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Jasmine Dispatch

Indiana Jazz and the Temple of Doom . . . or Not
May 6, 2000

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Gateway to India
Mumbai, with its chaotic, crowded streets, crazy markets, tasty snacks from any of a million corner stands and cricket games for all, is a one-of-a-kind town in India.

This breezy coastal capital got its start as a wedding present to Britain from Portugal, when Catherine Braganza married England's Charles II in 1661. At the time, this city (then called Bombay) was just a large, undeveloped island. Now, with 15 million inhabitants, it's one of India's most dynamic cities. Leaving Abeja to delve into mainland Mumbai, I decided to do a little island hopping (... in search of adventure, like Indiana Jones)!

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Fun and games in the water
I walked down to the harbor, through the massive Gateway to India, which has hosted numerous dignitaries over the years. I could be royalty too, I thought as I lifted the grand train of my elegant gown (which looked more like a sun dress to everyone else) and made a proper descent to my sea vessel. Baroness Jasmine of Hamlett, yes! Yes! It could be me!

Unfortunately, my reign was cut short by the flash flood of splashing from the water down below. The hot summer days had forced all of the local teenage boys into the water, and everyone waiting to board the boat got splashed.

These boys had a major expedition going on -- running, diving, splashing -- what a great way to stay cool in this weather. I was so impressed that I decided to catch a few candid shots. Uh-oh, what did I start? Once I snapped a picture of one slider they all sought the camera's focus.

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Mumbai women in colorful saris. How do they balance those pots on their heads?
The real attention-seeking performers raced along the side of the boat to execute a double, sometimes triple, flip off the top of the boat. That was always a major crowd-pleaser. They jumped, even slipped and fell into the water a few times before returning for the grand finale. As the boat chugged its horn and set off for Elephanta, they each fell away into the water waving.

"Bye guys! Be back soon!" I waved.

No one really knows when Elephanta was first inhabited or by whom. But whoever it was left a lasting impression (... and Indiana Jazz was going to find some clues).

Gharapuri, or Place of Caves, is one of Mumbai's most popular attractions for locals and tourists alike. After over 1,500 years this Hindu temple is still a functioning shrine to Shiva, the destroyer god. As a matter of fact, I was one of only three tourists going to visit the island. I was surrounded by smiling and giggling Hindi families who were very curious about the stranger going to visit their temple.

"South Africa," they whispered in speculation to one another.

"Nay, nay, from Nigeria," another countered.

"America," I said, smiling, to roars of laughter.

I'd made friends now and walked with a Koli woman once we arrived (... It's always good to act like you don't know anything and make friends with the locals. Stay incognito and you'll get the inside scoop. Listen...).

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Making new friends with a Hindi family
She explained that the island was named Elephanta by the Portugese, for the large stone carved elephant that used to dominate the shore. She explained how her roots go way back; the Koli fishermen were the first known inhabitants of Bombay prior to the Hindu dynasties that followed in the 1400s. The islands were eventually transferred to Portugal by one of the last sultans, but the Portugese did little with it until it became a stocking-stuffer at Catherine's wedding.

(... Ah ha! The Portugese never even knew what was right under their noses all along... but we'll find it. You just stick with me.)

While authority and leadership changed over the years, some things stayed the same. The jungle landscape of the island, for example, was unspoiled and pristine. I felt like these trees had a secret to tell, and I was a guest in their home. And before I entered their world I thanked them with a humble nod for allowing me to visit (... I may need their help if things get out of hand).

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These monkeys look calm, but I am afraid they might attack!
As we began the climb to the temple you could almost feel the heavy roots of the trees moving, growing around the cement as they have for years. Banyan tree branches interlocked to form a canopy above, shading us from the harsh rays of the sun. Lush vines cascaded down the single staircase that led up to the caves.

The elephant the island's named after is no longer part of the ancient décor, but there were still plenty of animals. I expected cows and bulls, even chickens and goats, but when the branches began to shake wildly, for no apparent reason, I had no idea what to expect (... I was right! These trees were protecting something, we must be getting close! Or not). But the branches were just full of wild monkeys (... Oh, okay).

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Monkeys dart in and out of the temple. Can you see them?
(...Then the monkeys attacked us... Growling and ready to rip us to shreds with their razor sharp teeth. Or not.) But they still worried me, so I kept a close eye on them. No monkey business around here--I have to admit they didn't seem too interested in the flurry of visitors. They were feeding young and picking bugs off one another (... or it could all just be an act to make us think they're not watching. Ah ha. You can't pull one over on me that fast. I'd figured it out and now I knew the monkeys were up to no good. Or not...).

Inside the ancient temple, monkeys darted in and out, sitting in corners with yellow eyes staring out as Shiva danced in relief carvings around the cave.


dignitaries - important people, especially government officials
speculation - guesswork
incognito - in disguise
flurry - a stirring mass or commotion (of people, of snow, etc.)

(...I turned a corner and in a howling gust of wind my torch blew out. The only light in the deepest, darkest, dampest corner of the cave, were eyes. I stared up in awe ...well, maybe not.)

We soon found what we were looking for. Staring back into our souls was a three-headed carving of Shiva, larger than life, daring us to take the jewel in the center of his head. (... Ok, there was no jewel but there should have been. It was perfect!)

The Trimurti, or triple-headed Shiva, is the most famous of all of the panel carvings. The god is depicted as preserver, creator, and destroyer (... ah ha ha ha ha, destroyer!).

Relevant Links:

Check out Elephanta island pictures:

Learn all about Shiva, the Destroyer:

(... Just then a huge boulder shook the temple. Oh no! It's headed straight for us. A monkey grabbed the jewel and now we'll all be destroyed! Go that way! We can get out there! Aggggh, Shiva's snakes are hatching from their cement scales, ready to swallow us whole! We're trapped. Run for your lives! But there's nowhere to hide. Shiva's third eye sees all. He has all wisdom and will destroy us with his trident. Or not... )

You'll have to excuse my frenzied imagination. It just gets away from me sometimes.

The day was really quite pleasant. Ocean waves were gentle as cows waded in the lagoon. Once we were off the island, the cool breeze tamed the sun and life was bearable again. The Trimurti was a powerful rendering of Shiva, and I am totally convinced that everything I just imagined probably did happen. You know, a long time ago when... okay, maybe not. But the monkeys, they were real! Really they were, and they were everywhere! No, believe me, I promise.

Oh well. It was fun while it lasted. I wonder what other adventures I'll dream up while I'm here. The magic of India is swirling around me and I'm dizzy with excitement. Or maybe that's just heat stroke...

Stay tuned as we visit Hindustan for more exotic adventures!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Lost in Bombay
Andrew - The Things We Do for Love -- The Story Behind the Taj Mahal
Brian - Beginnings and Endings
Kavitha - Delhi -- The City I Love to Hate
Monica - The Eternal Light Shines Brightly: Amar Jyoti, a School for the Differently-abled

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