When I first took the decision to visit Tripura — the smallest of the Seven Sisters of the North-East, even India — it was primarily because no one I knew had ever gone there. Somehow that made me kind of sad, because I have the privilege of knowing many people who keep going to offbeat places, and here was this one, whole state where no one I knew had been.
So, basically, that did it. In the December of 2010, my parents and I set off to Tripura — which means Three Cities (quite like the Greek word Tripolis), or maybe it takes its name from Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the region, and also a Shakti Peeth (more on that later). It was an extended road trip which took us through the length and breadth of the little state.
As strange and whimsical as the reason for trotting across India, right to the other end, was, it was not one that I regret for even a moment. Because hidden in the deep recesses of the Twipra Kingdom is one of the most magical and majestic places in the country. In fact, I insist on calling it India’s answer to Machu Picchu. Okay, so maybe a slight exaggeration, but any amount of reading does not prepare you for what you will find at the Lost Hill of Unakoti.
Around 178km from state capital Agartala, Unakoti — meaning one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — is a Shaiva pilgrimage spot which is unlike anything you’ll find in India. Imagine MASSIVE images of Lord Shiva carved ON the hill. And when I say images…there aren’t just 20-30 of them. There are supposedly 99,99,999 of them. Arguably dating back to the 7th-9th centuries, these carvings have some interesting tales associated with them.
Legend has it that Lord Shiva with his entourage of other gods was headed towards his heavenly abode, Kailash, and decided to spend the night at the point, which is now known as Kailashahar (8km down the hill from Unakoti). He warned his fellow travellers that they would have to leave before the break of dawn, but after a night of revelry, Shiva was the only one who managed to get up. Known for his rather short temper, Shiva cursed all the late sleepers (I shudder to have him as a travelling companion) to an eternity on Earth and walked off to Kailash in a huff, all by his lonesome self. That entourage now adorn the hills of Unakoti.
The second story is a classic one about god and devotee. According to this version, the images have been carved by a sculptor by the name of Kallu Kumhar. He was a great devotee of Parvati, so when Shiva-Parvati and the whole entourage were passing through this region (again en route to Kailash), Kallu Kumhar asked to accompany them. Since the big man was fairly wary of this proposition, Parvati made a deal with him. She suggested Kallu Kumhar make 1 crore images of Shiva (to appease him) overnight, and should he be able to do so, he would accompany them, if not, then tough luck! As it would happen, as the sun rose the next day the Kumhar fell just one short of a crore — and that gave Shiva the loophole he needed to rid himself of this unwanted fellow traveller. (Although, if Mr Kumhar was supposed to make different forms of Shiva, don’t know how Parvati, Ganesha and the rest of them got on those hills.)
Whatever the story behind these carvings, the logistics of how they were actually made is a mystery quite akin to that of the making of the pyramids. Most of the bas-relief sculptures are around 30-40 ft high, and have a rawness that differs from the classical Indian style, and is more tribal. I found it to be similar to statuettes from the Aztec civilization — especially the way the eyes, teeth and headdresses have been depicted. Several still grace the sides of the hills, some have given in to the ravages of time and broken off and now lie as wounded soldiers, others apparently are buried and need to be excavated. I counted around 130 of them. There’s one with three Ganeshas, which appears to have a rivulet flowing atop it — making it seem as if he’s bathing.
As we walked from one side to other, navigating our way through the staircases (hundreds and hundreds of steps!) and bridges joining the two hills over which the statuettes are now scattered, I felt as if I’d chanced upon an old worship place that was supposed to be hidden from the rest of the world — a secret domain where entry had to be earned. One could see signs of springs and rivulets criss-crossing through entire area, and I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful the place would have looked centuries ago with the flowing water, verdant hills, incense smells, sounds of the temple bells, chanting of mantras, kings (possibly from the Pali dynasty) and tantrics… the mind wanders further.
Even the main priest over there (they have a daily puja, morning and evening) was quite forbidding in his attitude. The most he did was give me some prasad and glare at me. The other two sadhus, who live higher up in a hut, seemed a lot more interesting — especially considering the sweet smell of weed emanating from their rather humble abode. Jai Bum Bhole! 😉 Such saffron-robed citizens are a delight and must-have any religious place to make it mysterious. What makes them even more interesting is the folklore that these two are, in fact, a famous dacoit and his aide who had gone missing from the hills of Tripura around a decade ago — just a couple of years before the two ‘sages’ were seen at Unakoti. It is said that once they disbanded and were running from the border forces and local police, they went into hiding and then resurfaced as ‘babas’ at Unakoti, where they have been living ever since.
A house of bandits or trapped gods and goddesses, think of Unakoti as you will, but it is a definite fixture on the must-visit sites in India. Pity, that neither the state nor the Centre has been able to successfully put it on India’s popular tourist maps. But then again, maybe too many tourists would just spoil the rather pristine, untouched, secret allure that this place has.
So, have I managed to convince you to visit 99,99,999 yet? Let me know.
(The usual travel specs are at the end of the photo gallery)
How to get there: Tripura has just one airport, in Agartala, the capital city. Unakoti is around 178 km North from there. (I believe Kailashahar, 8km away, has a private runway. So if you own a plane, you can fly down there instead!) You can take a cab from Agartala to Unakoti/Kailashahar. If you prefer the train, then Kumarghat, around 41km away, is the closest railway station. Check out IRCTC (https://www.irctc.co.in/) for the train time table.
Tourism website: http://tripuratourism.nic.in/ (PS: We found the guys at the Tripura House in Delhi most helpful)
You can also see: Agartala (ehhhh. I would just use the city as a stopover), Jampui Hill (lovely place. The highest tourist place in the state. Try and go there during orange season, which is Oct–Dec), Udaipur (Check out the Neer Mahal, the Light & Sound show there is particularly BRILLIANT; Tripura Sundari Temple, where you can see goat sacrifices, so it’s not for the faint-hearted; Bhubaneswari Temple is an interesting location); Sepahijhala Forest Reserve and National Park (for us, this was a waste of time, but you may think differently)
The route we took: Agartala – Kamala Sagar – Sepahijhala – Udaipur – Neer Mahal – Unakoti – Jampui Hills – Agartala (6 Days in December 2010)
Also, another post on Tripura will come up soon! So keep visiting.