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December 05, 1998

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In peril: Elephanta

Elephanta Caves Is there something in our collective psyche that impels us to degrade our environment -- whether it is natural or man-made? One would be tempted to arrive at this conclusion after witnessing the sheer neglect of an ancient site like Elephanta, which has given Mumbai its very iconic image, along with the Gateway of India.

In the contemporary urban consciousness, Elephanta is a monument which one visits in one's childhood, or when a foreign tourist has to be shown around. It is more associated with picnicking and the sheer relief of leaving the congested city by sea, than with a pilgrimage even of the secular or historical kind. After all, these rock-cut caves, carved in the 5th and 6th centuries, by craftsmen who must have commuted from Ellora, have stood witness to the cataclysmic changes that Mumbai has undergone -- from a motley clutch of fishing islands to what will in a decade become the world's second most populous city.

But urban society has been utterly dismissive of this heritage. It has left Elephanta -- or, more appropriately, Gharapuri, to revert to its pre-Portuguese name -- in the lurch, to fend for itself as best it can. One single statistic sums up all that has gone wrong at the site today. Some 900,000 people visit the island every year, but only 350,000 venture up to the caves. The rest simply use the site for a picnic, and pollute it with trash and noise.

With merry-making uppermost in the minds of the present-day yatris, it isn't surprising that the sanctity of the sculptures is given short shrift. The renowned British restorer, Sir Bernard Feilden, was so appalled by the pranks of trippers that he threatened to write to UNESCO, asking them to withdraw Elephanta from the list of World Heritage Sites. This aroused the ire of the venerable Archaeological Survey of India, which is in charge of protecting this monument along with some 5,000 others scattered throughout the country.

Elephanta Caves The ASI undeniably is handicapped by lack of funds and bureaucratic procedures -- the superintending archaeologist for Maharashtra is based in Aurangabad, because the most famous sites in the state are at Ajanta and Ellora. This has hampered its supervision of other rock-cut caves in and around Mumbai, like Elephanta, Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Mahakali and Mandapeshwar. All are victims of neglect, in one way or another. The problems are different at Elephanta because it is isolated and during the monsoon, out of bounds to visitors. Even if it is not threatened by the encroachment of slums or by conversion to functioning Hindu temples, as has happened at some other caves, it is still exposed to the depredations of visitors as well as the wear and tear caused by the elements.

At a recent workshop organised by the Mumbai chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage, attention was once again drawn to the need to bring the different players at such a site together. Following another seminar a year ago, an 18-member committee has been formed with state government representatives, those from the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, the forest department and so on to draw up co-ordinated plans for the site which take into account not only the preservation of the monument but equally important, the well-being of the islanders in whose hands, in effect, the security of the sculptures rests.

The island is very sparsely populated, with only 1,200 inhabitants, but since its main source of revenue is income from tourism, the fate of the caves is inextricably intertwined with the livelihoods of the islanders. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences has conducted a survey to find out how they can sustain themselves on the island. Two primary requirements are water and electricity, both of which are demanded by visitors as well.

The first need, as Dr M N Deshpande, a former director general of the ASI and an authority on rock-cut caves of the region, points out, is to protect the caves. INTACH has drawn up a site management plan which would take several protective measures and UNESCO has provided $ 25,000 to implement it. In the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Plan, 1996 to 2011, Elephanta is shown as a recreation and tourism zone! The authorities could consider charging higher fares on boats to deter picnickers and raise revenue for its conservation.

Environmentalists who have been protesting about various infrastructure and industrial projects in the vicinity of Mumbai's coastline have long pointed out that it is eminently feasible to divert picnickers to Nhava on the mainland across the harbour, where there is a lake, along with attractions like a maritime museum and a pier for boating. With some imagination, the tourism authorities could also develop parts of Uran and Sheva, also on the mainland, as coastal resorts.

As far as the rock itself is concerned, it should be protected from nature. Those who sculpted the caves may not have been aware that a coastal environment is quite different from the earlier excavations at Ajanta, Ellora and even Kanheri. The salt-laden wind, particularly during the monsoon, impacts the rock at high speeds and the salt forms crystals which find their way into tiny crevices. When these dry, they expand and causes fissures in the rock.

Mahabalipuram has been affected to a much larger extent for this very reason, as also the Sun Temple at Konarak. In somewhat similar fashion, marble and sandstone monuments like the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri are pitted by the hot winds from the desert which carry tiny particles. Paper pulp was used in the old days to rid the Elephanta caves of the salt deposits, but this has been discontinued. It would seem a cheap and labour-intensive method of preserving the caves.

A much more insidious threat, however, is from present-day environmental factors. Only a few years ago, blasting at the nearby new Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust at Nhava Sheva caused the collapse of a cave on the island. Its new Rs 17 billion marine chemical terminal, which has just received environmental clearance, may pose dangers too. Almost a third of he country's oil supplies are off-loaded from tankers at Butcher island, just 1.5 km from the caves, and oil spills are all too frequent.

As it is, slicks besiege the island and destroy the mangroves, which are the best natural protection against erosion and also provide fisherfolk with a livelihood. Indian and foreign oil tankers have been releasing their wash in the harbour with impunity and the Coast Guard should be far more vigilant about this. The Navy, which professes its concern about protecting the marine environment, ought to be pressed into service in conserving the coastline too.

Yet another hazard is from vibrations caused by aircraft flying overhead, which will be even more alarming if the third international airport is located at Mandwa, on the mainland.

Elephanta Caves As Dr Deshpande suggests, there ought to be a committee of scientists and other experts who can advise the ASI on the best ways of protecting this monument. As in all cases of preservation of ancient sites, whether it is Ajanta or the Taj, this calls for a marriage of many disciplines and no single institution -- certainly not the ASI -- possesses all of them. It involves chemistry, engineering, replanting of mangroves, among other things.

There is no need for any one agency to be overly sensitive regarding what it may see as an encroachment on its territory: the preservation of the country's archaeological heritage it too precious to be exposed to natural or man-made dangers. This expert body could work in tandem with the committee consisting of all the parties involved in the development of Elephanta, which has already been formed. With some assistance in funds and know-how from UNESCO, such intervention could well pave the way for the preservation of other monuments in the country.

Darryl D'Monte

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