Escaping a Delhi summer is too tantalising to turn down, but the sight of Tripura’s rolling green land, as our plane descended on Singerbhil airport in Agartala, was a bigger relief than I imagined. To parched eyes longing for green trees and cool shade, Tripura seems like paradise. Like most people outside the Northeast, I knew next to nothing about the state, but having got the chance I was determined to find out. I was armed with books, printouts, more books, a carefully devised itinerary and a plan to cover as much of the state’s cultural landscape as possible.

Description: the Manu river

the Manu river

After a day wandering about Agartala, we were on our way up to north Tripura to the town of Kailashahar through the densely forested hill ranges of Baramura and Teliamura (mura means head). These verdant forests, extremely troubled not so long ago, are home to some of Tripura’s indigenous tribes - the Lushai, the Jamatiya and the Reang, among others. The winding hill road then descended into the lush rice-growing valley of the Manu river, home to the millions of Bengalis who first came here as refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh. The land is folded, with even a few scattered tea gardens. Leaving NH-44 and heading towards Kailashahar, we were in hilly country again. Deep in these forested hills bordering Sylhet lies one of the crowning glories of Tripura’s cultural heritage.

Description: a passenger ferry crossing the Rudrasagar lake to Neermahal

A passenger ferry crossing the Rudrasagar lake to Neermahal

No one can tell with any certainty the identity of the people who created the unique sculptures of Unakoti hill in these clouded valleys of the Chawra stream. We arrived on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon. Entire families of Bengalisand Reangs from Kailashahar and the neighbouring city of Dharmanagar were out in force, taking in the sights and offering puja. The object of their veneration was a stupendous thirty-foot bas-relief of a Shiva face, locally called the Unakotishwar Kalbhairava.

Description: A giant Buddha

A giant Buddha

To suddenly encounter it is a shock. A cursory view convinced me that I was looking at a giant Buddha face, what with the shape of the head and the gigantic ears. Then I noticed the third eye. And then I saw the massive ear-rings, distinctly tribal, the slightly showy moustache and the un-Buddhist toothy grin. And finally the ten-foot long crown, reminiscent of both classical Tamil sculpture as well as the face sculptures of the Bayon temple in Cambodia. This image, along with two other similar faces on an adjacent wall, and another collapsed one, forms the cornerstone of this amazing valley. Although their antecedents are not known, informed guess-work by historians suggests that these faces are the centre piece of a memorial gallery for a now-forgotten tribal king who probably identified himself with a totemic deity, Shibrai, the ur-Shiva of Tripura. Shaivite and Vaishnavite cults had been firmly established among the tribes of the Tripuri hills by the ninth century, vying for patronage with a strong Buddhist tradition.

Udaipur's tripurasundari temple is a classic example of Tripuri architecture of a Bengali char chaala roof surmounted with a buddhist stupa-like crown

Further uphill lay a plethora of images, large and small, including a charming little grinning archer with a crown of feathers and two giant female figures of astonishing vitality. The lack of historical information has given rise to many myths, including the widely accepted one that the word Unakoti (one less than a crore) refers to the number of petrified Brahminical deities that lie in this valley, cursed by Shiva to remain here till eternity for some minor infraction. However, what can be asserted with some certainty is that these sculptures span a period of three hundred years from roughly the ninth to the twelfth centuries AD.

Description: Ganesha Brass Figures

Ganesha Brass Figures

This is evident in the range of carving styles. A little further down the valley, the stream descends in a small water fall, and flanking it is a massive seated Ganesha, along with two equally huge standing elephant-headed figures. You could call them Ganesha figures, except that unlike that cuddly Puranic god beloved of merchants, these menacing forms had up to six tusks each. They were quite different from the figures of the upper pavilion if still tribal in their attire. A little to their left was a discreet standing Vishnu, of even greater technical sophistication. It’s all extremely dramatic, and it’s very tempting to wonder just how many more sculptures might lie hidden in the surrounding forest, and how many more have been irreparably lost in the intervening millennia.

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