Unakoti or Unokoti – the word itself has an aura of grandeur in it. Unakoti literally means “one less than a crore”. That is a huge number! Legend has it that the hills of Unakoti had one 99,99,999 rock-cut images of Gods and Goddesses. When I heard this for the first time, I knew I had to visit Unakoti in Tripura. Located on one of the parts of the thick forested Jampui Hills, Unakoti with its giant bas-relief structures is perhaps one of the most stunning heritage sites in South Asia.
Unakoti is located about 178km from Agartala, the capital of Tripura. This Shaiva pilgrimage is not something that you will find in India. The grandeur of Unakoti is surely going to take you in. who made these huge structures? Why were they made and when were they made? These questions will surely pop up. But a proper chronicle of Unakoti is still shrouded in mystery. Archaeologists assume that these stone bas-reliefs were made between 7th to 13th centuries. Infact they even claim that the sculptures belong to two different periods.
But where history and records fail, legends and folklore take the upper hand. Unakoti in Tripura has its share of legends. I have written about them later in the post.
- So, what are bas-relief structures?
- The road from Dharmanagar to Unakoti
- Our trip to Unakoti, Tripura
- Myths and legends of Unakoti
- History of Unakoti
- Unakoti, Tripura – Are there really one crore gods?
- Where is Unakoti Located?
- How to reach Unakoti?
- Where to stay?
- Is there any entry fee in Unakoti?
- Some important Tips
So, what are bas-relief structures?
Bas-relief or low relief structures are a type of sculpture where the image is projected at a shallow depth. This technique was used in the art of ancient Egypt and other eastern cultures. Unakoti in Tripura is the example of one of the largest bas-relief structures in India.
We visited Unakoti during the month of October. The monsoons were just over and it was green all around. The weather was just as we wanted with the right amount of sun and warmth. After a rainy trip at Reiek in Mizoram, a sunny Tripura welcomed us.
We took a train from Silchar to Dharmanagar and reached there in the afternoon. Unakoti is about 20km from Dharmanagar and is an hour journey. So we decided to stay at Dharmanagar that night and visit Unakoti the next morning. The next morning we were on our way to Unakoti with a subtle excitement in our hearts.
The road from Dharmanagar to Unakoti
The distance is only 20km. But the last stretch of roads is really bad. We had hired a car to visit Unakoti and the driver cribbed about the road conditions in those parts of Tripura. Apparently, the present government is not doing enough to build proper infrastructure in Tripura.
We were quite surprised at this because Tripura has some of the finest roads among the northeast states. The roads connecting Agartala to Udaipur were quite good. Yes, the last bit of road towards Unakoti was really bad with big potholes every now and then. But we both did not really care about the road conditions.
As our driver complained about road conditions and political issues, we simply enjoyed the landscape that was before us. We passed through tea gardens, beautiful villages, paddy fields and the Jampui forests. It was a pleasant ride when we saw a signboard saying Shivadham. Further down, there was another signboard saying Unakoti Eco Park, though nothing remained of the park. Anyways we realized that we were quite near our destination.
Finally, we arrived in front of a huge gate which had a face drawn on it, as if telling us what to expect beyond the barrier. Surprisingly there were no tickets to the site. We simply entered the area and followed the sign that said Unakoti Tirtha.
Our trip to Unakoti, Tripura
We seemed to be the only ones at Unakoti Tirtha at that time. There were a flight of stairs going down and we took them. After walking down a few steps we saw a huge face in front of us. It was as if the face was grinning at us. The entire cliff was carved like a face, almost 30 feet high. If I had not known Unakoti to be a Shaivite pilgrimage, I would have mistaken the face to be of the Buddha.
It had elongated earlobes and features like that of Buddha statue we had seen many times before. The face had a small crown and the ear was adorned with earrings. The hairs (that’s what it looked like) were radiating outwards. The first one had us totally mesmerized. Seriously, we had not seen anything like this before.
