India: Tripura

Water Palace

Neermahal

November 2022

Ujjayanta Palace Agartala

After being serenaded by the falls and swooned by the bridges and amazed by the caves (details of which is eloquently penned here), we hopped on a short flight to Agartala. Superficially, Tripura looks same as Meghalaya. Greenery all around, choking traffic all around, honking all around, potholes all around. But scratch the surface and they are as different as chalk and Collatz conjecture. Tripura is everything that Meghalaya isn't, and isn't everything that Meghalaya is. There are no sweeping vistas, pristine waterfalls, living bridges and locals speaking Khasi. Instead, there are stunning palaces, spectacular rock art, mesmerising architecture and locals speaking Bengali. Meghalaya was teeming with tourists while Tripura was well and truly outside the beaten path. Google had every single opening times spot on for Meghalaya while it boldly claimed the Ujjayanta Palace, the prime attraction in Agartala as being permanently shut. The bored official in the Tripura Tourism desk at the airport, who had the look of a man marooned in an inhospitable island cut off from humanity, confidently claim the palace was closed on Tuesdays, the day we happen to set our first foot on Tripura. We took our chances and a taxi and drove straight to the palace with luggage in tow. And guess what? It had its door wide open for the tourists.

Boxanagar Stupa
Ujjayanta Palace Agartala

Manikya dynasty have been ruling Tripura ever since we have recorded history. They claim to go back to the Big Bang, but historians only give them credit for ruling since the 14th century. A massive earthquake rocked Tripura in 1897 destroying almost everything. Then king, Radha Kishore Manikya decided to go on a building spree commissioning a massive European style palace. It served two purposes - it gave the royalty a roof over their heads and it gave the common man a source of income after the devastating calamity. The result - the pride of Agartala, the grand Ujjayanta Palace. After ogling at the palace from all angles from the outside, we headed in to check out the lovely little museum it houses on the inside. The museum showcases the cultural, historical and social aspect of the entire Northeast and we could cross check whether our itinerary included all that was showcased under the Tripura section. Next to the palace are a couple of historic temples. The first one we visited was the century old Laxmi Narayan Bari (built by Birendra Kishore Manikya, the son and successor of Radha Kishore) offering picture perfect reflection shots of the palace, thanks to its temple tank. The second was the older Jagannath Bari built by Radha Kishore a few decades earlier. The Jagannath Temple painted in resplendent orange was a sight to behold in the late afternoon when we happen to visit there.

Boxanagar Stupa

The following morning we took the long road to Udaipur. No, not the famous one in Rajasthan. But the relatively unknown ex-capital of the Manikyas. More about that later. First, we have to cover a couple of sights on the way. Boxanagar, a sleepy border town, an hour and a half south of Agartala became famous (well, among the 20 people who follow the ASI news) a couple of decades ago when someone stumbled upon an ancient stupa. The only thing ASI has been able to do so far is to successfully date it to about the 8th century, well, apart from unearthing all the nearby structures, putting the rubble back to something close to the original shape, creating and maintaining their signature garden around the monuments. What I wanted to point out is we really don't know who built it or which kingdom patronised it, if any. We really don't know much about Tripura before the Manikyas enter the scene in the 14th c and start maintaining records. The second stop on the road to Udaipur is probably the best of all hidden gems in the country and arguably the best building in the nation after the Taj - the Neermahal Palace. Any doubts about whether Tripura can impress us after the amazingness of Meghalaya, simply vanished after one glimpse of this astonishing monument. This gleaming white Water Palace (which is what Neermahal translates to) sitting in the middle of a lake (Twijilikma is its name, call it Rudrasagar if your Kokborok is weak) was built in the 1930s by Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, the son of Birendra Kishore and grandson of Radha Kishore. You need a boat to ferry you to the palace and we opted for the slow row boat so that we can literally see the palace grow on us as we approach it and it is so big that it stopped fitting in our 24 mm full-frame viewfinder once we got closer than a kilometre from it. Unlike the Ujjayanta, Neermahal doesn't host any museums and completely bare on the inside. Which was better as we could appreciate the architecture and enjoy the breath-taking views from its windows instead of getting distracted by the displays. Thanks to its remoteness and relative obscureness, we had the entire palace to ourselves for an hour or so that we spent there. I doubt of any child has ever been this gleefully delirious in an all-you-can-eat chocolate factory like we were on that day roaming its corridors. As the boatman rowed us back to our car, we would constantly turned back to confirm if what we experienced was indeed real and not just a figment of our overactive imagination.

