Leisure & Travel

Fragrant hills of Tripura

This lonely outpost of India has much to offer free spirits in search of adventure and the exotic. Almost wholly surrounded by politically volatile Bangladesh, Tripura beckons with its unique tribal culture and nature’s bounty

The most low-profile of the much neglected ‘seven sister’ states of north-east India, Tripura (pop. 3.6 million) is unfamiliar territory for the overwhelming majority of Indians. Almost wholly surrounded (to the north, west and south) by the politically volatile nation state of Bangladesh (pop. 166 million), on the east it shares a common border with the Indian states of Assam and Mizoram. Partly because of its remote location and a civil insurgency which ravaged this tiny north-eastern state in the decade leading up to the noughties, Tripura has failed to attract huge numbers of domestic or foreign tourists.

Nevertheless this lonely outpost of India has much to offer free spirits in search of adventure and the exotic. Nestled in the Jampui Hills, Tripura beckons with its unique tribal culture and nature’s beauty and bounty. Described as the “land of eternal love” by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Tripura, which was granted statehood in 1972, sprawls across 10,492 sq. km and boasts enviable 5,745 sq. km forest cover. 

In ancient Hindu texts, Tripura is described as ‘Twipra’ — land adjoining water — because its boundaries extended from the Garo Hills in neighbouring Meghalaya to Arakan in Myanmar and down to the Bay of Bengal. Although Tripura is inscribed on Ashokan pillars of the third century BC, the recorded history of the state dates back to the 13th century when the region was ruled by the Manikya dynasty. The Mughals invaded the north-east in 1618, and although later forced to withdraw due to an epidemic, the low-lying areas remained under Mughal control thereafter. Subsequently after the fall of the Mughal Empire, suzerainty of these territories fell under sway of the British East India Co, when Lord Clive obtained the diwani of Bengal in 1765. However, the Manikya kings continued to rule the state as zamindars under protection of the British. 

Development in this remote area was slower than in other princely states of British India. State revenues were supplemented by the Raja’s zamindari in British Bengal, but were insufficient for any substantial reforms. Only in the reign of Maharaja Bir Chandra Kishore Manikya in the last quarter of the 19th century, the first tentative steps towards land reform and development were taken. However, no determined programme emerged until the reign of Maharaja Kirit Birendra Kishore Manikya during the second decade of the 20th century. This enlightened ruler not only reformed the revenue system, the courts, police, and army, but also built roads, hospitals and schools. He contracted marriages with several Nepalese princesses and sent his sons and brothers to be educated in modern institutions outside the state.

In 1923, 15-year-old Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya succeeded his father as ruler of this tiny mountain principality. With the cooperation of the Council of Regency comprising British officials, a series of administrative and other reforms were initiated, education expanded, communications and infrastructure improved. However Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore’s early death in 1947 left the throne to his 14-year-old son, Maharaja Kirit Bikram Kishore. This was a crucial time in Tripura’s history, not only because India became independent of British rule but also because of the birth of West and East Pakistan. Tripura, which was surrounded on the south, west and north by East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), suffered a huge inflow of refugees, which threatened to exhaust the state’s meagre resources. Unable to cope with infiltration from across the border, the Maharaja’s mother, who had assumed charge as Regent after her husband’s death, was forced to cede sovereignty to India within a few months after independence.

The Maharani signed an agreement for merger of Tripura with the Indian Union on September 9, 1947, following which administration of the state was transferred to the government of India on October 15, 1949. Tripura was designated a Union territory without legislature with effect from November 1, 1956 and a popular ministry was installed on July 1, 1963. Statehood was conferred on January 21, 1972. 
The climate of Tripura is hot and damp. The summer season extends from March to May and temperatures range between 25°C-36°C. Winter starts in October and stretches up to February with temperatures ranging between 13° to 27°C. During the monsoon months of May-August, it rains heavily. The best time to visit is September-March. The major languages spoken in primarily agrarian Tripura are Bengali and Kakborak.

Agartala

The administrative capital of Tripura, Agartala was founded in 1838 by Maharaja Krishna Kishore Manikya. Situated on a plain running parallel to the Haora river, which flows through the city bifurcating it, Agartala was the seat of the Manikya dynasty for over a century. Sited a mere 2 km from the Bangladesh border, it boasts charming palaces, temples, and a tribal museum. Since handloom weaving is Tripura’s primary industry, tourists can shop for locally designed hand woven bags, apparel, and other accessories in the city’s shops and quaint open-air markets. Excellent handicrafts and furniture made from cane and bamboo are also a big draw here.

