Tripura’s royal lineage
When we decided to visit Tripura, India’s third smallest state, I was skeptical about whether it would be interesting. Nevertheless, one fine morning, we took a flight from Kolkata to Agartala. Agartala is the state’s capital, a culturally charming place of royal vintage. Tripura’s only ‘city’, this low–key settlement with its semi–rural atmosphere feels like an India of yore. It’s a congested but relaxed place, and in many ways feels more like a small town than a state capital. The pace of life is slow, and the people are friendly.
All major development is located around the erstwhile King’s palace, called ‘Ujjayanta Palace’. The palace was built in 1901 by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya. The palace has Indo–Saracenic architecture, set in a large Mughal style garden, covering 1 square meter area, having man–made lakes on both sides. The building now houses the state museum, with an imposing collection of regal and cultural memorabilia and artifacts and it is the only part open to the public. Agartala’s centre–piece is this striking, whitewashed, dome–capped palace and its beauty is reflected at night in its two large ponds when the lights shimmer through the superstructure, the fountains and on marble statues in the garden. The Jagannath Temple is one of the four temples around the palace and its massive sculptured portico leads into a complex with wedding–cake architecture painted in ice–cream sundae colours. The MBB College, Rabindra Bhaban, Tripura University, Buddhist shrine in Benuban Vihar and the Assembly building are some of the other attractions in the city.
The India–Bangladesh Border is within few kilometers of the city center, where BSF soldiers from India and BDR force of Bangladesh control entry. Visitors can witness flag ceremonies at the border. State–run Purbasha Tripura sells cheap bamboo–work, notably cane lampshades and stools. Occasionally they sell curiosity items, including Lenin portraits on rattan. Archaeological attractions.
Neer Mahal is located at Sonamura, 52 km from Agartala, and is a bus ride away. Tripura’s most iconic building, Neermahal, is a gorgeous red–and–white water palace, empty but shimmering on its own boggy island in the lake of Rudrasagar. Like its counterpart in Rajasthan’s Udaipur, this was a princely exercise in aesthetics, Tripuran king Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarman hired the finest craftsmen to construct his lavish summer palace in a blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles. The pavilion was christened by the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1930. The delightful waterborne approach by speedboat or fancy rowboat is the most enjoyable part of the visit. Boats leave from a pier beside the lovely Sagarmahal Tourist Lodge, where most rooms have lake–facing balconies, and there’s also a good restaurant downstairs. Try an overnight stay.
There are some very old temples in Tripura which are no longer places of worship but still of archaeological interest. Udaipur was Tripura’s historic capital and remains dotted with ancient temples and tanks. Bhubaneswari Temple, built by Maharaja Govinda Manikya between 1667 and 1676 AD in Udaipur, located beside the Gomati river, has a special brick construction, which is different from the type found in the West Bengal–Bishnupur region. Bhubaneswari Temple was the backdrop of the famous novel, Rajarshi and the drama Bisharjan, written by Rabindranath Tagore. At present, there is a statue of Tagore and a stage called Rajarshi Mancha in the old palace grounds of Maharaja Govinda Manikya.
Gubunati group of temples, also located in Udaipur, 53 km from Agartala, was built by Maharaja Govinda Manikya in 1668 AD, in memory of Maharani Gunabati. But the main sight in Udaipur is the Tripura Sundari Mandir, a 1501 AD Kali temple, one of the 51 Hindu paths or pilgrimage sites, where a steady stream of pilgrims make almost endless animal sacrifices that leave the grounds as bloody as the temple’s vivid–red shikhara (spire). Even more, people come during the Diwali mela to bathe in the temple tank, called Kalyan Sagar. This lake is home to many kinds of fishes and tortoises which are considered blessed by Mataji and are fed by pilgrims for getting favours from her.
Rock carvings of Unakoti:
The greatest archeological attraction of Tripura is, however, Unakoti, located at Kailasahar, 178 km from Agartala. It is a Shiva pilgrimage site that dates back to the 9th or 10th century AD. This is an open site consisting of several, huge, vertical boulders on which images have been cut and carved. These carvings are scattered in a beautifully landscaped forest area. Unakoti, which means one less than a crore, houses a large number of rock carvings and stone images. The central Shiva head is one of the gigantic figures of special interest. The bas–relief sculpture of Shiva depicting only his face may be one of the biggest bas–reliefs in India. The carvings all have tribal features. There are three rock–cut Ganesha figures on a rock fall. A spring flows right over their heads and gives a bathing scene effect. This valley is considered one of the Saivaite Centres that flourished during the Pala dynasty. Pilak, located at Santir Bazar (100 km from Agartala), hosts the famous Pilak festival and is another ancient site that offers evidence of co–existence of Hindu and Buddhist creeds. Besides temples, the state also has famous mosques and Buddha Mandirs. Kalyan Sagar Kali Temple at Bishalgarh, Gedu Mia Mosque at Shibnagar, Chaturdas Devta Temple at Khayurpur, Mahamuni Pagoda at Rupaichari, are just some of the other religious places worth visiting.
Jampui hills and Eco–tourism:
Tripura has a hilly range, called Jampui Hills, located 1000 ft above sea level, which borders Mizoram. The 930 meters high Betalongchhip, is the highest point in Tripura. It is a driving distance of 220 km from Agartala along NH44 and is an enjoyable ride along hilly terrain, though road conditions need immediate attention. From Agartala, one will have to hire an SUV if you travel independently. There are 10 small villages in the Jampui hills inhabited by tribal families of Mizo origin, living in wooden houses surrounded by greenery. Small villages like Vangmuss, Phuldangsai, Sabowal, Belianchip offer eco–tourism. The people of Jampui Hills work very hard. Despite geographical disadvantages, they have succeeded in growing oranges, betel–nuts, ginger, coffee etc. on a large scale. Oranges are a major source of income, prized for their taste and purity, and from September to December there was once an orange festival held here when the hills are covered with floating clouds, which drift upwards from the ground, a unique sight for tourists.
There are many hill points to take in the 3600 views and wonderful sunrise and sunset. From the watchtower on the highest peak, Balinchhip (3200 feet above sea level), the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Kanchanpur–Dasda valley and other hill ranges of Tripura and Mizoram unfold in a stunning scenic vista. Official languages in the area are Mizo, English and Bengali. Bengalis will find many similarities between their food, language and culture and that of Tripura. The staple food of Tripura is rice, fish and vegetables and Mui Borok is a particular favourite among the locals.
A tar road is being built to Jampui Hills, connecting it to Mizoram. Jampui Hills can now be accessed by road from Dharmanagar and Kailashahar via Kanchanpur. Tripura Tourism Department has built lodges like Eden Tourist Lodge at Vanghmun village, and you can also stay in local village homes to experience the Mizo way of life. The Tourism department offers package tours from Agartala to the Jampui hills. It is a great way to explore the virgin forests and experience the peaceful ambiance of the scenic villages, including its beautiful orchids and colourful local dances like Cheraw or Bamboo dance, & folk music. Other eco–tourism spots are Sepahijala Wild Life Sanctuary, (a picnic and boating spot famous for its spectacle monkeys, rare and exotic birds), Tepania Park, Baramura Park, as well as the Gumti, Rowa, and Trishna Wildlife Sanctuaries.