Bhuvaneshwari Udaipur

We reached Udaipur, our destination for the day, by lunch time. It was the longest serving capital of the Manikya dynasty. Originally known as Rangamati, the city was renamed as Udaipur in the late 16th c by its then ruler, Udai Manikya I. Before I rattle off the laundry list of Udaipur sights, let me digress into an interesting bit of Manikya dynasty history. In 1862, the Manikya king Ishan Chandra Manikya dies. He is survived by his son, Nabadwipchandra Dev Burman who doesn't take over the reigns of the kingdom. The kingdom passes onto the brother of the deceased king, Bir Chandra Manikya. Bir Chandra Manikya was an avid photographer and is credited to have taken the nation's first selfie. ND Burman, the son who didn't inherit the kingdom, moves to Bombay and that is where his son and grandson - SD Burman and RD Burman - made their names. So if the photographer Bir Chandra Manikya had not taken over the kingdom, Bollywood would have lost two of its greatest composers. Coming back to Udaipur, as you might have guessed, it is overflowing with Manikya era temples. The architecture is distinctly Bengali, all temples constructed in the Ratna/Chala style reminding one of the grand temples of Bishnupur. The most notable also-rans were the temples of Mahadev Bari, Buvaneshwari and Gunavati group, all constructed in the 17th c. The highlight, of course, was the Mata Bari or the Tirupurasundari Temple, the temple that gives the state its name. One of the 51 Shakti-peeths of Akhand Bharat.

Bhuvaneshwari Udaipur
Chabimura Udaipur

According to Hindu mythology, Shiva's consort, Parvati, once took an avatar as Sati, the daughter of king Daksha. When she grew up, she married Shiva against the wishes of her father. One day, Daksha performed a yagna and decided against inviting Shiva. Sati decides to attend anyway and unable to sit through her father's insults aimed at Shiva, jumps into the fire and commits suicide. This angered Shiva and he takes Sati's body and starts his Taandav, the cosmic dance of destruction. In order to save the universe, Vishnu sends his chakra and dismembers Sati's body and removes it from Shiva's grasp. A Shakti-Peeth temple now exists at every one of the 51 locations Sati's body parts are believed to have fallen. Mata Bari is where her left leg is believed to have fallen.

The sights of Udaipur only need an afternoon to blitz through. But there are couple of worthy half-day trips that one can do with Udaipur as the base. One of these is Pilak which lies about an hour south of Udaipur. Dating between the 8th and 12th c AD, Pilak was an important Buddhist site belonging to the Samatata kingdom. It houses some impressive sculptures, the most famous of which is the 12 ft Surya statue majestically staring at the visitors since the 8th c. We stared back for a while. We blinked first. Accepted defeat and headed further 30 minutes south to visit the Mahamuni Pagoda which, thanks to its Burmese style architecture, would completely blend in Mandalay or Bagan. This one we just couldn't stare at as it was painted bright gold and was gleaming under the morning sun. So we turned our backs to it, took selfies and headed back to Udaipur.