Life in Agartala is centered around the imposing Ujjayanta Palace, which currently houses the state legislature. Built by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya in 1901, this stunning palace is surrounded by 28 hectares of parkland and overlooks two large ponds. A two-storied mansion with three domes supported by carved wooden ceilings and beautifully crafted doors, Ujjayanta Palace is set amidst sprawling Mughal style gardens. Unfortunately being the venue of the state legislature, visitors are only permitted to peek through the gates. Four Hindu temples are located on the edges of the compound and Buddha Vihar, about 1.5 km north of the palace, contains Burmese statues of the Buddha.

Within a mile of Ujjayanta Palace is the Kunjaban Palace, built in 1917 atop a green hillock by Maharaja Birendra Kishore Manikya. A gifted artist, the Maharaja is said to have personally prepared the blueprint and supervised the construction of the palace and its gardens, whose claim to fame is that Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore stayed in the eastern apartment (Malancha Niwas) during his last visit to the state in 1926. Kunjaban is now the official residence of the governor of Tripura and is inaccessible to the public. 

The modest Tripura Government Museum houses interesting artefacts recovered from excavations around the state and also contains an impressive gallery of Raj-era paintings and etchings. The ruins of the former capital, now known as Old Agartala, are 5 km east in the village of Kayepur. The Chaturdasha Devata Mandir or the temple of 14 deities is the venue of the famous Karchi Puja festival every July and a popular tourist attraction. The Handicrafts Designing Centre and Portuguese Church are worth visiting.

Accommodation. Mid-range: Hotel Rajdhani (Rs.1,200-5,100); Hotel City Centre (Rs.778-2,205); Hotel Welcome Palace (Rs.1,000 onwards). Budget: Rajarshi (Rs.300 onwards); Hotel Radha International (Rs.200 onwards); Royal Guest House (Rs.200 onwards); Hotel Haven (Rs.200 and above).

Excursions ex Agartala. Since the interior regions of Tripura have not been developed for tourism in terms of hotel infrastructure, it’s advisable to make Agartala (pop 343,633) the base of excursions into the hinterland. 
Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary has an area of 18.53 km. This nature park is 28 km from Agartala, and it hosts over 456 plant species and over 150 species of residential and migratory birds, rhesus macaque, pigtailed macaque, capped langur, spectacled monkey, slow loris and several other wild animals like leopard, clouded leopard, jungle fowl, civets, barking, deer, wild pig, an orchid garden, a lake with boating facilities, plus a zoo and toy train. The famous spectacled monkey of Tripura is a native of this sanctuary. The state’s other wildlife sanctuary Trishna is approx 111 km from Agartala. 

Neermahal. About 53 km from Agartala is the spectacular Neermahal (water palace), sited on an island in the Rudrasagar lake and constructed by Maharaja Birbikram Kishore Manikya in 1930, as a summer retreat for royals. The only lake palace in eastern India, it’s a blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture and its vast gardens host an open-air auditorium, the venue of numerous dance and theatre festivals. Though slowly falling into ruin, Neermahal is not to be missed. The state government has targeted the palace for renovation and a son-et-lumiere (sound and light) show. 

Boating and water sports are offered on the Rudrasagar lake where a boat race festival is held every August. The lake is a haven for bird watchers as many migratory species visit in winter. For those wishing to enjoy the palace by night, Sagar Mahal, sited on the banks of Rudrasagar, offers modest but comfortable accommodation.
 
Udaipur

The ancient Hindu pilgrim centre of Udaipur (39 km from Agartala) is centred around the huge Jagannath Digthi (water) tank. The ruined Jagannath Mandir once hosted the famous Jagannath deity of Puri (Orissa). About 4 km from Udaipur is the revered Tripura Sundari temple dedicated to goddess Kali. One of the 51 pithasthans of Hinduism, the temple comprises a square sanctum area of typical Bengali-hut style, with a conical dome. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu severed the body of Mata Sati into 51 pieces. The places where her body parts fell are known as pithasthans. 

The Sundari temple pithasthan is also known as kurma pith, because in silhouette the temple resembles a ‘kurma’ or tortoise. Goddess Kali is worshipped here in her soroshi form. In the eastern wing of the temple compound is the famous Kalyan Sagar lake where huge tortoises of ancient vintage are fed puffed rice and biscuits by devotees. 

