A Small Piece of Land – Away into the Seas

By Aishwarya Devasthali, Project Research Associate, Maritime History Society 

Maritime History Society takes dives deep into the ocean of knowledge to know more about India’s rich maritime past and to awaken heritage consciousness amongst Indians. Today, when the whole world is relentlessly fighting the pandemic, there are some islands isolated from the mainstream societies, yet deeply affected due to the virus.  

Small islands around the world are rich in remarkable landscapes. They offer an opportunity to trace a strong link between nature and civilisations. These are the sensitive territories which at times are very vulnerable to environmental changes. They face many issues related to sustainability, water, energy and waste management. Often, heritage conservation and tourism practices conflict with their natural and cultural identities. Thus, heritage management and conservation of monuments on the islands become matters of concern for these islands. 

‘Elephanta Caves’, a coveted World Heritage Site, is situated in Gharapuri village in Uran Taluka of Raigad District. Gharapuri Island is a popular tourist destination because of the island’s cave temples that have been carved out of rock. It has a coastline of approximately 7 kms. These caves derive their name from a colossal statue of an elephant found by the Portuguese in the 15th century CE. Different dynasties held their sway over this island. Elephanta caves are known for their exceptional sculptural wealth and represent the mature phase of the rock-cut architecture. There is a total of seven caves, of which five are on the eastern hill, and two on the western. The interior of the main cave is relieved with a series of sculptured panels carved into the walls of the caves. The colossal image of Sadashiva is acclaimed to be the finest sculpture signifying the three different aspects of the Supreme – the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. Besides the caves, one can see the remains of a stupa on the eastern hill, a water cistern to the west of the main cave, and the cannons from the Portuguese times on the western hill. All these factors make the land famous as a tourist destination.

Nearly 850 people reside in the 275 houses located on the three villages of the island. On normal days, hundreds of tourists visit the cave temples on the island, but ever since the lockdown came into force, things have changed making the lives of locals miserable. Due to the lockdown, tourism activities have come to a halt at the island and this may probably go on for the next few months. Earlier, most of the island residents used to run small snack shops, restaurants and fruit juice centres, while some used to work as tourist guides for survival. But due to the lockdown, all of them are forced to be at home as they wait for the normal day-to-day life to resume. Even if the boat services resume giving a fight to the virus, the monsoon months from June to September will not witness any tourism. The people on the island will remain jobless for at least next six-seven months facing challenges for subsistence. The Novel Coronavirus has shown a serious need for looking into the medical needs of this island monument. It has also exposed the lack of proper transportation, medical and other such infrastructural facilities on the island.

The architectural and sculptural masterpiece of Elephanta is best known worldwide, and is included under Aadarsh Monument scheme by the Archaeological Survey of India. Under this scheme, the Government of India gives special attention towards it in order to enhance international tourism. This island monument, located 20 km away from the mainland, should be entitled to a differently designed scheme that pays attention to its coastal environment and the needs of the locals and the visitors. After all, this is our heritage!

Photo credits: Aishwarya Devasthali

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