Letter fromAgartala 

Is there any part of India that does not have its share of historical sites? Its certainly true of Tripura, a small state with plenty of history and even greater abundance of nature. My recent short trip to Agartala was, therefore,  a wonderful interlude. I went primarily to attend meeting at the University, one of the many Central Universities in the North East. And the meeting kept me busy for most of the first 2 days. After the meeting concluded on Saturday afternoon, we made a dash to the border to see the evening ceremony of changing of guards flag is brought down and the national anthem plays.

At the border
Smart and lined up for the change of guards

Sunday was  an extra day that I had planned with a friend, to see a bit around Agartala. So we set off early, with the Sepahljala Games reserve and zoological park as our first destination. This is a fairly large park, home to the clouded leopard and the spectacled monkey, besides many other species. We had no time to take the trails and explore the natural habitat and had to content ourselves with walking around the zoo. The enclosures are generous in size and the animals looked well fed. There were 2 tigers, a lion, many monkeys etc….. just the stroll in that delightfully fresh air, with the birds calls around us was a treat.

And then we went on to Tripura Sundari Temple at Udaipur,. This is a 500 year old temple, built with a typical square sanctum of the Shakti temples of the East.  The terracotta structure with its  beautiful rich red hue stands on a small hillock and there is a sacred kund in front. which was full of clean water.

The terracotta shikar against the sky
The sanctum is a small niche – everyone can touch the feet of the Devi

Being a Sunday, the place was teeming with devotees, the women in colorful sarees. Many were bargaining for the little goats which is offered as sacrifice, common in the shakti traditions of the East.  Although legally banned, I believe the practice continues, a small kid selling for Rs 1,500+. And there were close to 50 kids around the temple.

The colors of Sunday

Then we drove on to the Neermahal Palace, a grand 1930 vintage construction in the middle of a large lake. It is only 50 Km from Agartala, and planned as a place for outings. It had fallen into total disrepair, and it is good to see that State Government spending the money to restore it. The lake is also overgrown with weeds and in need of cleaning. But the boat ride to the palace is a lovely experience and the lake is full of water birds.

Neermahal across the lake
Restoration at work

Finally, we drove back to the town of Agartala to reach the State museum before it shut at 4pm.  The museum is located in the lovely Ujjayanta Palace, with its well maintained gardens and interiors. In fact, it is high on the ‘must see’ sites of Agartala, an unusual thing for a State museum.  I was really happy to see this, as  so many of our Government museums, are lying in  poor state of maintenance. It has great displays of the history, well made replicas of the Buddhist sites (and there a quite a few in the State), collections of the traditional crafts and really impressive displays of the tribal cultures of all of the North east. Its collection of old hand embroidery is amongst the best I have seen anywhere and a must visit destination for anyone recording these traditions.

Ujjayanta palace
The only Ambedkar statue, among the thousands I have seen around the country, which does him justice
The well lit and cooled displays

And finally a few general observations. Agartalais is a ‘provincial’ town – most hoardings and shop signage are in Bengali script – whether in Bengali or  Kokborok, which also uses Bengali script. Its a small town of 200,000 or so – even the town center retains its old shops and the new retail brands are yet to reach – ‘Airtel’ and “Vodafone’ is everywhere but not the Pantaloons, benettons!! We had a hard time getting our local taxi driver to understand what we meant by a ‘decent eating place with rest rooms’ – in spite of the fact that my friend was Bengali.  In the middle of the day, the city center was completely deserted except for a few rikshaw pullers. Finally, we found a smallish mall with a Big Bazaar and a Cafe Coffee Day – but the loos were terrible!! We also did not get any shopping done – all (and I mean ALL) shops are shut at lunch time on Saturday and all of Sunday. Gives an indication of how laid back the place is – and that is part of its charm!


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