Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Elephanta rocks

It's at least a decade and probably more since I last visited the island of Elephanta off the coast of Bombay. Or rather, that statement was true until last Sunday when I visited again with a friend. A decade is a good period to compare things - had the island changed, had India changed, had I changed??

The answer to these questions is, in order: Yes, Yes, Yes. Changes all round resulted in my having a great time and also the occasion to muse about life.

Previously, the excursion to Elephanta involved dealing with (i) a huge mess at the Gateway of India, (ii) a wait of upto an hour for the boat, (iii) a trip on a noisy and overcrowded motor launch, (iv) touts and garbage at the other end. All this was worth it just to see a few caves with incredible late-Gupta/Silhara/Rashtrakuta period sculptures dating from the 7th to the 13th century, even if most were damaged from age and neglect and Portuguese rifle practice.

The Wikipedia entry on the caves still disapprovingly says: "The threats to Elephanta Caves include development pressures (mainly due to its location within the Mumbai harbor), unsustainable tourism and tourist facilities on the island, and poor management of the heritage monument."

So here's the surprise. Everything is better. The chaos at the Gateway resolved itself into a few ticket windows without much of a queue, quickly resulting in a pair of return tickets at Rs 120 each. The boat left instantly after we boarded it. On the upper deck (well they did charge us Rs 10 on the boat, probably illegally, to go upstairs), the plastic bucket seats were comfortable if not luxurious, there were just a dozen or so passengers and - remarkably - it was quite silent up there. Add to this the pleasant weather with a fresh breeze mitigating the bright sunshine even at noon, and the outbound trip was just heavenly.

That the boat should have improved over ten years isn't a great surprise. What is, is that the management of this public monument as well as crowd behaviour seemed to have improved considerably. Elephanta was virtually spotless. Yes I did see a few tourists jettison plastic bottles and used tickets, but they were in the minority. There were NO TOUTS, all trade having been organised into peacefully seated shopkeepers selling handicrafts, bottled water and freshly made (though overly salty) vada-paav. Not one person intruded themselves into my path with the catch-all greeting "YES???" with which Indian traders think they are going to attract tourists, something that happens to me all the time in Colaba where I live.

At the monuments, security was conscientious but not officious. Photography was allowed (the advent of mobile camera-phones means the old practice of charging for still photography is impractical and has wisely been abandoned). Security staff were friendly and intervened only when people actually tried to sit on the priceless sculptures (yes of course they did, this is still India for all the positive changes!!).

And what amazing sculptures they are - the famous Trimurti Sadasiva, the Ardhanariswara and the hulking though mostly damaged doorkeepers ("Dwarapalas") around the main Shivlinga.

But for me the most pleasant surprise was the crowd, largely made up of groups of Indian friends and families, both urban and rural though mostly the latter. They were not obtrusive, not aggressive (and not spitting!!!), taking photos, eating elaborate picnic meals in the designated picnic area, laughing a lot and generally having a wonderful time. There were also many foreign tourists, without the beleaguered look they normally wear in Colaba, relaxed and enjoying the weather and the history.

I close this review with a mention of the spotlessly clean - and free - public toilets. This isn't the India I grew up in. Thankfully.