On Elephanta



From our balcony we can see the wonderful Bombay Harbor. Right nearby sits the proud Gateway of India, and left of that we see the mountainous island of Elephanta. We went there three days ago. Visitors climb halfway up the mountain on magnificent stone steps, until on the right side a broaddoor opens in the volcanic rock. It leads into one of the biggest cave-temples of ancient India.
Heavy pillars, carved from the rock, bear the roof. Slowly, one's eyes become accustomed to the dim light; then they can make out marvelous representations from Indian mythology carved on the walls. Eventually one's eyes find their way to the massive, main niche. Here towers an image of the deity that I can only compare with certain works of Japanese sculpture and the great images of Christ in old Byzantine churches: a three-headed form, depicted from the chest up, growing out of the rock, three times the size of a human being. To get the full effect, one must sit down. The middle head looks straight ahead, silent and powerful; the other two heads are shown in profile. The stillness and the majesty of the image is complete. It portrays Siva as the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer of the world, and at the same time as the savior and bestower ofblessings. Nowhere have I seen the mystery of the transcendent expressed with more grandeur or fullness than in these three heads. When the little Indian guide who accompanied us saw how much the image affected us, he began to speak. He said (and it's quite believable) that the image changes its appearance according to the amount of daylight that filters into the great hall. Sometimes it's calm and massive, at others frightfully majestic, at still others it's smiling and benevolent. It has stood there like this for perhaps a thousand years, abandoned by its faithful. When one turns around, one looks through the entrance of the cave, across the antechamber, and out onto the gray-blue sea and at the opposing, wooded peaks. Thus, the face of the creator surveys his handiwork. To see this place would truly be worth a trip to India in itself, and from the spirit of the religion that lived here one can learn more in an hour of viewing than from all the books ever written.




[From Rudolf Otto, Autobiographical and Social Essays, ed. Gregory D. Alles (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996). Copyright 1996 by Mouton de Gruyter. All Rights Reserved.]