Tripura, a former princely state shares an international boundary with Bangladesh on its three sides and adjoins Assam and Mizoram on the east. Altogether 185 royal rulers had ruled Tripura and in 1949 it acceded to the union of India through a treaty. A brochure published by the state tourism mentions that the name Tripura has its origin from two Tripuri words namely Tui (meaning water) and Pra (meaning near). Another opinion is that the name originated from the name of its presiding deity Tripurasundari. We were astonished to know that the total population of the state is just over 35 lacs, much less than that of the city of Kolkata itself.
As we were walking out of the airport (one needs to walk down the distance between the runway and the airport building) we found a small kiosk of the tourism department which redirected us to the prepaid taxi booth. However, we learnt quickly that no taxi would be available on that day as there was some kind of strike and demonstration. We took an auto-rickshaw (one with doors unlike its counterparts in Bengal) to the hotel and on the way noticed a rally with the comrades carrying red flags and shouting Inquilab Zindabad and Cholchhe Naa- Cholbe Naa, a scene that has become rare in Kolkata after the overhauling of the left in the last assembly elections.
Hotel City Centre, the budget hotel that we booked from Kolkata via a travel agent was a big disappointment. The room was grimy, food was cold most of the times and not palatable and service was lacklustre. On top of it, it charged us handsomely for the extra person and levied 25% tax on the room rent (something that is put in place by the state government). Actually the auto driver had told us on the way that there were many other good budget hotels around and there was no need to book in advance. From the hotel itself we booked a car for sightseeing and the car cost was also exorbitant (a combination of a fixed component and per km rate).
After a while a red Indica arrived to pick us up and our first destination was the Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary, located at a distance of 28 kms from the capital city of Agartala and on the way to Udaipur, the ancient capital of Tripura. The first thing to take notice of is that the road was in excellent condition for majority of its length. Yes it was narrow, only 2 lane, but was not bumpy with all those potholes that we are so accustomed to in Kolkata. I inquired our driver about how efficiently the state government under Manik Sarkar operates and from his monosyllable replies I got the idea that the state lacks industrialization initiatives and has less job opportunities as a result of it but overall the government is doing a creditable job in terms of building infrastructure and social development.
With a total area of 18.53 sq km, Sepahijala came into existence in 1972 and was accredited to a sanctuary in 1987. When we reached the place there were not many visitors, only a handful of locals. Although it is named a sanctuary, but most of its habitats are kept in cages or even if they are kept in open spaces, they are surrounded by dry moat and high walls resulting in a zoo like ambience. The first species that we came across were vultures and then emu birds. After that we noticed the famous spectacled langur, pig-tailed macaque and capped langur. But they were so far away, separated by open dry moats, that I could not take any good snap. However, later on we found some spectacled langurs in close by cages and they happily posed for us to take pictures. Also present in the zoo, were lions, bears, cheetahs and clouded leopards amongst others. Most of them were having their after lunch nap. The last cage that we came across contained a couple of hoolock gibbons and they did some wonderful acrobatics in our honour. One amusing thing we noticed was that a common monkey which was roaming around freely outside continuously irritated the gibbons confined within the cage. So, to irritate, infuriate and aggravate someone who is already suffering, is not unique to human beings alone. In front of every cage, the name of the species was displayed in Bengali, English and a peculiar language which we later came to know as Kokborok. It is the local Tripura dialect and the script is almost similar to Bengali and yet we could hardly pronounce it.
Our next destination was Neer Mahal, the royal summer palace built in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake. From Bishramganj the road diverts. The road on the right takes off towards Neer Mahal while the road straight ahead goes to Udaipur. When we reached Neer Mahal, we first went to the Sagar Mahal Tourist Lodge to order our lunch and then headed towards the ghat from where the motor boats ferry. It is a fascinating view as the boat approaches the palace in the middle of the lake. Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya constructed the palace in 1930 perhaps inspired by the Lake Palace of Udaipur in Rajasthan and the palace was christened as Neer Mahal by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. The palace illustrates Mughal school of architecture with copious dome shaped minars and although the walls are now not that well maintained, it still depicts the past royal grandeur of Tripura. The strong breeze blowing through the royal bedroom justifies its choice as the summer palace of the Tripura royalty. Besides, there are hawa-mahals, dancing rooms and a garden as well. Light and sound shows are organized in the evening but we could not wait that long.
