Interviewsand Articles


Elephanta: by Richard Berger

by Richard Berger, Oct 26, 2001



I spent six weeks in south Asia, four weeks in India and 2 weeks in Indonesia in January and February of 2001. I have written about each of the places I visited and each has produced chapters of varying length. Each are steps in a transformation in which I am privileged to be an active participant.
     My trip was made possible by a sabbatical leave for half an academic year from my long time employer, the San Francisco Art Institute.The sun at noon at the equator makes the shadows of the clouds below appear on the water directly beneath them. The location of a shadow in relation to its form is a physical and psychic compass that we bring with us, a locating instrument that functions transparently until it confronts something different. They are small tufty clouds, evenly distributed. The lack of angle of the shadows takes away a sense of time and location. The effect is a disarming stillness seen from 35,000 feet, on the way from Hong Kong to Singapore to Mumbai. This was the first of many notations of seeing in a new light.
     The ride from Mumbai International Airport into the city is beyond anticipation and comprehension. To come from the theme park quality of Singapore Airport into Mumbai Airport is to pass from an endlessly marketed, processed and prioritized space into one of saturated surrealism and simultaneity. I was met by a driver from my hotel, a tiny boisterous man from Madras. He escorted me into the muggy, misty night of an unilluminated parking lot filled with trash and knots of loitering men, furtively lit by the flare of matches and passing car headlights. It is sometimes hard not to attribute a calculated menace to such chaos, especially after 33 hours in transit across twelve time zones.
     The trip back to the airport three days later confirmed the shadowy impressions on that first misty night. The mugginess coincided with a suffocating vaporous mist at night which combined with the darkness to heighten the various smells. The mist was replaced with a smoky abrasive particulate miasma during the day. Endless bricolage in a state of extreme privation produces an urgent topography without relent. This urbanscape is inhabited by a range of activities, from feral cunning and opportunism to lethargy and resignation. At night people are sleeping side by side under rags on the roadside. The intermittent paving of the "sidewalk" is continuously obstructed by piles of debris being sorted, sleeping bodies, knots of humanity, people cooking and bathing, excavations, refuse everywhere amid the will to on and on.
     The hotel I chose was on the Strand, a long roadway and sidewalk along the harbor, which comes to an end in the block where I was staying. Across the street from the hotel is the footway and the harbor and a long pier-like structure that doesn't seem to be public. Two consecutive nights of my stay were filled with the sounds and sights of marriage festivals, both starting as processions down the Strand, both inching by with marching bands playing fluid melodies with lots of drumming, lots of folks in costumes carrying standards of complicated illuminated candelabras, guys on ornately adorned horses, colorful parasols, banners, dancing revelers, and finally a car covered in flowers containing the bride and groom. At dusk the processions arrived at the pier, the place come alive with a million chaser lights, the wedding party entered and the band left. The ceremony itself was audible because of a blaring public address system. After the ceremony the groups broke up into several reception lines and an enormous buffet, fairly low-key, given the raucous build-up.
     In the morning, having breakfast on the rooftop cafe at the hotel I could see a "morning after" look at the pier, with the clean-up crew throwing the refuse of the celebration off the pier, into the harbor. Styrofoam plates and cups, garlands of flowers, bottles, all over the side to drift in the harbor. Early morning life along this part of the Strand was also the scene of the morning rituals of the indigents, brushing their teeth, scraping their tongues. There was a guy with one leg who got around on a weird tricycle where you propelled yourself with one hand and steered and braked with a tiller. He shaved with a plastic razor dipped in a cup of gray water by the curb. On my third day in Mumbai after a brutal trip and a jet-lag induced day of continuous sleep, I was ready for my objective in coming to India, at the top of my list of things to see, the rock cut cave temple to Shiva on the island of Elephanta.
I had come across Elephanta in pursuing an interest in yantras, the geometric patterns which are used to focus meditation on a particular deity. These are non-iconic representations of deity, they are diagrams of the structure beneath appearance, an enchanting idea to me, since the mastery of appearance was and is far beyond my capabilities. The visual language of these diagrams has evolved around numerical proportions based on the geometry of the square and circle and their natural divisions, with symbolic connections to seasons, cardinal directions, the heavens, time and myth based on the number and configuration of the bricks in the altar of the original sacrificial victim who was immolated so the world could be. Going into the rock cut cave temple to Shiva on the island of Elephanta I knew the symbolism of the plan of the pillars inside, the location of the shrine in relation to the image of Shiva, the iconography of the various reliefs and the orientation of all these components to the cardinal directions, all via the yantra that guided this miraculous project. There were so many manifestations of the yantra expressed in the organization of the Hindu Temple that it made a great teaching tool to show how notation, an entity unto itself, is enacted in material and practice in service of an idea. A big idea. And I was there, inside it.

