The Princely State of Tripura

Tripura is a small, landlocked state which lies between Assam and Bangladesh. Lacking the spectacular mountain terrain of the other North Eastern states, it is a verdant region of rice and fruit cultivation, dotted with fairy tale white palaces and mellow ochre temples as far as the eye can see. The people are predominantly Hindu and mainly Bengali with close ties to both Bangladesh and West Bengal. In fact, so close are these ties that whenever they want to visit relatives in Calcutta the easiest way for most people to do so is by bus, the route leaving Agatala and transiting seamlessly through Bangladesh via Dakar and back into India again for its final stop.

We don’t hear nearly so much about the effects of Partition on the citizens of the former “East Pakistan” as we do about the sundering of the Punjab but International relations do seem rather more comfortable at this end of the country. And I know this because soon after arriving, I was driven a little way out of the city to watch the flag lowering ceremony at the border. As the immaculately cockaded and bemedalled soldiers on either side waited for the sun to go down, merchants and families all laden with luggage continued passing in either direction through a singularly unimpressive set of portable metal barriers. They would have become mixed up with the onlookers expect for the fact that rows of plastic chairs had been set out for visitors and the ladies (myself included) were called forward to sit at the front. Of course we waved and smiled at the mirroring group on the other side and, as soon as the requisite government official had taken his seat, a grandiose pageant of high-stepping, synchronised marching, exaggerated saluting and flag furling began. It was all on a much smaller scale than the ceremony at the Indo-Pak border at Waga and, since these soldiers do not boast the incredible height of the North West frontier Parthans, a whole lot less aggressive and much more fun.

Unsurprisingly, my two day itinerary in Tripura was absolutely stuffed with temples and palaces but the goddess Kali must have been looking out for me because her forthcoming Durga Puja ceremony meant that most were inaccessible or closed (to me anyway). I got some pretty good tourist photos of some of them though and, with the help of my guide, was able to turn my attention to matters more closely associated with this region: clouded leopards and mysterious, ancient rock carvings. Before I leave the sacred realm let me first just mention that here I learned for the first time about the fifty one Shakti temples. Scattered across the Indian sub-continent, these are holy shrines to the body parts of the goddess Sati, flung down from the heavens after a particularly nasty family disagreement amongst the gods. I picked this up this bit of information at Sundari (her right leg) proving that I really should have been listening more attentively to Miss Kitty last year at Janakpur in Nepal (left shoulder). I shall consult the list to find out how many more such pieces of divine anatomy I have accidentally stumbled over in my perambulations around India.

The Sepahijala wildlife sanctuary is more of a zoo actually and not a particularly good one at that; there are the usual lonely and inadequately housed representatives of the African Serengeti and sparse information available about any of the native species either. Nonetheless, I persisted (as they say in American politics these days) and was at least rewarded by the sight of a pair of clouded leopards in such a huge, wooded enclosure that a pair of binoculars would have been helpful. There were a number of black bears (highly endangered) and so many of the smaller “big cats” sunning themselves in apparent contentment that the visit proved to be a good lesson in identification. Just in case opportunities occur later in the trip, you understand.

I had to leave my comfortable room in Agatarla to travel to the next destination and accommodation at the town of Kailashahar left much to be desired, especially since the Durga Puja celebrations were rising to a crescendo and no one gave a damn. Undoubtedly it had to be worth a smelly bathroom and non-existent breakfast to get to the remote rock-cut sculptures of Unokoti though. Unakoti means “one less than ten million” and refers to the number of gods depicted on the rocky outcrops amongst these steep, green river valleys. Apparently the great God Shiva awoke one morning on his journey to Mount Kailash and, finding that the others were still asleep despite his instructions that all must rise early, cursed them all and turned them to stone. I’ll have to remember that story when my grandchildren reach their teens.

There are indeed multiple depictions of recognisable characters: Ganesh, Durga, Nandi etc but many have been broken into great boulders by the action of the river because they are believed to be more than 1,400 years old. Fortunately, the vast majority of carvings are almost certainly still safe for future generations of archaeologists under the thick vegetation as at the moment little is known about their construction. With such scant scholarship and without the sinuous beauty of the contemporaneous carvings of Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu) it doesn’t look as if this site will be granted World Heritage status any time soon. The single attendant let us in for free as his ticket booth was being repainted and when I asked for the visitors’ book he just smiled and shook his head.

We crossed out of Tripura into Assam for a rendezvous with a new guide for the next stage of my journey but the hotel at Silchar was all shuttered up and nothing else was open either. The streets were filling with processions of trucks loaded with multi-armed goddesses and booming loudspeakers, each followed by its own dancing crowd and all liberally daubed with brightly coloured holi powder. By the time my guide eventually managed to find me somewhere to stay I had already been “selfied” to within inches of my life and had got vermilion stains down on my bra from a rather inaccurate attempt to give me a bindi mark on my forehead. What else could I do but change into my oldest clothes and join in the fun?

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