Thursday, March 27, 2008

Elephanta Island

Today, we go to Elephanta Island. We have to cross Mumbai, to the south of the city, just a few kilometres away. It takes us two and a half hours. Diana says, you could have travelled from Middlesbrough to Liverpool in less time, but that’s Mumbai for you. The traffic’s in no more of a hurry than the pedestrians, weaving between the seething taxis.
We see a bullock-cart, parked up at the side of the road. The bullocks stand, still as stone, while their owners sell melons out of the cart at the back. Behind them, seven streams of traffic jostle on a four-lane road, beeping and pushing in. If you hesitate for a nanosecond, with a yard of road in front of the nose of your car, three tuk-tuks slip in. There’s an art to Mumbai driving, but you need Grade 8 Karma Proficiency, as well as a driving permit, in order not to die of apoplectic frustration, every time you want to go anywhere.
Elephanta Island’s a popular destination for locals, as well as tourists. Ferries leave every half hour, from the Gateway of India. 120 rupees, return. The sea slaps against the harbour wall, making climbing onto the heaving boat slightly interesting, but none of us contrives to disappear down the gap, to the disappointment of the gang of boys, porpoising around in the muddy water. After an hour in an open boat, some of us look like Medusa, and our skin’s tight with salt. On the island, a persistent guide hounds us, along the whole of the kilometre-long pier, to no avail. We’re accosted by wizened ladies with very dark skin and not much going on dentally, who offer to pose for us, balancing piles of stainless steel pots, taller than themselves, on their heads. Smile, please.
We have thali for lunch, in a bold manoeuvre. The floor show arrives in the form of a cow, putting its face in at the door. It doesn’t happen in Stokesley.
After lunch, and the culture shock of the “rest-rooms,” we set off in search of temples. Elephanta Island’s famous for its caves, carved out of the rock. Contrary to what you might suppose, no elephants. The island was named hundreds of years ago, after a great carving of an elephant at the entrance to the caves. The Portuguese tried to make off with it, but dropped it in the sea. Serves them right. Our hopes of pachyderms rest in Jaipur, so today, we satisfy our fauna requirements with the monkeys, which line the path to the caves, sitting on the walls, scavenging discarded corn-cobs and sweet wrappers.
At the foot of the steps, we’re offered a lift. Ordinary kitchen chairs, lashed to great bamboo rods, and two scrawny porters. The stone steps are uneven in depth and spacing, one hundred and fifty of them. It’s punishingly hot. We’re torn, as always, reluctant to deprive the porters of a living, but not wanting to play the rich exploitative westerners, either. We decline, and run the gauntlet of the tourist stalls on foot. We can understand the carved elephants and alabaster coasters featuring Ganesh and his chums, but are utterly baffled by the Eiffel Tower key-rings nestling next to them. Tourists are universal, and so’s the tat, I suppose.
Entrance to the caves costs 250 rupees for visitors. For Indian nationals, the price is 5 rupees. After a two and a half hour drive, an hour in a boat, a sweltering walk along the prom and then 150 steps to climb, we’re not about to quibble over the inequality of a 5000% mark-up, so we pay up gladly, and it’s worth it. The caves are amazing. As well as being a national monument and a favourite Indian picnic zone, the temples are in active use. We don’t realise until we see one of the official guides, slipping his shoes back on at the doorway. Inside, there’s a dome-shaped stone, looped in a circlet of orange flowers, incense burning on the ledge.
In the main cave, the massive three-faced statue of Shiva is magnificent, as they said it would be. The central image is supposed to be the most serene face in India, although Andrew says, it’s a pity he closed his eyes just as Diana clicks the shutter.
We sit on the wall, in the amphitheatre outside the temple, waiting for the drifting black kites to come near enough to photograph. We wait. And wait. Diana dismantles and stashes away her Bollywood-sized camera, and says, “Camera packed. Cue kites.” Sure enough, six of them wheel into view over the edge of the cliff, cavorting and diving. We can almost hear them laughing.