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Our past, our future: Time for action in Elephanta
By Sumita Mehta

Grabbing headlines in Mumbai last week was Intach's benefit event for the Elephanta Caves. Though heritage wasn't the abiding concern of the 300 guests, they did leave with a very different view.

The reason was the heritage experience. Awesome sculptures, vocalist Shubha Mudgal and danseuse Alarmel Valli's moving performances against the backdrop of the lit caves, and the small site museum combined exquisitely to reiterate the relevance of the past.
Elephanta, the world only island's caves, dates back to the 6th century and boasts of some of the country's most magnificent rock-cut sculptures. Says art historian Promod Chandra, "It's perhaps the most significant early Hindu monument in India." Approximately 20 lakh people visit annually.

UNESCO declared the caves a World Heritage Site in 1987, but one adventurous lot even happily perched itself on top of the magnificent three-faced Shiva statue, the Trimurti and plastic packets were strewn all over. Something, indeed, had to be done in a hurry.

 In order to bring Elephanta into greater focus, Intach, the Archaeological Survey and UNESCO have held seminars, prepared plans and organised workshops. All agencies involved with Elephanta's development, such as the departments of culture, environment, tourism, water, etc, as well as ASI and local bodies have worked towards creating a plan to preserve the area and evolve community development initiatives.

The ASI custodian's cottage was restored to house the site museum, showcasing the development of rock-cut sculptures in Mumbai and Maharashtra, the 16 World Heritage Sites in India, the stupa and other Buddhist monuments in Elephanta.

Some of the money collected from the art auction and ticket sales at last week's event will be used to redesign the pathway and ensure that the stalls present a simple, clean, coordinated impact.

But a lot remains to be done. The mangroves on the island's shores are severely affected by pollution from the Mumbai harbour. One mangrove species has already been lost and there is urgent need to rehabilitate the rest.

 Elephanta is constantly threatened by the rapid industrial development in its vicinity. A toxic chemical storage terminal has been planned just 400 m away. Bilge from oil
tankers, waste from ship-breaking activities and plastic that is dumped in the sea seriously threatens the marine and bird life of the area. Another threat is the proposed move to put one leg of the eight-lane Sewri-Nhava Sheva highway link on Elephanta. Intach has asked experts to assess the impact of such development.

The place will survive only if the community benefits. Intach is working with Project.

Mainstream, an NGO, to provide loans and business opportunities to the unemployed youth. It plans to involve another NGO to create income-generating avenues for women. When all this comes to fruition, then the validity of last week's theme - Time Past, Time Future - will be proved.



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