But then, the Manikya kings who ruled Tripura for nigh on six hundred years until 1949 were of tribal origin themselves. The officially sanctioned Rajmala, a genealogical history of the Tripura kings posited a lunar line for the ruling family, linking it to the Mahabharata. However, the first ruler of this clan who can be placed with any certainty was a tribal king of possibly Arakan extraction called Cheong-pha, who replaced the ruling Deva family of eastern Bengal and Tripura in the fifteenth century, successfully defended his new territory against the reigning sultans of upper Bengal and took on the Sanskritised monarchical suffix ‘Manikya’.

Description: Udaipur, the old capital of the Manikya kingdom, was once known as Rangamati

Udaipur, the old capital of the Manikya kingdom, was once known as Rangamati

Udaipur, the old capital of the Manikya kingdom, was once known as Rangamati. Today, it is a bustling city dotted by massive old lakes (or dighis) and equally old temples of great grace and beauty. The Manikyas were great builders, and they were highly influenced by current styles of Bengali architecture, peppered liberally with Islamic motifs and the older tradition of Buddhist stupas. Udaipur has old temples in every corner, although there are some eleven major ones grouped around different parts of the city. The most famous and revered one is, of course, that of Tripura’s patron goddess, Tripurasundari. We went to Matabari, as it is popularly known, on a Monday evening. The bright red building of the 500-year-old temple, gleaming in the setting sun, cast a blood-red aura around itself. Built in 1501 by one of the most illustrious kings of Tripura, Dhanya Manikya, this Tantric Kali temple is a classic example of Tripuri architecture a typically Bengali char chaala or four-roofed structure, surmounted with a Buddhist stupa like crown. People were lining up for the darshan of an old Tantric Kali idol, which was reputedly brought by the king from Chittagong. This is an important shakti peetha like Kamakhya in Guwahati, and is the centre of the shakti cult of the mother goddess in Tripura. Tripurasun-dari is also a part of the tribal pantheon, known in the native Kok Borok language as Hakwcharmama, one of the main benevolent deities after Matai Katar.

Description: The Archaeological Survey of India

The Archaeological Survey of India

If Tripurasundari is still feted, many others have fallen into disuse. The beautiful group of three temples called the Gunabati guchcha (bunch) were built by the king Govindya Manikya for his wife Gunabati in 1668. These are under the ambit of the Archaeological Survey of India and therefore well maintained, but two more creations of this king’s reign his palace and a beautiful red Vishnu temple, both on the north bank of the Gomati have gone to seed spectacularly.

Description: the Bhuvaneshwari temple

the Bhuvaneshwari temple

The old palace, and its neighbouring temple, the Bhuvaneshwari, is quite famous as the setting for Rabindranath Tagore’s novella from 1887, Rajarshi, and his dramatic adaptation of it, Bisarjan, from 1890. The Manikya kings, starting with Birchandra Manikya, had a long and interesting relationship with Tagore. They were his benefactors, especially his friend Radha Kishore Manikya, who paid Tagore an annual income, and even financed the Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan. When the penultimate king built a lavish water palace for himself on Rudrasagar lake in west Tripura, it was Tagore who was asked to name it. He called it Neermahal. Tagore, on his part, loved Tripura, travelling there many times and staying for a while.

In part this was possible due to the long cultural contact and extensive geographical contiguity between Bengal and Tripura before 1947. Two things brought this home to me. The first was the dargah of one of the four famous Sufi pirs of Bengal, Badruddin Badri-i-Alam, better known as Shah Badar, who passed through Bengal and Tripura on his way to Arakan and back in the fifteenth century, and his followers set up dargahs in his memory across the region. On the south bank of the Gomati in Udaipur lies one such, called Badar Mokam, dating to sometime in the seventeenth century, also built in the char chaala style as the temples, only without the Buddhist-style dome. Badar is also the patron saint of majhis (boatmen or sailors), and quite characteristically his dargah stands near the ferry-ghat on the Gomati, home to many fishermen.

Description: A terracotta plaque

A terracotta plaque found at the Pilak excavation site

The other contact is even older, and to see it we travelled south from Udaipur to the town of Jolaibari in south Tripura The unassuming village of Pilak was once the site of an extensive Buddhist civilisation that stretched all the way from Nalanda in Bihar to Pagan in Burma. This region of Tripura and the adjoining areas of Comilla and Noakhali in present day Bangladesh were at various points under the kingdoms of Samatata, Harikela and Pattikera from at least the fifth century AD till the twelfth century. In the middle of a picture-perfect rural landscape of rice fields and hillocks lay the excavation sites of Shyamsundar Tila, Pujakhol Tila and Thakurani Tila.

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