Sacred Stones and A New Home


This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, November 09, 2004 was originally posted on November 16, 2004.

DAY 388:  Within the confines of Mumbai Harbor is an island known as Elephanta Island, named by the Portuguese when they “discovered” it and found a big elephant statue on it.  Elephanta Island, regardless of its lack of actual live elephants, is a popular day trip from the Gateway of India, as it is just one-hour away via one of the ferries that leave every half an hour.

Elephanta Island, originally known as Gharapuri, is known for its UNESCO World Heritage ancient caves dating back to the 5th-7th century A.D., filled with statues of Hindu god Lord Shiva in his many incarnations.  It is also known for its Shiva lingas, sacred stones in Hindu lore that provide prosperity and fertility to those who believe in it.  Fans of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (of which I am an avid one of, if you haven’t figured that out already) undoubtedly recognize the term “Shiva linga” as it was this type of stone the famed fictitious archaeologist had to rescue for a small village that had lost its prosperity when “[the Thugi] came from palace and took Shiva linga.”  (Furthermore, “Shankara” is simply another alias of “Shiva,” although if you ever asked me “What is Shankara?” I’d answer, “Fortune and glory, kid.  Fortune and glory.”)

AFTER THE ONE-HOUR CRUISE, I landed on the dock off the shore of Elephanta Island and took a tramcar train to the fishing village nearby.  Most of the village was away off the trail that led up to the park entry gate, with table vendors and little food stands along the way catering to the foreign and Indian tourists from the mainland.  A tout boy tried to convince me to buy a mini guidebook for the caves because “There is no guide,” but I knew better after chatting with a private guide on the boat who told me admission included a free government-approved guide.

My tour group of the historical site consisted of just two others, Ian and Mary from Scotland on their second trip through India (you can’t see it all in one shot), and our trusty tour guide Veer, a tall middle-aged Indian man with a receding hairline.  He brought us around the main cave, a huge carved out hall supported by stone pillars.  All around the walls were carved out stone reliefs of the many faces of Lord Shiva & Co. 

“[The Portuguese] must have been amazed when they found this,” Mary commented.

“No, the Portuguese have no brains,” Veer answered.  “It was the British that saved this.”  Most of the ancient sculptures had been severely damaged and chipped away by the Portuguese who, when using the island as a trade stopover, saw no value in the sacred sculptures other than for target practice.

“So this is all Shiva?” I asked as we walked around, relief to relief. 

“Yeah, he’s a very versatile god.”  Versatile was right.  Shiva was seen in different scenes as a cosmic dancer, a warrior, a yoga master, a cheating gambler, a playboy flirting with voluptuous Hindu mountain goddess Parvati, and as a (half-voluptuous) half-man, half-woman.  The centerpiece of it all was Shiva as Trimurti, the three-headed creator/protector/destroyer of the universe.  Create, protect and destroy?  The universe?  Now that’s multi-tasking.  (The only one more powerful would be Bill Gates with his latest version of Windows.)

In a small temple shrine area within the cave surrounded by pillars and guardian dwarapalas was the main prosperity-giving Shiva linga, a much bigger and much more phallic-looking stone than the one in the Indiana Jones movie.  Veer’s tour ended there and he left us to explore the four other lesser caves in the area, each also with a Shiva linga (picture above).  From what I saw, it appeared that there were five stones in the beginning, but one was either destroyed by the Portuguese or stolen, dispersed in wars by thieves.  (They took the stone from here.)

The Scots and I wandered around the scenic walkway with the monkeys, had a snack at one of the food stalls and then walked back to the docks.  The same tout boy followed me back to the boat trying to sell me the same guidebook he tried to sell me on the way in.  “You know that we’re leaving the island and that we wouldn’t need the guidebook anymore right?” I teased him. 

The boat left the island, taking us and about thirty other passengers away from the touts and Shiva lingas.  Although there may have been one prosperity-giving sacred stone missing, four out of five ain’t bad, and I’m sure the people on the island would prosper with the four as long as Elephanta Island was on the tourist trail; I saw that a German couple on the boat bought one of the little guidebooks the tout boy was selling.

“HEY CUCKOO, I’M AT THE PRESS CLUB,” I said to my “colleague” in journalism on the phone.  I was in the exclusive Press Club of Mumbai’s Media Center trying to upload some files on a bad connection, so bad that I just gave up and decided to give my new Mumbai friend a buzz.

I met Cuckoo back at the Times of India office and she took me out for a snack and falooda (ice cream and tapioca shake) at Kyani & Co., one of the few remaining old-fashioned restaurants run by the Parsis.  The Parsis, she explained to me, were a fair-skinned race descendant from Persia within Indian society, particularly in Mumbai, that owned many old businesses.  Parsis, from what I learned, sounded something like a fading cult, a small group of wealthy Zoroastraians, who not only discouraged marriage outside their own, but left their dead out for vultures to eat in Mumbai’s Towers of Silence as part of their beliefs.  Of course that image had not yet been planted in my head when I happily ate Kyani’s Special Double Decker sandwich and my frosty drink at the table with Cuckoo. 