A few steps ahead, there was another face, which was quite similar to the previous one. Just beside that was a small waterfall, more like a stream. This small mountain stream is known as Dhaluchhora. Next, the trail bifurcated and we took the one towards the left. We followed the path where Dhaluchhora flows further down the valley. A few hundred feet below, there is another cliff face with another waterfall flowing down.
On the cliff face is the huge bas-relief structure of Ganesha. Beside the Ganesha were a few other sculptures of probably Vishnu. The Ganesha looked humungous with a potbelly and menacing look. It is said that during the monsoon, the waterfall actually flows on top of Ganesha head, thus bathing Lord Ganesha.
Further down, there is a landmark saying Chaaturmukhalinga Kalyansundaramurty. We followed that direction through muddy trails covered with vegetation growth. After five minutes’ walk and we were in front of a statue that had the same sculpture on all the four sides. Well, if you are keen to explore the place, you can visit this site. Otherwise, this one can be skipped.
Next was our turn to take the steps uphill. We went all the way up and there was a small locked room. It had a few statues that were perhaps excavated from the Unakoti site. They lay down there without any care.
There are many other panels and bas-reliefs in the gigantic gallery of Unakoti. The most famous one is perhaps the gigantic image of Lord Shiva, known as Unakotishwara Kal Bhairava. The image is about 9 metres or 30 feet in height. It has an elaborate headdress that takes up almost one-third of the entire relief.
Lord Unakotishwara is flanked by images of Goddesses on both sides. At both sides of the headdress are two female figures. They are perhaps the images of Ganga and Yamuna (I am not sure, many works of literature suggest that the image is of Ganga sitting on top of Capricorn or Makara).
There is another bas-relief of a warrior-like goddess a little further up. This one is perhaps Goddess Durga standing atop her vahana lion. Near this panel, there are a number of scattered boulders that have its own images. Further up, right where the steps end there are images of two female figures on stone. It looks as if they are dancing. And yes, they have the same grin on their faces like the other images!
There is also a sculpture of Nandi bull just before the image of Lord Shiva. If you come down a bit further and cross the bridge, you will see a huge face lying down and looking up at the sky with a huge grin. This stone relief perhaps had fallen down on the stream years ago. And now it seems that the god is looking up to the heavens and grinning in glee.
Myths and legends of Unakoti
Unakoti has been a site of Shaiva pilgrimage for more than a thousand years now. Since there are almost no historical records about these incredible bas-relief structures, myths and stories have grown more and more around this place. We heard about 3 of them and write them down for you.
Legend of Unakoti | When Gods overslept!!
Once upon a time, Lord Shiva with his entourage of Gods and Goddesses were in his way to Kashi, the ancient city of light. There were one crore or 10 million of them. On their way, Lord Shiva decided to stop at the Raghunandan Hills for the night. But before going off to rest, He asked the other 99,99,999 Gods and Goddesses to wake and be ready before the sunrise. After all, they have to cover a long distance to Kashi. Come next dawn, other than Shiva, all the others were fast asleep.
Shiva is known for his anger. On seeing that the rest of them did not pay heed to his words, his third eye opened. For the uninitiated, it is said that Lord Shiva has a third eye on his forehead and it opens only when he is extremely angry. At that time, heaven save the one on whom Shiva is angry! Coming back to the story, Lord Shiva cursed all the other Gods and Goddesses and turned them into stone. The stone images of ‘una-koti’ or one less than a crore Gods and Goddesses are thus said to be found on the hills of Unakoti.
But then the question arises, why are there so many images of Shiva at Unakoti? Well, this is completely rhetoric and you can think about the answers as you walk up and down the stairs looking at the huge sculptures on stone.
Almost all the ancient temples and religious sites have some folk, myths and stories about them. Unakoti also has a few of them. The one I mentioned above also has a version that says the entourage was going towards Kailash. I believe this one is the most famous one. The Board outside the site also narrates this story.
