Fun on the Ferry – Elephanta Caves and Dharavi Slum

In catching up to where we are now in India, I wanted to write about a trip we took on Thursday to Elephanta Caves and the Dharavi Slum in southern Mumbai. Both of these places were repeats for me, but it was very interesting to get to go back and see both places in a new light now that I have had a year of reflection on my first time there last summer.

We are currently staying in central/northern Mumbai in an area called Powai, but both Elephanta and Dharavi are in the south, in the area of Colaba. Colaba is the older, more traditional looking part of Mumbai as opposed to Powai, which was considered outside the city (sort of the suburbs) until recently. The part of Powai we are in now is very well-off and all the buildings are new and very unlike the rest of the city that we have seen. Our hotel is about a 20 minute walk from IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bombay, and there are many college age students milling about Powai.

Colaba is very different – I remember our first few drives around last year, I was struck by the architecture and how much it looked like how I imagined India would look. I still don’t really know where I formed that idea, but the buildings were simultaneously unlike anything I had seen before and yet, familiar in an unknown sense. Maybe it was the British influence from colonization in the 19th and 20th century and similar to buildings I had seen in Indian movies of those time periods (like my personal favorite, Lagaan). Colaba is home to the Gateway of India as well as the Leopold Cafe (!). Elephanta Island is off the coast of southern Colaba and reachable by ferry boat right from the Gateway of India.

Tavish and I at the Gateway to India before baording the ferry to Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island is a one hour boat ride away, and is home to a number of caves full of sculptures of Hindu gods, mainly dedicated to Lord Shiva. The carvings date back to sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries CE, which is mind-closing considering their detail and size. Both times it has been incredibly hot, especially after the 120 stair hike uphill to reach the caves. Even when one is totally drenched in sweat, an appreciation can be given to how magnificent the statues and carvings are. While the name may suggest an island full of elephants, unfortunately that is not the case. When the Portuguese first came upon the island in the 16th century, they discovered a large carving of an elephant, thus giving the island its name. 

The pièce de résistance of Elephanta Caves

Our ferry ride was pretty interesting this time! We got to the Gateway of India, where you board the boat to Elephanta, and four of us were able to get on the boat successfully. The water was very rough and the boats were rocking back and forth like crazy. The crew decided the water was too rough to have anyone else get on at that moment and we got a private boat ride as we moved to another dock to have everyone else get on. While this delayed our journey a bit, it was pretty fun to bounce around the harbor area on our own little boat. Once everyone else got on, we started off for Elephanta Islands, though we did have to take another break for a quick detention by the Mumbai Port Trust who had to check the papers of our boat to ensure they we operating legally (thankfully, they were!). 

Some of the boats lined up in the harbor waiting for passengers to board

The caves are a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Indians alike, and many Indians come from all over the country to visit Mumbai and the island. In many tourist locations, like Elephanta Caves and the Taj Mahal, a large group of Americans like us draws a lot of attention and we frequently get many requests for photos. While this was definitely an uncomfortable experience at first, it is also a really cool opportunity to talk with people and get to know where they are from and who they are (as well as get a picture for ourselves). 
On the way down from the caves, we got ample amount of time for souvenir shopping as well as monkey spotting. We boarded our ferry boat again and made our way back to land, with only a short break to get questioned (for the second time!) by the Mumbai Port Trust, but don’t worry – they let us go both times!

After Elephanta Caves and a delicious vegetarian thali lunch, we went to Dharavi Slum, which is one of the largest slums in the world with over a million people living in 3/4 of a square mile. A misconception about the slum is that is is just a large amount of very poor people with nothing to do, living in bad conditions, begging for money. This is completely wrong. Dharavi is one of the most thriving industries in India and perhaps the world. Every person in Dharvai is working, no one just sits about waiting for something to be given to them. Many residents are migrants from other parts of India who have come to Mumbai and Dharavi for a better life and a better job for themselves and their families. Children go to school in the slum and there is a thriving recycling business there. Much of the plastic recycling from Mumbai ends up in Dharavi, where is it sorted, melted down, and made into new plastic items. Additionally, there are many garment factories and other businesses, such as suitcase construction and leather. Every doorway you peek into has their piece of the assembly or production. No one person does everything, but the assembly line construction of an item is divided amongst multiple businesses in the slum – it is fascinating to watch.

One of the streets inside Dharavi – you can see some of the recycling business on the righthand side with the stack of metal tins

Another aspect of Dharvai is a potter’s village, where 500 families from Gujarat have come to make their living. Everything in Dharavi is recycled, so the leftover scraps from the garment factories is burned to heat the finished pottery. The families ship in red earth from Gujarat to make pots and other beautiful pottery – I wish I had unlimited suitcase space and could bring some of it back home!

Some of the pottery baking in the Dharvai potter’s village

Visiting Dharavi can be a challenging experience – even though everyone is working and does have a better life that perhaps they would have had if they did not move to Dharavi, the poverty is still great and the infrastructure in the slum leaves much to be desired. There is approximately one toilet for every 1500 people living in the slum and a lot of waste surrounding the slum. During monsoon season (June through September) Dharavi floods, leaving sitting water, sometimes sewage water, everywhere in the streets. This causes a domino effect, breeding disease, causing sickness, and leaving many people with no healthcare, either because they cannot afford it or because there is not enough space or doctors in public hospitals to deal with epidemics. I hope to focus on how to create resiliency and develop better critical infrastructure in places like Dharavi during my Masters program and seeing Dharavi again revitalized me to want to study this important issue. 


One thought on “Fun on the Ferry – Elephanta Caves and Dharavi Slum

  1. Thanks for such a descriptive post about your experience. Having just been to India, I resonate with much of what you wrote. I’m reading a book you may have already read called ‘The End of Karma,’ by Somoni Sengupta. If you haven’t read it I suggest you try to get it.
    I’m so proud of your motivation to be learn about and act for change. You are such a bright and powerful part of the future!
    Have a fabulous time in India. It’s a miraculous and complicated place.


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