the-south-asian.com August 2004
Culture & History
SAVE THE CAVES
Hectic activity is afoot to save the Elephanta Caves from degradation and vandalism. Conservationists feel it will be a while before this World Heritage site is restored to its sixth century glory.
One thousand and five hundred years ago when craftsmen began cutting rocks and sculpting them into magnificent statues of Gods, little did they realize that in the second millennium the Elephanta Caves would not just be a major tourist attraction but would also be a World Heritage Site. The world's oldest island caves are now getting a new lease on life. The India National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has teamed up with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to spruce up the caves and protect them from further decay and degeneration.
Elephanta Caves date back to the sixth century AD and boast of some of India's most magnificent rock-cut sculptures of Lord Shiva. Situated 11 kilometers from Mumbai’s Gateway of India, these caves are reached by small boats. Once on the island, visitors have to climb over 1,000 stone steps to get to the caves.
The caves were originally built during the reign of the Rashtraputa kings. They contain huge images of Brahma, Parvati, Natraja and Shiva. The best and most famous of these is 'Maheshmurti' - a three headed bust of Shiva which is about six metres high.
The great elephant structure in black stone, which gave the island its name, was removed in 1864 by the British to take it to England. However, it was later returned to India and now stands at the Victoria Gardens, a park with a small zoo in Mumbai. On top of the caves are two huge canons installed by the British to protect the Bombay harbour.
There are nine carvings in the main cave that depict the life of Lord Shiva in different manifestations -the dancer (Natraja), Shiva killing a demon Andhaka, marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Shiva's descent to the Ganges, Shiva as Ardhnarinateshwar, Shiva as Maheshmurti, Shiva lifting Mount Kailash, Goddess Parvati on Mount Kailash and Shiva as an ascetic.
Back in the mid-80s a team of leading international archaeologists, conservators and historians visited the site and forwarded a proposal to UNESCO to grant heritage status to the caves. The proposal was accepted in 1987 and Elephanta Caves were declared a World Heritage Site.
Vandalism & Dilapidation
Till the time the caves were granted heritage status hardly any efforts had been initiated to preserve them from dilapidation and save them from vandals.
Approximately 2,000,000 people visit the caves annually from all over the world to marvel at the fifteen hundred years old master craftsmanship. However, many visitors also bring plastic bags full of food, garbage, and vandalism.
Over the years it had become common sight to see picnickers littering the surroundings with leftover food packets and disposable water bottles. Many tourists would even perch atop the magnificent Maheshmurti for photos thus weakening its precious foundation.
After declaring the caves a World Heritage Site, UNESCO granted
$100,000 to document the history and draw up a site plan of the caves. A part of the grant was to go towards conservation of the caves.
The entire work of documentation was handed over to INTACH, as it had been carrying out extensive studies of the caves. It was also asked to design a visitor management plan and suggest restoration process of the caves.
"Earlier nothing was being done to save the site from devastation. Once we were retained by UNESCO we began pooling in our expertise to do something urgently," says an INTACH source.
In a bid to educate tourists, INTACH has started organising workshops and meetings involving local people. The idea behind this is to correct the problem from its root as the local population earns a livelihood mainly by servicing tourists.
Simultaneously, an effort is underway to bring the Elephanta Caves into global focus. For this, INTACH has collaborated with the ASI and UNESCO and is holding extensive seminars and organizing workshops across the country.
It is also trying to engage agencies involved with Elephanta Caves' development, such as the departments of culture, environment, tourism, water resources and the local municipal corporation.
In a joint effort, a comprehensive site plan has been drawn up which gives a brief history of each sculpture constructed inside the caves and a book has been published jointly by UNESCO, INTACH and the Government of India, considered now as the only authentic source of information on the caves.
The most important part of the effort is to clean up the surroundings of the heritage site. There is an ancient site adjacent to the gate which houses some of the best frescoes and showcases the art of carving out statues by cutting rock. Shockingly this site, till some years ago, was used as a lavatory by tourists and picnickers. Though the ASI made some efforts to clean it up but to no avail. When INTACH got involved in the project, the first thing it did was to seal the site.
Initially there were widespread protests against the sealing and locals even tried to force their way in but they were driven out with the help of the police. Later the municipal corporation constructed an alternative lavatory saving the site from further ignominy.
The next phase was to clean up the littered surroundings and also discourage visitors from carrying eatables and plastic bags inside the caves. This too was criticized but gradually people were educated on the historic and religious importance of the caves and the incidence of littering has considerably reduced.
To protect the caves from vandalism, security personnel have been deployed. "This has helped authorities to implement regulations stringently," says an INTACH volunteer.
But despite all the efforts a lot more remains to be done. The mangroves on the Island's shore are severely affected by pollution from the Mumbai harbour. One mangrove species has already been lost and there is urgent need to rehabilitate the rest.
Elephanta Caves have for years been threatened by the rapid industrial development in their vicinity. A toxic chemical storage terminal has been planned just 400 metres away. Bilge from oil tankers, waste from ship-breaking activities and plastic dumped in the sea, have seriously threatened marine and bird life of the area.
According to conservationists the bottom line is that Elephanta Caves will survive only if the local community is involved. INTACH is working with some local NGOs to provide loans and business opportunities to local youth. It plans to involve more NGOs to create income-generating avenues for women.
Though all these efforts are commendable, a lot more needs to be done to save the only island caves of the world from further degradation and vandalism. And that can be achieved only when the government steps in to preserve some of the most beautiful rock-cut statues from an era long gone back in history.
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