“What program do you have today?” Cuckoo asked me about my plans for the rest of the afternoon.

“I don’t have any program,” I said.  It amazed her that someone could go through life without anything scheduled ahead. 

“What impresses me about you is you’re always smiling and happy,” Cuckoo noted.  “It’s very unlike people around here.  Everyone I know just sort of mopes around.”

“Well, that’s because I don’t have a program.”

“Don’t rub it in.”

“Where should I go [tonight]?” I asked her.  Earlier I asked her if there was any sort of definitive Mumbai night spot I should check out.  She was drawing blanks; any club or bar would just give me a sort of generic Western experience I could get anywhere.  She was trying to think of a place where I might get to experience the Diwali holiday, but nowhere in the touristy Colaba district would really have an authentic one. 

“If I was a visitor from somewhere else in India, where would you take me?”

“Well, I would take you home.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Yeah, if you’d like to.”  The idea excited both of us.  She’d get to play host and I’d get to experience the life of a modern Indian family, and on the big Diwali holiday no less. 

I rushed back to my hotel in Colaba via double-decker bus, packed my bags, tried to get some money back from the reception (didn’t happen), and took a taxi back to the Times of India where I met back with Cuckoo before walking across the street to the rush hour crowd of Victoria Terminus Railway Station.  I was pretty excited at the fact that I was leaving the tourist scene for a bit, away from the touts calling out, “Psst… you want a bus to Goa?”  (Goa was the next stop on the beaten backpacker trail.) 

CUCKOO EXPLAINED MY STORY to the curious passengers in our first class car on the commuter train to the northern suburb of Thane, about an hour away.  Added attention was inevitable with my blood-stained Yankees cap and big backpack on the overhead rack that everyone was afraid was going to fall on their heads.  We took an auto-rickshaw from the Thane station across town to her high-rise apartment building of many young modern Indian families, where she lived on the fourteenth floor with her husband Nandu and seven-year-old son Vineet.

Diwali holiday lights were hung over the front door just that day by Nandu, after a day of work as an aircraft engineer.  Although the half-Hindu/half-Christian household was somewhat non-practicing in either religion, they wanted their home to be a bit festive to get in the holiday mood and for the sake of their son.  The front door remained open, along with the front doors of the other three apartments on the 14th floor, since all the individual families sort of saw and treated each other as extended family.  The kids of each household played with each other, running back and forth from the different living rooms.  I met Vineet as he was playing with the little girl next door, Puja, until he wanted to show his parents the new moves he learned in karate class. 

Within a short period of time, I learned that Nandu was a classic rock and Bruce Lee fan, and Vineet liked watching WWE wrestling and was a big Spider-man fan.  That, mixed with my rapport with Cuckoo and the fact that there was a speedy internet connection in the house, I couldn’t have felt anymore at home.  Now if only there was a copy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom around…

Next entry: Holiday For Pyros

Previous entry: My New Beat

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Comments for “Sacred Stones and A New Home”

  • Just saw the first episode of Amazing Race 6. Erik, you should be on it next year!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  06:59 AM

  • Elaphantiasis, Elaphantiasis, Elaphantasis .. sorry couldn’t help it ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  12:56 PM

  • I don’t think these are the kind of “volumptuos” pics sim and wheat were looking for.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  12:58 PM

  • TDOT - that statue was hot…i don’t know what you’re talking about?

    LIZ - you DL AR6 yet?  let us know when you have watched it since there is plenty to discuss!

    shiva linga!  yes!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  04:17 PM

  • The Tramcar Train reminds me of the train at Van Saun Park in Paramus.  Choo Choo!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  04:46 PM

  • Is Shiva also the lady sitting cross-legged with two or three sets of arms that you see on Indian art and greeting cards?  I always wondered who that was supposed to be and why she has 4 arms.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  05:00 PM

  • MARKYT - now downloaded - is this a double episode?  It was like twice the size of the usual downloads.  Will watch it later this afternoon - comment away!  I’ll see it before I check back here smile  Thanks everyone!

    Posted by Liz  on  11/16  at  11:29 PM

  • SARA:  Yes, Shiva comes in many forms…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  02:41 AM

  • LIZ / MARKYT:  How’s the new season coming along?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  02:46 AM

  • LIZ / E - first episode was the 2 hour one, hence the bigger DL…

    we already have some really STRONG characters that are just JERKS…..

    first to be elimated were the 2 jewish high school buddies from NYC…they were actually kinda funny…

    no charlas in this one, but definite disasters waiting to happen!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  12:49 PM

  • The wrestling wife is a total bitch!  I like the wrestling husband though. 
    Psycho wife abuser anyone?  What an idiot.
    Like the senior couple (she kicked ass climbing that ice wall!).  Kinda like Gus and Hera - we’ll see.  And what on earth is up with all the models!  I can’t tell them apart!

    Posted by Liz  on  11/17  at  01:47 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Holiday For Pyros

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My New Beat


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