While the Ujjayant Palace and Neermahal may be Tripura’s most-flocked tourist spots, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the north eastern state’s best kept secret is perhaps the lesser explored Unakoti. Nestled in the dense forests of Tripura, the astonishing sight is home to India’s largest bas relief sculptures.
Located at a distance of 160km from Agartala, Unakoti is famed for its massive stone and rock-cut sculptures that have been carved out from the hillside by skilled artisans. Dotted with ruins of ancient temples, Unakoti also serves as a Shaivite pilgrimage dating back to the 8th or 9th centuries CE, or maybe even earlier. Archaeologists estimate that the place may also have served as a Buddhist meditation centre.
Myriad myths and legends surround the existence of the sculptures here. The most popular legend is related to Lord Shiva, who, according to Hindu mythology, is believed to have stayed here for a night on his way to Kashi or Varanasi. It is said that as many as 99, 99,999 gods and goddesses had accompanied Lord Shiva, who had asked his entourage to wake up before sunrise and head to Kashi. When none of them were able to wake up on time the next morning (and Lord Shiva was the only one awake), he cursed the others and turned them to stone. That’s how Unakoti got its name, which means one less than a crore. However, one doesn’t come across those many sculptures at the site today.
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According to another popular legend, the place is named after a human creator who gave form to these sculptures. A great devotee of Goddess Parvati, artist Kallu Kumhar is believed to have carved these faces in a single night on Parvati’s command. He had hoped that by doing so, he would impress the goddess and Lord Shiva and he will get to travel to Kashi with them. However, the artist fell short of just one sculpture the next morning and Lord Shiva found an excuse to leave him behind. Some locals also believe that Kallu Kumhar was asked to carve the sculptures of all gods and goddesses on the hill in a dream. He did exceedingly well but ended up carving the last sculpture in an image of himself, thus making the number of divine sculptures one less than a crore. You will come across guides and locals citing this legend even today as a lesson on the pitfalls of 'ahankaar' or pride.
The most impressive amongst the awe-inspiring carvings of Unakoti are the central Shiva head and the gigantic Ganesha figures. The former, known as Unakotiswara Kal Bhairava, is about 30ft high. Its most striking feature is the intricate head dress which is 10ft high by itself. The head dress of the central Shiva is flanked by Goddess Durga standing on a lion on one side and Goddess Ganga on the other, sitting atop a capricorn. Other detailed sculptures, include Nandi, Hanuman and Ravana.
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Once you are done with marvelling at these fine specimens of rock carving, you may head to Jampui Hills, located at a distance of 100km from Unakoti. Perched at an altitude of 915m above sea level, it is famous as Tripura’s highest hill. While here, you can clamber up to the watchtower and savour the scenic vistas of Betlingchip, the Chittagong Hill tracts of Bangladesh, the Kanchanpur-Dasda Valley and other hill ranges of Tripura and Mizoram. For a more authentic experience, try and visit the nearby villages to interact with the warm and hospitable people of Lushai and Reang tribes.
When to go: October–March
Air Nearest airport: Agartala (180km), connected to Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati
Rail Nearest railhead: Kumarghat (160km). Other convenient options are the stations at Agartala and Dharmanagar (200km). All the stations are on the Northeast Frontier Railway and are connected to Lumding, Guwahati, Kolkata and other major railway stations in the country
Road NH8 originates from Agartala and goes northeast across Tripura, then into Assam before entering Meghalaya near Shillong Bus Kailashahar, 8km from Unakoti, is well connected to Shillong, Silchar and all districts and sub-divisional towns of Tripura by regular bus services
Tourist office: Tripura Tourism Development Corp Sweatmahal Palace Compound Road Agartala, Tripura; Phone: 0381-2325930/ 3893, 2317878; Website: tripuratourism.gov.in