it around. I only had my bottle of water with me and concealed food inside my backpack (consumed it on the boat). There are some vicious angry monkeys around and they won’t hesitate to bite you (rabies risk) or steal your food and drink.

A monkey at Elephanta Caves

A monkey at Elephanta Caves

Please do take the monkeys seriously – a backpacking buddy of mine, Ilona was bitten by a monkey in India and has been taking rabies injections every few days. I also met an Israeli girl who suffered the same fate so please beware!

Another monkey at Elephanta Caves

Another monkey at Elephanta Caves

Return to Mumbai and Gateway to India
It might sound ridiculous to all of you but my highlight was the journey back to Mumbai as this is where the magic of Michael Palin came into my mind. It was here at this harbour that Palin sailed into as part of his “80 Days Around the World” tour in 1988. And there I was sailing into Mumbai harbour for sunset, with the Gateway to India in behind and Palin’s “Taj Mahal Palace Hotel”. Brilliant end to an excellent trip!

More gulls on the way back.

More gulls on the way back.

Copying Palin's arrival into Mumbai

Copying Palin’s arrival into Mumbai

Coming into Mumbai

Coming into Mumbai

Inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Here are some videos from my trip to Elephanta Island near Mumbai:

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