Legend of Unakoti | Making of one crore sculptures
There is another legend about how Unakoti got its name. According to this story, the sculptures were done by one local sculptor called Kalu Kamar. He was a great devotee of Goddess Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. So when Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati were passing through the area, the devotee prayed to his devoted to taking him to Kailash, the holy abode of Lord Shiva. But the gods were reluctant to take him to their heavenly abode. So they came up with a plan. So Goddess Parvati asked him to make one crore sculptors of the Gods and Goddesses appease Shiva. Little did they know that Kalu Kamar was an artist of extraordinaire. Before the dawn, he had already made 99,99,999 sculptures.
Lord Shiva became worried that the mortal sculpture would complete the task. So he asked the cock to crow just before the usual time. Hearing the cock crow, Kalu Kamar was extremely disappointed. He stopped his work then and there thinking that it was already dawn. He missed his task by one sculpture. And the place came to be known as Unakoti. Sometimes Gods also have to resort to tricks it seems.
Legend of Unakoti | Arrogance has a fall
In another version of the story, it says that Kalu Kamar was given the task of making one crore sculptures of Gods and Goddesses. He became so arrogant on completing this extraordinary feat. The last image he made was of him instead of God, because by then he considered himself to be someone very important. Thus the name came to be Unakoti. It is said that his act angered the Gods and he was later struck down by divine power.
Legend of Unakoti | The legend of Subrai Khung
This one is more of a local Tripuri legend and the most prevalent among the local people of Tripura. Unakoti is also known as Subrai Khung. King Jujaru-Fa, also known as Hamtorfa was the first king of the kingdom of Tripura. His name meant Purushottam or the best of men. He established the kingdom of Tripura and made present-day Udaipur as its capital.
The people of Tripura were worshippers of Lord Shiva, who lives at Kailash in the snowy Himalayas. According to Tripuri legend, Subrai or Shiva is the dynastic god or creator of the universe. So King Hamtorfa wanted to bring Lord Shiva to his kingdom. He went to the Himalayas for penance and prayed to Lord Shiva. God was pleased with him and asked him what he desired. To this, Hamtorfa pleaded Shiva to come to his kingdom. Lord Shiva told him to go back to his kingdom and pray to all the gods and goddesses. He also advised the king to make statues of the gods, and then the gods and goddesses will reside in Tripura.
King Hamtorfa returned and prayed to all the gods and goddesses and made their statues and thus the deities came to reside in his kingdom. Only when he prayed to Goddess Ganga, she told the king that she will not be able to come down to Tripura. Because if she did so then rest of India would dry up. So she sent River Gomti to Tripura instead. The king did not construct the image of Ganga and so he was left with one less than a crore statues. These myths have been popularized by Rajmala, the chronicles of Kings of Tripura.
Well, Gomti River is the most important river of Tripura feeding all its villages and plains. I personally find this one to be more relatable to the place and people.
History of Unakoti
Whatever be the myths and stories behind Unakoti, it is really a mystery as to how and when these bas-relief structures were made. Archaeologists suggest that these bas-relief structures were probably made between 8th to 13th century AD. The sculptures were also perhaps built at different times. There is also speculation that this spot might have been a sacred place for the local Tibeto-Burmese tribe. During this period northern Tripura was a part of Srihatta, which was a renowned seat of Buddhist and Hindu tantrism. This area was also a crucial point of overland trade routes between eastern India and Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Apart from the sea route, this overland route was also responsible for the transmission of Buddhism and Hinduism to Southeast Asia. But all these facts are not substantiated by any evidence. According to an assessment made by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) it is speculated that there might be still many reliefs and structures hidden in the hills and the forests. Not all is discovered yet. Well, we think that can be quite possible. Infact, the same thought came to my mind when we went to see the reliefs of Chhabimura. The closest historical fact that we heard about Unakoti was that it was a memorial to the legendary chieftain Subrai, whose chosen deity was Shiva.