When we reached Udaipur, it was already evening and sunlight was getting dim. So we decided to visit the non-functional ancient temples first. Udaipur was the capital city of the princely state of Tripura before the monarchy shifted its capital to Old Agartala. It is known as the city of temples for its numerous ancient temples but most of them are now without any deity. The deities were also transferred to Agartala during the capital shift. The first temple we visited in Udaipur was the Gunavati group of temples. The temple in the north was built by Queen Gunavati, wife of Maharaja Govinda Manikya, in 1668. The other two of the triplet of temples do not bear any dated inscription but their architectural resemblance indicates them to be contemporaneous. The temple architecture characterizes a charchala roof surmounted by a stupa like structure. The temple complex is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India and it was locked down, so we could only look at it from outside the fence.
The next temple we visited was the Bhubaneswari Temple, by the bank of river Gomati, also constructed by Maharaja Govinda Manikya in the year 1660 and exhibiting similar architectural structure of a mandapa with charchala roof surmounted by a stupa like structure. The temple is immortalized in Rabindranath Tagore’s famous play, Bisarjan. This temple also is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India but the fence here was without any lock. Our driver, Pinku, took a snap of all three of us, Srimanta, Anirban and I, in front of the temple with dusk setting in, in the background. A few paces away from the ancient temple, a makeshift temple has been built up where goddess Durga is still worshipped. Pinku informed us that funds are being raised to construct a grand temple there.
On our way back from Bhubaneswari Temple, Pinku stopped for a while near a Shiva-Kali temple where lord Shiva and goddess Kali are worshipped in a relatively modern structure with two abandoned ancient temples in the backward.
The last destination of the day was the Tripurasundari Temple. The temple stands on a tortoise shaped hillock and earns special veneration as it is considered as one of the 51 peeths of Hindu religion. There are two idols installed in the temple; the larger one is that of the deity Tripurasundari and the smaller one is known as “Chhota Maa”. The temple designed in the model of typical rural Bengal hut with a square shaped sanctum was built by Maharaja Dhanya Manikya in 1501. The place was then known as Rangamati and was then the capital of Tripura. Legend goes that in a revelation in dream Maharaja Dhanya Manikya was ordered to bring the idol of Tripurasundari from Chattagram (now in Bangladesh) and install here. It is also believed that when the capital of Tripura was shifted to Agartala, most of the deities were also shifted but the idol of Tripurasundari could not be moved. We bought some pedas (sweets) from a nearby shop for offering puja (worship) and ascended the flight of steps to the temple. There were many devotees present even though it was late evening. After our visit to the temple, our driver Pinku took us to a large lake named Kalyan Sagar adjacent to the temple, dug by Maharaja Kalyan Manikya. There were a few tortoises and fishes aplenty swimming around. Pinku informed us that they are not caught and killed since the lake is considered as holy.
On our way back to Agartala, it was quite dark and we dropped Kasba Kalibari from our original itinerary. Pinku asked us about our plan for the next day and inquired whether we would need his service. However, our plan was to take the rail route to Unakoti and accordingly we had booked chair car tickets from Agartala to Kumarghat and planned to take a cab to Unakoti from Kumarghat railway station. Pinku did not comment but only smiled learning our desire to take the rail route and we comprehended the significance of his smile only on the next day.
The scheduled departure of the train was 6:45 AM and we checked out of the hotel dot at six o’clock. We were lucky to get an auto-rickshaw just outside the hotel but soon were bewildered when the auto driver told us that the train might have already departed from Agartala station and advised us to try the next station instead where it is scheduled to arrive at 6:15 AM. We fell in a dilemma half believing his conviction and being half sceptic about the absurdity of the possibility but ultimately we decided to go to Agartala station. When we reached the station, a train was already waiting in the platform full of passengers and it made us apprehensive since as per the railway website the first train to leave from Agartala was the 6:45 AM train. We looked around and did not find any chair car compartment at all. It enhanced our anxiety further. A group of ticket collectors were chatting in a corner and we approached them for guidance. A middle aged man amongst them checked our ticket and, to our dismay, told us that all trains from Agartala had been cancelled due to security reasons and a special train (the very train that was standing in the platform) had been sanctioned to run once in a day and that too was about to leave in a few minutes’ time. He advised us to cancel our ticket and book fresh tickets. Since ours was an e-ticket, we could have cancelled it online only; but a kind official scribbled on it that the train had been cancelled and also put a stamp on it. However, I did not get back any refund till date as I could not cancel it online within the stipulated time. Hence I had to pay for a journey on a train that had been cancelled by railway itself. Hope Indian Railway would rectify its procedure and refund automatically in future for similar circumstances.