Situated on the right bank of river Gomati in Udaipur is the Bhuvaneshwari temple adjoined by the ruins of a palace built by Maharaja Govinda Manikya.

Accommodation options at Udaipur are limited. Matabari Pantha Niwas is one of the better equipped hotels while the Gonabati Yatri Niwas is a strictly utilitarian pilgrim’s hostel.

Seventy five km from Agartala and well worth the trip is Deotamura, famed for its panels of rock carvings on a steep hill face on the banks of river Gomati. The wall showcases stunning images of Shiva, Vishnu, Kartika, Durga and other gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon dating back to the 15th-16th centuries.
Pilak. Further a field of about 100 km from Agartala is Pilak, sparsely populated and a historic archeological site. Recently the Archeological Survey of India discovered a large number of stone images and terracotta plaques dating back to the 8th-9th centuries here. The stone images scattered over 10 sq. km display intricate carvings on colossal statues of Avolokiteswara and Narashimha. A number of terracotta plaques and seals depicting images of the Buddha have also been discovered at Pilak, which is being developed into a Buddhist pilgrimage centre. 

Dumboor Lake. Set amidst green hills and surrounded by thick forest, Dumboor (115 km from Agartala) is a tourist hot spot. With a diameter of 41 sq. km, Dumboor is dotted with 41 islands and is the repository confluence of rivers Raima and Sarma. Numerous species of migratory birds make this azure lake their home every winter. Boating and water sports facilities are offered by the state tourism department. 

Unakoti 

The ancient pilgrim centre of Unakoti is famed for its 8th century bas-relief rock carvings, including a 30 ft-high representation of Lord Shiva. Literally translated, Unakoti (178 km from Agartala) means ‘one less than a crore’ as it is believed that as many rock cut carvings are found here. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva with an entourage of one crore gods and goddesses made a night halt at Unakoti on his way to Kashi. Before retiring for the night, he ordered all of them to awake before sunrise and proceed towards Kashi (Benaras). When nobody woke from his slumber, an angry Lord Shiva set out on his own towards Kashi after cursing the other deities and transforming them into stone images. 

Of the numerous rock cut carvings found here, the gigantic statues of Shiva and Ganesha deserve special mention. Lord Shiva is crowned by an intricately carved 10 ft headdress. On either side are two life size statues — one of Durga on a lion’s back and another of an unknown goddess. Nearby are three enormous stone images of the Nandi Bull, half buried in the ground. Enhancing these exquisite carvings of Unakoti are gushing waterfalls and thick forests, housing rare varieties of orchids and amazing botanical diversity. Unsurprisingly Unakoti is a popular picnic spot. Moreover the Ashokastami mela held here every April attracts thousands of devotees from across the country.

Accommodation. Uttarmegh Tourist Lodge (Rs.600-1,700).

Jampui Hills

Famous for oranges and spectacular landscapes, the Jampui Hills are known in the local language as the ‘land of eternal spring’. Towering 3,000 ft above sea level, 200 km from Agartala, Jampui has great natural beauty in its rolling green hills, untrammeled forests, fragrant orange orchards and invigorating climate. The weather through the year is pleasant with little variation in temperature. The highest point in Tripura, Betalongchhip (3,600 ft) is in Jampui affording sweeping vistas of the neighbouring state of Mizoram and Chittagong in Bangladesh. 

The Jampui Hills comprise 11 villages inhabited by Tripura’s Lushai and Reang tribes, mainly engaged in orange cultivation. October to December is the season of mellow fruitfulness, when orange trees laden with fruit assume a marvelous saffron hue. During March-May exotic orchids and wild flowers are in full bloom. In the monsoon months the hills are enveloped in clouds and it’s an ideal time for walking and trekking. 

The natural beauty, pleasant weather, orchid gardens, orange orchards and hospitable people make the pristine climes of Jampui a perfect getaway for city weary tourists. Most tribal people are Christians, live in clean, neat houses and speak fluent English.

Comfortable accommodation is available at Eden Tourist lodge (Rs.300 onwards). Moreover local people offer home stay facilities which enables visitors to experience the life and culture of the Lushai and Reang tribes from close quarters. 

Getting there. Agartala is connected by road to Guwahati via Shillong by the National Highway No.44. The train service is via Guwahati and the nearest rail head is at Kumarghat, 140 km from Agartala. Direct flights also connect Kolkata and Guwahati to Agartala.