Legends and myths are interesting. They make a seemingly boring place very much interesting. Unakoti in Tripura in itself is a very interesting place. The bas-relief structures are cut on the Raghunandan Hills are simply awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping. Yes, I am using these decorative adjectives for the place, but they really deserve them and much more
Unakoti, Tripura – Are there really one crore gods?
Unakoti is an extremely beautiful place. Hidden behind the numerous trees, the huge stone carvings invoked a sense of wonder in us. Well, you will not find 1 crore images there. That would have been too vast, too epic. There are a few such rock-cut carvings and those are enough to amaze us.
Enough of myths and legends. Now let us get into some practical stuff.
Where is Unakoti Located?
Unakoti is located about 178km from Agartala between Kailashahar and Dharmanagar in North Tripura. Unakoti is about 10 km from Kailashahar and 20 km from Dharmanagar. The Unakoti Hills, also known as Raghunandan Hills is actually a part of the Jampui Hills located in northern Tripura.
How to reach Unakoti?
As I said before, Unakoti is located between Kailashahar and Dharmanagar. Both are important towns in Tripura and located more towards the Assam border. You can visit Unakoti from either Agartala or from Silchar side as well (like we did).
Unakoti from Agartala
If you have come for a trip to Tripura, you will probably arrive at Agartala first. In that case, you can take a bus from Agartala to Dharmanagar or Kailashahar. From both the towns, you will get shared vehicles to Unakoti. You can also hire a vehicle to Unakoti. Tripura is one of the northeast states that is very well connected by trains. You can also take a passenger train from Agartala to either Dharmanagar or Kumarghat. Kailashahar is nearer to Kumarghat. Train travelling in Tripura is cheap and comfortable.
Silchar to Unakoti
If you are coming from Assam, like we did, you can take any train towards Agartala and get down at Dharmanagar. We were coming from Silchar after our Mizoram trip and took a morning train from Silchar to Dharmanagar. We reached Dharmanagar by 12:30PM and took a hotel for the night. We visited Unakoti the next day.
To reach Unakoti, we hired a car (Alto 800) from Dharmanagar. It took Rs1000 for a round trip and dropped us to Dharmanagar Railway station for our onward train journey to Agartala. The road was in a pretty bad condition after the rains. At one point, our car got stuck in the mud and we had to do a lot of manoeuvring to get it back on road!
Where to stay?
You can either stay at Dharmanagar or Kailashahar. There is a Tripura Government Tourist Lodge (Unakoti Tourist Lodge) at Kailashahar. Unakoti is about 10km from the tourist lodge. The rates are quite reasonable too with Rs800 for a double-bedded room and Rs950 for a deluxe AC room.
There are a number of hotels and guest houses at Dharmanagar as well. We stayed at Dharmanagar in Hotel Panchabati. It was a decent hotel with Rs1200 for an AC double bedded room.
Is there any entry fee in Unakoti?
No there is no entry fee at Unakoti.
Some important Tips
- Wear comfortable shoes. There will be a lot of walking and climbing stairs. So be prepared for that.
- Wear comfortable and light clothes for the same reason.
- Visit early or in the late afternoon. Late afternoon will be good for photography lighting. We visited in the morning and the light was in the opposite direction.
- Carry a water bottle with you when you visit Unakoti.
- There are no proper shops near Unakoti site. What we found was a small shop selling tea and some eatables.
Unakoti in Tripura can be of great importance, both in terms of history and tourism. It is sad that the government is still oblivious to the place. Although I have to say that Unakoti is at least more popular than the other wonders of Tripura. A study into Unakoti can perhaps provide answers to several ethnocultural questions. Lately, we heard that Unakoti was being considered for getting a World Heritage Status. Hope that this actually works out. It will provide the required boost to both tourism as well as historical studies.
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