Tripura’s forested hills hide many such secrets, such as the rock murals of Devtamura. These panels lie in an extension of the Baramura range in south-central Tripura. The river Gomati cuts an impressive gorge through it, on its way past the old capital of Udaipur and beyond to the Meghna river in Bangladesh. We got there a couple of days later from our base in Udaipur. Villagers in Amarpur, the closest town, pointed us to a rough track heading into the forest and our much-abused Alto bounced off to a Jamatiya tribal village. This fiercely proud Tripuri tribe like most of their brethren, are nominally Hindus. But the religion they follow is deeply animistic, one shared by the other Kok Borok speaking tribes of the state. The supreme deity is the male Matai Katar, who with his equally powerful consort Matai Katarma controls the well-being of the people.

Description: Tripura’s forested hills

Tripura’s forested hills

When we reached the Jamatiya village deep in the hills it was past noon, and the stifling, still heat of the forest seemed like some malevolent entity intent on sucking the life out of us. After much pleading the villagers were understandably more interested in a siesta than sailing two Jamatiya brothers agreed to take us down the river in their fishing canoe so we could admire the panels. The first panel is actually a massive one, on a sheer rock wall that rises up straight from the river into the surrounding forest, sometimes called the Panchdevata panel. Another panel featuring thirty-seven deities had long succumbed to the combined forces of sun and rain, but somehow that made them more appropriate to the setting suggestive, autochthonous deities presiding over their kingdom of deep forest and snaking river.

Description: the giant tree ferns

the giant tree ferns

Sailing on the brown, sluggish Gomati thick with silt was hard going, considering Puneet and I were overdressed for the occasion. The brothers’ uniform of bare torso and lungi was far more appropriate. But the magnificent forest soon held us in thrall. In the humid hush of the noonday sun, the giant tree ferns, extensive climbers, orchids and bamboo thickets glistened, giving the impression of living entities brooding by the water’s edge. The silence, broken by the crashing of some unseen animal in the bamboo thickets or the cry of a kingfisher, was all pervasive. The younger brother rowed, pushing the canoe along with the help of a long bamboo pole. The depth of this sluggish river was only five to six feet, as evidenced by two groups of boatmen we passed on the way, treading the muddy bed of the river to catch fish.

The beautiful group of three temples called the gunabati guchcha in udaipur were built by the king govinda manikya for his wife gunabati in 1668

An hour’s boat-ride brought us to the pièce de résistance of this mysterious land a large rock-cut goddess figure poised with a trident much like Durga, but with a flowing mane like Medusa. Its sudden appearance from the thick canopy of the forest took my breath away. I’ve never been much impressed with Sanskritised names, so when the elder brother told me in hushed tones that they call her Sakragma, or the ghost woman, it seemed more apt somehow. Again, the exact provenance of these sculptures is unknown, but the local legend goes that one of the Manikya kings of Tripura, Amar Manikya, was engaged in warfare with a king of Myanmar, when his army took shelter in these forests. Following his victory, he ordered the carving of these sculptures. Through a comparative study of coins and other artefacts, these can be dated to the fifteenth century. Although created by royal decree, the sculptures are certainly tribal in form. In fact, art historians have been able to find traces of the traditional dress worn by Reang women in the Sakragma figure.

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