     You get to Elephanta by launch, 65 rupees for economy or 85 rupees for deluxe. Tickets are purchased adjacent to the Gate of India, a giant triumphal monstrosity commemorating a visit by British Royalty, and the boarding point to the trip to the island of Elephanta. The harbor has a sheen of oil everywhere. There is an oppressive presence of military and petroleum interests on the journey to Elephanta. There are long piers jutting into the harbor for the loading and unloading of oil from tankers, and a huge array of naval vessels tied up at a foreboding looking fortress. The vessels and the fort both needed paint. The launch was stopped by a patrol boat for some kind of clearance.
     The dock at Elephanta is a stone structure where visitors disembark, go up a flight of steps, onto a long jetty flanked by a few decaying hulks of boats. Some boats in only slightly better shape seem operational, with men in their underwear sleeping in hammocks strung across the decrepit decks. There is an impossible caricature of a train that runs the length of the jetty and makes a right turn onto the mainland of the island, a distance of perhaps half a kilometer. At the end of the track the train stops and the gauntlet of hawkers begins. Vendors of film, snacks, souvenirs, a perilous looking litter to carry the infirm, Pharaoh-style, up the 150 uneven steps to the temple, and literally dozens of women, from teenagers to grandmas, offering photo opportunities of them in their ethnic costumes with some kind of copper pot balanced on their heads. The vertical ascent to the caves is probably 250 feet, modest as a number, but daunting in the form of uneven stairs punctuated by uneven inclines, non-stop sales pitches and withering heat above 85 muggy degrees, the opposite of the midwinter world I had left a few days before.
     The scale of the caves is overwhelming. They are cut from solid rock in a way that mimics wooden temple structures from earlier times, basically rows of columns supporting a roof, with a shrine in the middle. The cave is open on three sides so that the darkest part of the day inside the temple is high noon, one of many reminders in the rock that this isn't the everyday world in here. There are openings on the eastern and western side of the cave/temple, so that the feeling over time is that of being at the center of a giant sundial, with the highlights of the relief sculpture and columns shifting dramatically during the day. The effect is that the cave remains the still center of things, and the world of change registers on that stillness as moving shadows. The enormity of the reliefs, especially the Sada Shiva, the three headed representation of Shiva as male, androgyne and female, and the presence of guardian figures everywhere mirror the demanding passage to the island and the temple. It all says that to come face to face with cosmic players is not now and never will be easy.
     Inside this dynamic diagram of divinity in relation to the phenomenal world there is a layered symbolism of cosmic organization, the plan brought to life which I had expected and studied and had aspired to in my own artwork, and which I had espoused in my teaching profession as a durable model upon which to inquire again and again how we have made sense of the complexity of being. The experience of being there was in that respect an affirmation of what I thought would be there, what I had in fact brought there. The other thing I brought there with less deliberateness was the sense I couldn't articulate that I experienced when my father died, of being in the room alone with him then, with the door closed.
     There are different kinds of silences, states of great range and depth. Edgar Lee Masters wrote eloquently about them. The silence in that room with my father was one that was outside of duration. It was the silence between, "I'll never get there" and "I'll never be back." I knew everyone was mortal, that they would have to die sometime, but I somehow thought that moment with my father would never arrive, that I would never be there, and in being there I realized that when I left that room I could never go back to him. Arrival and departure are recast by a silence unexpectedly demarcated between them. I felt at the time of his death, that my father's final gift to me was a kind of silence, unexpectedly peaceful, and I recognized that silence in the presence of Sada Shiva at Elephanta. I never thought I'd get there, and when I left I'd never be back.
     I dispensed with my chores of documenting all that I'd seen, trying to recreate the whole encounter sequentially in photos, and then sat in my silence, as cameras flashed and tourists came and went in various stages of engagement and obligation. The shadows got longer and I lurched down the many steps, past the rollicking monkeys and nattering vendors, back to the rickety launch, confronting the truth that there was no measure of duration in the presence of such silence.
You can learn more at   

About the Author

Richard Berger is a sculptor and long-time senior faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute 


A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 721525 views

The Dumpster      “We can’t use these. They look like ... Read More 141234 views

Cotton and Silk Vorbeck quilt, detail I’m working on the last panel of a pair of ... Read More 8389 views

Say Grace I am deeply delighted to live on a planet that is so big and varied that I can ... Read More 5569 views

A Conversation with Silas Hagerty I met Silas, a young man in his twenties from New England, at a ... Read More 61397 views


A Man Impossible to Classify One of my first experiences in San Francisco was of being flagged down by a ... Read More 721525 views

Interview with Bill Douglass—Jimbo's Bop City and Other Tales At the time I'd first gotten to know the widely respected jazz musician Bill ... Read More 363680 views

Greeting the Light It was thanks to artist Walter Gabrielson that I was able to get in touch with ... Read More 294026 views

Interview: Gail Needleman Gail Needleman teaches music at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. ... Read More 189020 views

Interview: Stephen De Staebler John Toki encouraged me to interview his old friend and mentor, sculptor Stephen ... Read More 150429 views