Agartala is the capital of the Indian state of Tripura and is the second largest city after Guwahati, the Gateway to Magical Northeast India. According to researchers, the name ‘Tripura’ is a combination of two separate words, ‘tui’ (water) + ‘pra’ (near) which together means ‘near water’. The geographical location of the state with its close proximity to the vast water resources of eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh coupled with the fact that the state’s original inhabitants were known as ‘Tipra’ or ‘Twipra’ apparently justifies the State’s current name. But what does Agartala mean?
This innocent question had appeared in my mind many years back. I was five years old then. This new uncle from a distant land had come to our city university to pursue his masters and had become friends with my father. The day he first came to our home and mentioned that he was from Agartala, I had asked him. ‘What does it mean Roy Uncle?’. And he had explained.
Agartala is a component of two words – Agar, a kind of oily valuable perfume tree and tala, a store house. A state where Agar tree was found in plenty and considered an important natural resource. He had promised to get a sapling for our garden and also take me along with him to his house someday when going back for his vacations. Though that day never came, here I was there after almost 30 years. In his hometown. Agartala.
Sometimes the picture of a city in your mind matches exactly with what you experience when you are there. This was one such rare moment. It was a Saturday afternoon, roads were near vacant with practically no traffic around as our car was zipping by. A cloudy early afternoon, small houses, a few roadside small temples, manned traffic signals, lots of green and the spoilsport, the hoardings. Can’t we do without them, I had thought.
It was for me like many a times before, exploring a bit of a new city on a business trip. We had a big event involving over 300 distributors scheduled for the next day. But today was to chill out. Overseeing the plans with my teammate for a couple of hours in my hotel followed by a spin on his motorbike to get a feel of the city. And the hotel I had been booked in had a nice cozy feel about it right in the heart of the city. Hotel Rajdhani, the pick of the hotels at that time.
Agartala is famous for its freshwater and river fish, a large chunk of which gets transported here from across the border. It lies on the bank of Haora River and is located just about 2 km from Bangladesh. The fish markets here are a buyer’s delight and for a Bong like me, you can guess the pleasures associated with a visit there. But before that, the evening I had been waiting for right since morning. A ‘Bengali Fish Thali’ Dinner. Just a few minutes away from my hotel at “Sonar Bangla” restaurant, if I remember the name correctly.
Over the next many years after this first trip of mine and during my numerous work trips, I discovered more and more of the beautiful history of the state and the city. Tripura, also known as Hill Tipperah, was a princely state in India during the period of the British and till around two years after the departure of the British. Its rulers belonged to the Manikya dynasty and until August 1947 the state was in a subsidiary alliance, and subsequently merged into the Indian Union in October 1949.
According to ‘Rajmala’, which chronicles the history of the Manikya kings of Tripura, the royal house here trace their origin to the celebrated ‘lunar’ or ‘solar’ dynasty. Their Palace here in Agartala is an architectural masterpiece.
The Ujjayanta Palace was constructed between 1899 and 1901 by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya Debbarma and stands on the banks of two lakes surrounded by gardens inspired by the Mughal style. It was the home of the ruling Manikya dynasty till the property was purchased from the royal family by the Government of Tripura in 1972–73 and used to house the State Legislative Assembly until July 2011. It’s now a State Museum and primarily showcases the lifestyle, arts, culture, tradition and utility crafts of communities residing in northeast India, along with a lot of stone sculptures, coinage of the Manikya dynasty and some other artifacts.
The palace buildings and grounds cover 800 acres of total area right in the heart of Agartala. The palace itself is spread over approximately 250 acres and includes public rooms such as the throne room, durbar hall, library and reception hall. The two-storied palace has three large domes, the largest of which is 86 ft (26 m) high and which rests atop a four-storied central tower. The architecture shows a mix of influences: Mughal, Roman and British. Several Hindu temples occupy plots adjacent to Ujjayanta Palace, dedicated to Lakshmi Narayan, Uma-Maheshwari, Durga and Jagannath.
Some other cool destinations to check out
This beautiful Jagannath Temple situated in the Ujjayanta Palace grounds is dedicated to the Hindu Gods- Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra. It was built by the Maharaja of Tripura in the nineteenth century. The temple, besides being a religious and spiritual destination, is also known for its impeccable architectural beauty. It is widely believed that the Neel Madhav idol at Puri was donated from this Jagannath Bari temple. The most fascinating aspect of the temple is that it carries the essence of Islamic architecture. It beautifully blends the Hemadpanthi and Arabic style of architecture on the exterior with its Hindu aspect reflected on the inside of the temple.
Situated at a distance of 55 km from Agartala in Udaipur, this 500-year-old temple Tripura Sundari Temple is one of the oldest temples in the state. It is one of the 51 Sakti Peethas in India and is believed to be the place where the toe of Sati fell. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu had cut Sati’s body into 51 pieces with his Sudarshana Chakra, and the places where her body parts fell came to be known as Shakti Peethas. The temple is considered as one of the holiest Hindu shrines in the country.
