The Limbs of Shiva — Elephanta Island

26 February 2007

I was told that it wasn’t safe to drink coca-cola because the monkeys would swoop down and snatch it out of my hand. I chucked my can in the bin, and followed my guide in the Elephanta caves.

I had spent an hour on the boat, feeling the cool breeze against my forehead, and looking at the blue sea ripple. As the boat bobbed away from the great colonial arch of the Gate of India and Mumbai receded, it felt like the whole city was floating on the waves, that it had risen out of the blueness, a brief shimmering vision of power stations, tower blocks, shacks, beaches and islands in the fierce sunlight and smog. Phew! I was free! My ears weren’t hurting from all the honking, screeching cars, my pockets weren’t being felt by five-year-old beggars, my shirt wasn’t soaked in anxiety.

Once I disembarked, a friendly teenager started to tag along with me, telling me that for three hundred rupees, about two pounds fifty, he would take me around the caves. I accepted and together we walked up the hundreds of steps to the caves. They were over a thousand years old and had been built to celebrate the Hindu God of Shiva, his wife and his friends such as the good-luck elephant-headed god, Ganeesh. My guide explained many of the stories connected with Shiva and told me that the Portuguese had colonised the island before the British a few hundred years ago and had used the caves as target practice, shooting off the limbs. This was definitely a desecration because it felt as if I was staring at smudged and ripped photos.

The guide explained that he had grown up in a neighbouring village and had stopped going to school when he was eleven. He had not been taught English but had learnt it from speaking to tourists. He showed me his village proudly and said that he stayed on this tiny island all week except on Mondays when the caves were shut to the public, when he went with the other locals to Mumbai by boat to buy food and provisions.

He looked ruefully across the bay at another island where there was a nuclear power station built in the shape of Shiva’s holy symbol of the ‘lingam’ — a holy representation of the phallus. I wondered if this was deliberate but he didn’t know. We’d seen a number of lingams in the caves but the one across the bay was much bigger and felt like an ambivalent symbol: a reminder of both the ancient and modern.

I caught the last boat back to Mumbai and wandered around the streets with a screaming headache brought on by the heat I think. Nevertheless, I quite liked ambling around the streets, smelling the chapattis and other delicacies sizzling in the street stalls, absorbing the whiff of engine oil, smoke, and latrines. Around the back of Khala Ghoda, the museum district of Mumbai, I found loads of workshops. I realised that I could have brought all my broken electronic gadgets here and someone would have fixed them. This country was the ultimate place for re-cycling. I liked the fact that the streets felt safe and that once away from the really touristy areas I wasn’t assailed by beggars. I began to realise that the beggars in the Colabra market, where all the western shops, stalls and cafes are, were specifically targeting that area. They clearly were in total distress but there was also something theatrical about their performance I saw now: it was very much a rehearsed cry from the heart and the stomach in much the same way some women go begging in the Tube in London with their babies. The difference was though that there was proper help in London but probably not much in Mumbai.

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