These magnificent sculptures are shrouded in mystery.
Under British rule in India, Tripura was a princely state ruled by the kings of the Manikya dynasty. Following India’s independence in 1947, Tripura merged with the country in 1949 and became a full-fledged state in 1971. Today, India’s third smallest state borders Bangladesh to its north, south, and west, and the Indian states of Assam and Mizoram to the east.
As a vacation destination, Tripura has not quite picked up or is pretty far off the regular route for visitors in India. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. Tripura’s capital Agartala has remnants of the erstwhile royal dynasty’s legacy. For instance, the Neermahal Palace is a former royal palace in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake. In Agartala, I visited another architectural gem–the Ujjayanta Palace.
But what blew my mind lay hidden in the northern hills of Tripura—one that not many people know of—the giant bas-relief sculptures of Unakoti. About 178kms from Agartala, Unakoti, meaning “one less than a crore” (a unit of value equal to ten million rupees or 100 lakhs), has been considered a pilgrimage site for decades. But how these magnificent sculptures came into existence is shrouded in great mystery to date.
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I visited the place on a hot summer afternoon in April. As I entered through the stone gate—one massive face grinned at me from a stone cliff. The entire cliff was chiseled like a face, about 30 feet high. Initially, I thought it was a giant Buddha face, with large earlobes and big circular earrings that adorned them. The head wore a little crown, and a choker hung below the chin. I noticed an eye on its forehead. I then realized this wasn’t Buddha, but the Hindu god Shiva.
Below it was another identical face, and further down rested more such smaller sculptures. Apart from Shiva, the other prominent carved-out images on the cliffs and the rocky fringes of the hill was that of the Hindu lord Ganesha. Goddess Durga is also carved on the side of the hill. There is also a spring sliding down the hill terraces, which has filled up the cavern and has led to the origin of a humble pond with cold, refreshing, and sparkling water. On a walk uphill, accompanied by dense, tall trees, I found dozens of more idols of gods and goddesses lying scattered around.
The day I visited, families from nearby areas gathered to offer their prayers. Some visitors were akin to me, who had arrived at the site out of pure curiosity. After all, several stories are associated with who might have built these structures and around what time in history they were created.
It is also believed that many more structures are hidden in the hills and forests waiting to be excavated.
According to one of the popular legends in Tripura, a group of gods and goddesses numbering one less than a crore were headed down to Varanasi. The group, led by lord Shiva, decided to rest and spent the night at the hills of Unakoti. But in the break of the dawn, only Shiva managed to wake up. In a fit of rage, Shiva then cursed the ensemble and left for Varanasi alone while all the other gods and goddesses metamorphosed into stone images.
There are even more bizarre legends connected to the hall of faces. Sample this: Kallu Kumhar—a famous sculptor, was assigned a task to carve out a crore deities in his dream. But keeping the last idol incomplete, Kallu instead made his own image, rendering his job unfinished. That is how this place got its name Unakoti.
According to the bare minimum research that’s available, the sculptures date back to an unknown era. Some believe they are from the 8th or 9th century, while few also suggest that they belong to the 12th or 13th century. But all beliefs culminate into one conclusion that the carvings of Unakoti were not made in one particular spell of time. Instead, these were created in phases and influenced by Hinduism, specifically celebrating Shiva, Durga, and Ganesha.
Some sparse research also speculates that the Unakoti hills were a Buddhist meditation spot, and the site might have been a sacred place for the Tibeto-Burmese tribe. Apparently, this area used to be a major seat of Buddhist and Hindu practices and also served as an overland trade route that ran from eastern India to Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. This land route played the role of a bridge—to transfer the two traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism to Southeast Asia. But much of it is still unclear as it is also believed that many more structures are hidden in the hills and forests waiting to be excavated.
Whatever is its history, the site has suffered centuries of neglect, causing a loss of considerable scale to the stone carvings. Since its adoption by the Archaeological Survey of India as a heritage site, the situation has slightly improved, though historians and scholars have suggested that a lot of work, including significant excavation, needs to be carried out. The government of India has approached UNESCO to declare the area a world heritage site.
“These are basically stone carvings that date back to the 8th century, before the advent of idol worshipping. It’s more Indigenous, more tribal. In its earliest form, we have Shiva, Ganesha, Durga,” Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, scion of the erstwhile Tripura kingdom, told me when I’d interviewed him a few months ago. Debbarma also compared the stone carvings to Chabimura, another similar spot in Tripura known for its panels of rock carvings on steep mountain walls on the banks of the river Gomati, which, too, largely remains unknown.