We let the train go mainly due to my insistence as there were no more seats available and since I was not keeping well I did not entertain the idea of travelling in a passenger train standing for 3-4 hours. After coming out of the station we had our morning tea and called up Pinku, our driver on the previous day. He assured us that he would arrange a car for our trip and call us back. However, when we called him again after quite some time, he offered his apology for not being able to arrange any car. Next we called up the reception of Hotel City Centre and asked for their assistance in booking a car for our Unakoti trip and instructed them to send the car to the station itself to pick us up. While we were waiting in the deserted station, we watched all the auto-rickshaws leaving the station complex one by one. A lone person was keeping us company. We learnt that he was from Midnapore in Bengal and had been waiting for a train to Lumding for last couple of days. He also informed us that long distance buses are also not plying. We were getting worried as time was passing by and no car reported. We kept calling the hotel staff and they kept assuring us that the car would reach any time. In the meantime we took some pictures of the attractive milk white railway station building which is constructed as a replica of the palace in Agartala city. In fact the palace is in much worse state.
The car finally arrived and our much anxious wait ended. We cruised through NH 44 which stretches to as far as Shillong via Guwahati. The road though narrow was in excellent state and our elderly driver had a steady hand. After having lunch near Kumarghat, when I was beginning to doze off in the back seat, we observed, in front of us, a Maruti Van slip off the road and hit a tree. The lady driver and her fellow passenger in the front seat were thankfully alive but they were bleeding. They were attended to by a couple of lorry drivers who stopped at the spot but our driver continued without halting and only stopped at the police station a couple of kms further away to report the accident. As a police team was sent off for help, we went on with our journey to Unakoti.
Unakoti means one less than a crore. At about a distance of 178 kms from Agartala, the site is an archaeological wonder. It comprises colossal bas-relief rock carvings datable to 7th – 9th centuries. The bas-relief sculptures of Shiva depicting only faces can be considered as the largest in size of its kind in India. The faces represent tribal features both in decoration and anatomy. Three gigantic rock-cut figures of Ganesha with a spring flowing right on them is another important sculpture worth mentioning.
The legend goes that a group of gods and goddesses, a crore in number, were travelling to Varanasi lead by Lord Shiva and they took refuge at this place during night. The next morning, Shiva woke up and found others still sleeping. In his rage Shiva turned all deities into stone. Hence the name Unakoti, signifying one less than a crore stone figures. However, the figure one less than a crore is a massive exaggeration. And the story does not hold true due to the fact that there are figures of Shiva himself.
The stone stairs running around the site is full of moss at places and I slipped a couple of steps once. Thankfully I did not hurt myself apart from bruising my hand a little and for the rest of the time, I was extremely careful. The stair near the Ganesha figures was the worst of the lot. The entire place was quiet and peaceful barring a few tourists. A group of boys were enjoying a bath at the spring near the Ganesha figures. Moving up and down so many steps was taking its toll on us, and probably since I had a fall in between, my legs were feeling extremely weak. So I was relieved when we came back to the car and headed for the Unakoti Tourist Lodge in Kailashahar.
Like most tourism hotels run by government, the rooms at Unakoti Tourist Lodge were well maintained and the food was palatable. However, since I was suffering from acute acidity and indigestion I ordered a safe and plain diet. The hotel did not even charge us for the extra person. The lady manager of Manipuri origin chatted with us for a while and took offence when Srimanta imprudently asked her how come she speaks English so fluently. She informed us that she knows many languages including a little bit of Bengali and that she was a graduate and got the job through TCS i.e. Tripura Civil Services. We told her jokingly that TCS means an IT giant from our perspective.
The next day was Independence Day and the national flag was hoisted on the terrace of the hotel. Local children were invited to the celebration and greeted with chocolates. Though we were late for the occasion we got our share of the chocolates. On the previous evening, we noticed the border between India and Bangladesh a few yards away from the hotel. So before checking out we made a brief visit to the border. On this side was a road along the barbed wire and on the other side was cultivable land. A peasant was ploughing up his land with the help of a couple of bulls on the Bangladesh side. A football field shared its boundary with the border a few metres away. Our driver told us that many a times, the ball lands on the other side during play. So we knew that not only panchhi (bird), nadiyan (river) and pawan ke jhoke (wind) but football as well could not be bounded by any border (koi sarhaad na use roke).
