Among India’s lesser-explored destinations, Tripura takes its name from a word meaning ‘Three Cities’ — similar to the Greek word ‘Tripolis’ — or perhaps from Tripura Sundari, the popular presiding deity of the region.
Far from the country’s popular tourist circuits, the third smallest Indian state may not have a well-developed infrastructure for travellers but its cultural charm and welcoming locals make up for what it lacks in cold concrete. For the adventurous few that venture here, Tripura reveals itself to be a diamond in the rough, a true Indian jewel.
A living reminder of this fact can be found nestled amidst the thick forested Jampui Hills of north Tripura.
Bound by the meandering Manu River, this region is home to one of the most spectacular heritage sites in South Asia — the giant bas-relief sculptures of Unakoti.
Located around 178 km from Agartala, Unakoti’s ‘Lost Hill of Faces’ is a centuries-old Shaivite pilgrimage spot, unlike anything you’ll find in India. In fact, mesmerized travel bloggers have often called this hidden gem India’s version of Macchu Picchu.
The ancient site (whose name means one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — a crore in Bengali is called koti) has gigantic sculptures of Hindu deities that have been chiselled out of the hill and that are believed to date back to between the 8th and 9th centuries. Most of them are about 30 to 40 feet high and have an earthy rawness that is more akin to the tribal style of art than to the classical Indian style.
The most famous one of them is the Unakotishwara Kal Bhairav, a 30-foot high carving of Shiva’s head. Its most eye-catching feature is its 10-foot high intricate headdress that is flanked by a warrior-like Goddess Durga (standing on a lion) on one side and Goddess Ganga (sitting atop Capricornrn) on the other.
Besides these, there are several other exquisitely detailed sculptures including Ganesh, Hanuman, and Nandi bulls. Interestingly, these sculptures have some fascinating folklore associated with them.
Here are some that stand out:
Popularised by the Rajamala, the official history of the Manikya kings of Tripura, the most popular legend has it that Lord Shiva had once spent a night in the hills of Unakoti en route to his abode at Kailash (there are some who say Kashi). He was accompanied by an entourage of 99,99,999 gods and goddesses. Wanting to reach his home on time, he had asked his followers to wake up before dawn so they could make their way towards Kailash.
However, none awoke on time, except for Lord Shiva himself. Before he set out for Kailash alone, the enraged god put a curse on the late sleepers, condemning them to an eternity on Earth and turning them to stone. Its believed that this petrified entourage is what adorns the hills of Unakoti and what gave the site its name. However, there actually aren’t that many sculptures here today!
According to another riveting version, these rock-cut reliefs were carved by a talented sculptor called Kalu Kumhar (who was a great devotee of Shiva-Parvati). When the divine couple and their mammoth entourage were passing through this region, he asked permission to accompany them.
Shiva was wary of accepting this proposition, so Parvati came up with a solution — if the sculptor was able to make 1,00,00,000 images of Shiva and his entourage overnight, he could accompany them. Unfortunately, as the sun rose the next day, Kalu Kumhar fell just one short of a crore and was left behind.
Interestingly, this version itself has its own variation. In it, Kalu Kumhar was given the task of carving the reliefs in a dream. But instead of carving images of all gods and goddess, he gave into temptation and carved the last one as an image of himself, making it one short of a crore. This popular tale is oft-repeated by the locals as a lesson on why one should not give in to excessive pride!
Whatever be the legends behind these carvings, the story and logistics of how they were made remains shrouded mystery. The Archaeological Survey of India is yet to carry out detailed research work in Unakoti, though according to some archaeologists, there may be bas-reliefs and sculptures in the forested hills that are yet to be discovered.
Perhaps one of these still-undiscovered objects may provide us with more information about the history behind Unakoti. Talks of the ancient site being added to the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites have also been in the news. Perhaps this would spur researchers to find new information about these magnificent carvings too!
So if you are a person who likes exploring ancient connections and uncharted terrain, pack your bags and head to Unakoti soon. It is sure to leave you spellbound!