Neermahal or the Lake Palace is a stunning architectural masterpiece located right in the middle of the Rudrasagar Lake around 50 km away from Agartala. It is one of the two water palaces in India. The Manikya King, Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya Bahadur, commissioned its construction. It served as the summer palace for the king and his family. With its highly ornate interiors, majestic exteriors, fabulous lawns and colorful flower beds, you can get a feel of how royal life at this palace must have been while walking around the place.
During the evening, Neermahal hosts a fascinating and informative light and sound show to make people aware of the culture, history, and legacy of this place. The palace also has some interesting water sport activities. The ‘Neermahal Water festival’ attracts several tourists and participants to the palace ground with aspirations to win the boat races.
Agartala & Nature
Agartala is the perfect mix of natural beauty combined with diverse and rich culture. Its pristine beauty manifests itself in its peaceful gardens, stunning palaces, huge hills, beautiful temples and captivating lakes. A major portion of the city is still forested giving a pollution free clear atmosphere to the tourists. If on a holiday to the state you must also venture out of Agartala for some beautiful moments with nature. One such place is Jampui Hills.
Jampui Hills is situated about 200 km away from Agartala and is the highest hill range in the state bordering Mizoram at an altitude of 3000 ft above sea level. Fondly known as the eternal hills of spring, Jampui hills will impress you with their densely forested cover and as a tourist you must not miss out on the wonderful sights of sunrise and sunset from one of the peaks. During November every year, the unique ‘Orange & Tourism festival’ is celebrated here.
Not too far away, tucked away in the forests is the heritage site ‘Lost Hill Faces’ of Unakoti. Home to giant sculptures carved out of a huge hill, it is a pilgrimage site dedicated to Lord Shiva and is believed to be 11-13 centuries old. The huge sculptures carry a tribal look and exude almost the same mystical charm as the spell-binding figures in the Angkor Wat Temple of Cambodia.
Unakoti, which means “less than a crore in number”, has several discovered and yet-to-be-discovered sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses. Of all, the 30-ft-long carving of Lord Shiva’s head called Unakotishwara Kal Bhairav is the most revered of all.
Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary & Clouded Leopard National Park
My most favorite place while visiting Agartala is the stunning ‘Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary & Clouded Leopard National Park’ located in Bishalgarh around 20 km away. It’s a 18 sq km patch of forested land and an open-air zoo where you can see a diverse range of animals including Indian tigers and Himalayan black bears. This place is also home to more than 150 species of resident and migratory birds, trees, plants and other animals. There are vast stretches of rubber and coffee plantations that will take your breath away. You can enjoy boating, visit the botanical garden, take an elephant joy-ride or just enjoy the beauty of nature. Come let’s go around a bit.
Tripura Culture & Creations
Garia Puja is one of the most celebrated festivals by the indigenous people of the state of Tripura. A bamboo pole symbolizes Lord Garia, also known as the deity of livestock and wealth. The Lord is worshiped with flowers and garland along with cotton thread, rice, rice beer, wine, earthen pots, eggs and fowl chicks.
Tripura is known for its elegant cane and bamboo handicrafts with beautiful weaving and attractive designs. The styles are unique and are practiced by different tribes and communities belonging to the area. Bamboo is used for many items such as furniture, lamp shades, trays, stools, baskets, vases, hand fans, window and door screens, shopping bags , purses, hats, table mats, mugs and many other articles.
Weaving in Tripura is an inseparable part of life and Handlooms are one of the oldest industries of the state. The tribal people are known to create and produce extravagant patterns into their clothes giving them a very elegant design. One of the most traditional pieces that is greatly associated with customs is the ‘Risa’ and the ‘Riha’.
Two Legends from Tripura
For Indian music followers, Sachin Dev Burman was a revered figure. He was an Indian music director and singer. A member of the Tripura royal family, he started his career with Bengali films in 1937. He later began composing for Hindi movies and became one of the most successful and influential Bollywood film music composers. Burman composed the soundtracks for over 100 movies, including Bengali films and Hindi. Apart from being a versatile composer, he also sang songs in the light semi-classical and folk style of Bengal. His son, R. D. Burman, was also a celebrated music composer for Bollywood films and his music is considered a trendsetter in westernized Bollywood music.
Every trip of mine over the years to Agartala helped me to discover the city and the state bit by bit. But a common feature of all of them was my excitement while returning back home. Guess what it could be. The Bengali’s favorite fish Hilsa, fresh from the river waters of Padma in Bangladesh. With space reserved in my suitcase for a few kilos of them every time.
Amazing Agartala. A wonderful mix of history, culture, heritage and impeccable beauty. Come discover it yourself.