On our way back from Kailashahar, we stopped by the Chaturdash Devata Temple (temple of fourteen gods) in Old Agartala, which is 6 km away from the present capital city of Agartala. According to history, Maharaja Krishna Manikya shifted his capital from Udaipur to Old Agartala in 1770 after being defeated by Shamsher Gaze. The images fourteen gods were transferred at the same time from two temples beside Tripureswar Bhairab Temple in Udaipur to this newly built temple. I am not sure if they are the same couple of abandoned temples that we noticed beside the temple dedicated to Shiva and Kali in Udaipur where we stopped for a while on the first day of our tour. In 1840, the capital was again shifted to present Agartala but the images of the fourteen gods were retained back. To our dismay the temple was completely closed. I have never heard that a temple remains closed due to Independence Day holiday. A lone police guard was patrolling the temple complex with a rifle. When our driver informed us that the gods remain hidden from the common public since the idols are very precious, we were more perplexed but the fact reduced our disappointment. He further told us that the only time the images are visible is on the occasion of a special worship know as Kharchi Puja. The worshipping includes a combination of Vedic and ethnic rituals performed by a group of priests known as Chantai and the chanting is in a language which is neither Sanskrit nor the Tripuri dialect Kokborok, but a secret mantra known only to the priests.
The ruins of an old royal palace were still there opposite the temple. Our driver let us know that no one lives there anymore and before renovation the place was full of deadly snakes.
When we reached the capital city of present Agartala, we passed by the Ujjayanta Palace. The Indo-Saracenic building with Mughal style gardens was built in 1901 by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya. The palace has three domes, each 86 feet high. I was under the impression that the palace is now used as the assembly house of the state of Tripura, but our driver informed us that a new assembly house has been constructed recently. However, the palace was in shambles and was under renovation much in contrast to the imposing white structure seen in the brochures. The palace is accessible for the general public but was closed on that particular day due to Independence Day holiday.
We went for a stroll in the evening to have a feel of the city. An amusing observation we made was that there are no traffic lights on the roads and the traffic police still control with hand signals. There is a shopping mall known as City Centre at the heart of the city where we roamed around for a bit. We also visited a nearby handloom store to buy some gift items made of bamboo for which Tripura is famous. Then at 8 o’clock we went for dinner to a restaurant named Hata-Khunti, recommended by our driver, which serves strictly Bengali food. We were the only guests when we arrived, may be since it was so early by Indian standard, but throughout our meal also no other guest appeared. Srimanta apprised us the benefits of early dinner, probably making him acclimatized with the European lifestyle appropriate with his soon to be overseas stay. The food was good, at least the best we had during our stint at Tripura.
The next morning, we had nothing to do before we take our return flight. So we thought of visiting the Agartala Museum which was not far away from our hotel. Since there was still some time left for the museum to open, we decided to eat something first as we did not have our breakfast. We made another peculiar observation that there are not many fast food centres or small eateries where one can make a quick bite. Even in moderate shops carrying a long list of food items very few are actually available. We had the same experience a couple of hours later when we went for lunch. Even at noon, many restaurants were not functional and again at the place where we finally had our lunch, we were the only guests. May be the people of Agartala do not eat out much.
The city museum was a small one comprising some artefacts and sculptures from ancient times, not necessarily from Tripura. The top floor of the two storied building displayed some paintings of the royal rulers of Tripura. The attires of the later Maharajas had a tint of colonial reflection. The paintings of Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya and Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya were most conspicuous amongst them.
Before I end my trip report, I would like to mention a couple of experiences. First, the small 48-seater propeller Air India plane was a unique experience; never had the opportunity to board one before. It was reminiscent of the retro movies. And lastly, the way in which the Tripura government has promoted (feeling sorry for using the word but cannot ignore the fact that newer generations have mostly become unfamiliar to his work) Rabindranath Tagore is utterly commendable. There are numerous billboards carrying his pictures and his quotes throughout the state. Feeling pity for the chief minister of Bengal for being labelled overdramatic (yes, I am guilty of criticising at times as well) for naming a few projects and places after the Vishwa-Kabi. Tagore had doubted whether his work will have relevance after hundred years but hope he will have the same significance in our lives for many more years to come.