Thursday, January 6, 2011

Elaphanta Caves and Gateway to India

From January 1-15, I am in Mumbai, India participating in a winter institute on sustainable urban development. My group from the Washington University Brown School of Social Work has partnered with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in an effort to create intellectual and cross-cultural learning. The institute focuses on four thematic areas: access to water, solid waste management, financial inclusion, and adequate housing. We are using “group model building” and system dynamics to work directly with the Mumbai slum communities to uncover the root causes to their most pressing problems. I strongly believe this type of work should serve as the cornerstone of our collective efforts to create a sustainable society.
On Sunday, I visited Elephanta Caves with my new social work friends Jackie and Colleen.  The Elephanta Caves feature ancient Hindu sculptures, which are estimated to have been carved around 600 A.D.   The caves are one of the main tourist attractions of Mumbai, and daily draw many thousands of Indians and a lesser (but still large) number of foreign visitors.  The caves are located on Elephanta Island, which is about an hour ferry ride from the Gateway to India at the southern tip of Mumbai.

Once arriving at Elephanta, we encountered a large assortment of small vendors selling Indian food, sweets, carvings, figurines, jewelry, clothing, embroidered tapestries, and other tourist goods.  The vendors all knew basic English, and were skilled in the art of negotiating.  We bartered over spiced corn on the cob, elephant figurines, and mineral necklaces, and succeeded at least in getting a substantially reduced price compared to the initial ask.  Several times I walked away from a booth, only to have the vendor follow me and ask me to “name my own price,” which led to a new round of haggling.  Even with this effort, I suspect that we still paid a much higher price for the souvenirs than many native Indians.

Interestingly, all of the booths had nearly the same exact items for sale.  While I was awed by the apparent craftsmanship and originality of the Hindu god figurines in the first few shops, the various stores apparently purchase all of their items from the same source, as identical figurines appeared again and again as we continued shopping.  It seems that in India follows the same rules as everywhere else I have visited: tourists gobble up cheap, mass produced souvenirs.

Here is a picture showing one vendor’s supply of figurines:

After passing through the maze of vendors, we finally reached the actual caves of Elephanta.  They are absolutely breath-taking, with massive sculptures of Hindu gods.  The ancient carvings are badly damaged, with many missing arms and many artistic details.  However, the sheer size and majesty of the sculptures are still awe-inspiriting.  The artwork easily towers to 20 feet, and there are fourteen distinct scenes present in the caves.

Hindu mythology revolves around the trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer).  At Elephanta, Shiva is most prominently featured, as he is seen as the most powerful god all.  Various manifestations of Shiva show him through dichotomies, both male and female, creator and destroyer, somber and joyous.   Above all, Shiva unifies the universe, and through his divine power allowed water and life to exist on Earth.

Below is a picture of Shiva, dancing beside his bride to be Parvati:

Another entertaining dimension of Elephanta was the monkeys. Due to constant exposure to human visitors, the monkeys are completely comfortable with tourists.  In fact, the monkeys have lost all fear of humans, and appear to be almost entirely dependent on visitors for food.  I observed an Indian man trying to scare a monkey away from his lunch.  But instead of retreating, the monkey stood his ground and hissed, scaring the man and his family and leading to a large amount of food for the bold primate. The monkeys have also learned the ways of their human visitors, and can open plastic water bottles or take pictures with cameras stolen from tourists.

Interestingly, stray dogs are also present on Elephanta Island and in Mumbai in large numbers.  However, the dogs are much more passive and docile than the monkeys.  In fact, I have rarely even heard a dog bark when passing them in the street, and have not yet witness any sign of aggression by Mumbai canines.

After spending several hours on Elephanta Island, we took the ferry back to Mumbai.  Mumbai’s air pollution was extremely evident as we sailed through the bay; I could barely make out the skyline only a few miles away due to heavy smog.  The pollution was so bad that I began to feel my eyes stnging during the journey.  This intense air pollution is due mainly to extremely rapid industrialization and development, as well as a lack of enforced air pollution standards for the city.

We finished our day of sight-seeing where we began: the Gateway to India.  This monument was orginally built to commemorate a visit by King George VI in 1911 to Britain’s then colony.  After India won its independence, the gateway served as a ceremonial role for the departure of the British.  As the last of the British colonial rulers departed through the archway, India was formally independent and theoretically free to chart its own destiny.  The Gateway to India is now a major tourist attraction, and is located in the nicest (and wealthiest) area of the city.

Below is a picture of the Gateway to India, with the accompanying crowds:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is really interesting. It sounds similar to China with all of the street vendor bartering (and following you...), the smog, and lots of people.

    What you have said about the slums and people who pick through the trash to find recyclables also sounds a lot like my experience in Costa Rica in the Nicaraguan village and other areas. In Mexico and Costa Rica they go by the name "basurero". There are also many stray dogs in the streets in Mexico and Costa Rica.

    It's so neat that instead of just visiting as a tourist who isn't doing much you're actually able to get involved in creating change by working with the people there. Next time I travel I hope to do more of that instead of just observing.

    I have to get going now, but I'm really looking forward to talking with you more.