Chabimura Udaipur
Unakoti Shiva

The second half-day trip from Udaipur lies an hour to the east. This one, Chabimura is its name, is more noteworthy and if you have time for only one outing, you should choose Chabimura in a heartbeat. So, what is there in Chabimura? Well, it is a narrow verdant valley cut by the Gomati river and one can hire a boat to float down the valley and enjoy the lush greenery. But do keep a lookout on your right. Not for some esoteric animal that can spring at you from the foliage, but for an occasional clearing in the forest, exactly two clearing to be precise. Because in those clearing are gigantic rock sculptures, the second one, a giant 20 ft Mahishasuramardhini is sure to make your heart skip a beat. All we know about these sculptures is that they were sculpted in the 15th c. We can only wonder as to how they managed to do this on near vertical rock cliff with thick forest on all sides and a flowing river at the bottom.

If you start early, like we did, you would have enough time to cover all these side trips and still have time to head back to Agartala before dusk. We called it an early night as we knew we have a tiring day once we wake up. Chabimura was just the trailer to whet our appetite. The real capital of Tripuran rock sculptures is Unakoti, located a 5 hour neck-breaking drive north of Agartala. And we had to return the same day because Unakoti has as many accommodation options as the Moon. But, let me focus on the good stuff. The place is simply magical. Literally hundreds of giant rock sculptures dot the rocky landscape, the 30 ft Kal Bhairava and an equally big Ganesha panel were the highlight. Unakoti literally means one less than a crore (10 million). Since we know next to nothing about its history (other than the fact that they can be roughly dated to the 6th to 9th c AD), legend and myths have gladly filled in the gaps. And they tell us that there are a crore minus one sculptures here. Kalhukumar, the son of Vishwakarma, was challenged to carve a crore statues in one night in order to win a pass to Kailasa and he fell one shot of the objective. Another story claim that Shiva was leading a party of a crore gods to Kashi and all but him were too tired to continue past Unakoti and are still resting here in their petrified forms. In reality, the number of sculptures are no where close to a crore and number of unique gods are much lesser and Shiva does appear multiple times. But, unless someone discovers a treasure trove of inscriptions, these two stories are all we got. The hour we spent at the site was easily one of the highlights of our travel life, an hour that was worth far more than the ten that we spent on the forgettable drive to and from the site.

Unakoti Shiva
Spectacled Leaf Monkey

Flights generally arrive early in the Northeast and leave late. Since a good night's sleep helped us regain our strength, the last morning which we had budgeted for recovery now needs to be spent. This was Tripura, for goddess' sake. It has enough to fill an additional week, let alone a morning. An hour north of Agartala is the Kasba Kali Temple, a 15th c temple built by the king Dhanya Manikya. Quirk of 20th c politics has permanently isolated the temple from the railway station that serves it. The temple sits bang on the Bangadeshi border and the Kasaba Railway Station finds itself on the other side of the fence. A dozen kilometres from the temple is the Sepahijala zoo cum wildlife sanctuary. We swallowed the moral guilty pangs of seeing animals jailed in cages to glimpse at the elusive Phayre's leaf monkey, the endangered primate that is the state animal of Tripura. Unfortunately, there is no real chance of sighting this magnificent creature in the wild. Peering into the eyes of a fellow primate is always a moving experience and a great way to end such a wonderful vacation.

Spectacled Leaf Monkey

A year ago, I had concluded our first post-covid travelogue eulogising the amazing diversity of this country. A year and five more trips later, I can only smile at how little I knew of the said diversity. We have just finished visiting two states outside of generic public discourse. Two states which we last encountered in the 6th standard geography text books when we were forced to rote learn the capitals. My spellchecker still thinks the word Shillong doesn't exist. One would have naturally expected to find nothing worthwhile to blog about. But we ended up visiting a dozen falls to die for, jaw dropping scenery, bridges that breathe, a fairy tale palace in the middle of a lake and rock sculptures that could very well have been built by aliens. Any one of these alone would be a poster child for a nation's tourism. Instead, we have successfully hidden all of it from public knowledge. We did not know the existence of any of these up until we started the pre-trip research. Incredible India indeed!

Click here for more photos from Tripura.

TRIP DETAILS AND ESSENTIALS
Click here for more photos from Tripura.

Back
Home
Next