A Magic Number: Into the lost hill of Unakoti, Tripura

About 178 km from the state capital Agartala, Unakoti is a Shaiva pilgrimage in Tripura that boasts of thousands of Shiva sculptures.

Updated: March 27, 2016 1:17 am

No one I knew had ever been to Tripura; no one suggested I go there either — and that sealed the deal for me. A few years ago, when I started planning a week-long family trip to the northeast, I reached out to friends and Facebook travel groups for suggestions.

The most popular suggestion was a road trip through Arunachal Pradesh on a motorbike. Grand as it sounds, it isn’t conducive to a family outing. The second-most recommended destination was Sikkim, but it was too cold for my parents. Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, and Shillong — not Meghalaya — the suggestions kept pouring in. I spent three days figuring out the logistics of each destination till I realised that not one person had mentioned Tripura. That’s when I made up my mind — I was taking my family there.

Unakoti5_759_SC A Lost World: A lone priest sits at the base of the Shiva sculptures. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Tripura means Three Cities — quite like the Greek word Tripolis — or perhaps the state takes its name from Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the region. Ours was a seven-day road trip that took us through the length and breadth of the third smallest Indian state that may not have been infrastructurally ready for tourists yet, but the warmth in the hearts of the locals made up for what lacked in cold concrete.

From Agartala, we first headed south towards Neermahal Palace — situated in the middle of the Rudrasagar Lake — and the Sipahijola Wildlife Sanctuary. But it was the next destination that took my breath away, thus, becoming the highlight of the whole trip. Hidden in the deep recesses in the northern hills of the Twipra kingdom is one of the most magical and majestic places in the country — one that very few people know of. And no amount of reading can prepare you for what you will find at the ‘lost hill of Unakoti’.

Unakoti1_759_SC Around 178km from the state capital Agartala, Unakoti — meaning one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — is a Shaiva pilgrimage spot unlike anything you’ll find in India. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Around 178km from the state capital Agartala, Unakoti — meaning one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — is a Shaiva pilgrimage spot unlike anything you’ll find in India. In a sense, it is not completely unlike Macchu Picchu in Peru. Enter through the stone gate, and you’re transported to another era. Massive idols of Lord Shiva — chiselled out of the hill — greet visitors. There are, apparently, 99,99,999 of them. Arguably dating back to the 8th-9th centuries, these sculptures have some interesting tales associated with them. Two of them stand out:

Legend 1
Legend has it that Lord Shiva and his entourage were headed towards his heavenly abode, Kailash, when they decided to spend the night at Kailashahar — 10km downhill from Unakoti. He warned his fellow travellers that they would have to leave before dawn, but after a night of revelry, Shiva was the only one who woke up on time. Known for his short temper, Shiva cursed the late sleepers to an eternity on Earth and walked off to Kailash in a huff. The entourage now adorns the hills of Unakoti as reliefs.

Legend 2
According to another version, the images have been carved by a sculptor called Kallu Kumhar. He was a great devotee of Parvati, so when Shiva-Parvati and their entourage were passing through this region — en route Kailash, there are some who say Varanasi — Kallu Kumhar asked to accompany them. Shiva was wary of this proposition, so Parvati came up with a solution. She suggested that the sculptor make 1,00,00,000 images of Shiva — to appease him — and his entourage overnight, and should he be able to do so, he would accompany them. As the sun rose the next day, he fell just one short of a crore — and that gave Shiva the loophole he needed to leave Kallu Kumhar behind.

Legend 2.5
Another variation of this story is that Kallu Kumhar was given the task of carving the deities in a dream, but instead of carving images of all the gods, he carved one last image of himself, making it one short of a crore — a lesson, the locals say, on why not to give in to ahankara, or pride.

Unakoti8_759_SC There’s one with three Ganeshas, which appears to have a rivulet flowing atop it — making it seem as if he’s bathing. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

Whatever be the story behind these carvings, the logistics of how they were made is quite a mystery. Most of the bas-relief sculptures are 30-40 feet high and have a rawness that is more akin to a tribal style than to the classical Indian style. I found it to be similar to statuettes from the Aztec civilization — especially the way the eyes, teeth and headdresses have been depicted. Several still grace the hillside — while some have given in to the ravages of time — others apparently are buried and need to be excavated. I counted around 130 of them. There’s one with three Ganeshas, which appears to have a rivulet flowing atop it — making it seem as if he’s bathing.

Unakoti, historically, was considered a Shaiva Tirtha during the Pal era (8-12th century). Some archaeologists have proposed that Unakoti may have even been a Buddhist meditation centre. It’s a shame that the Archaeological Survey of India is yet to carry out detailed research work in the region.

Walking across the serpentine stone bridges — most of them broken — it’s easy to imagine kings and mystics praying to their gods. As we navigated our way through the staircases and bridges joining the two hills over which the statuettes are now scattered, I felt as if I’d chanced upon a world hidden from prying eyes — a secret domain where entry had to be earned. One could see signs of springs and rivulets criss-crossing through the area and I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful the place would have looked centuries ago with the streams, verdant hills, incense smells and sounds of the temple bells — the mind wanders further.

Unakoti10_759_SC A house of bandits or trapped gods and goddesses, think of Unakoti as you will, but it still has an appeal that neither the state, nor the central tourism board has successfully managed to advertise. (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

When I was there, there was a priest whose family had been praying there since generations. Other than opening his eyes once to present us with a “blessed flower” and prasad, the young man sat under the largest of the Shiva heads unperturbed. The two other sadhus — who lived higher up in a hut — seemed a lot more interesting — especially considering the sweet smell of weed emanating from their rather humble abode. The saffron-robed babas accentuated the mysticism of Unakoti. According to local folklore, these two were an infamous dacoit and his sidekick who had gone missing from the hills of Tripura more than a decade ago — just a couple of years before the two “sages” appeared in Unakoti. Apparently, the two — hiding from the border forces and local police — resurfaced as ‘babas’ at Unakoti soon after, where they have been living ever since.

A house of bandits or trapped gods and goddesses, think of Unakoti as you will, but it still has an appeal that neither the state, nor the central tourism board has successfully managed to advertise. But then again, maybe too many tourists would just spoil the pristine allure of the place.