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Unakoti: The Macchu Pichhu of India

The Unakoti Sculpture reveals the secret world of Lord Shiva

Kailashahar (Tripura), May 14 (UITV): Among India’s lesser-explored harbors, Tripura takes its name from a word meaning ‘Three Cities’ — similar to the Greek word ‘Tripolis’  — or perhaps from Tripura Sundari, the noteable ruling deity of the region.

Far from the country’s popular tourist laps, the third most compact Indian state may not have a completely developed infrastructure for travellers but its artistic charm and humble locals make up for what it lacks in cold concrete. For the adventurous few that venture here, Tripura reveals itself to be a diamond in the rough, afaithful Indian jewel.

A surviving reminder of this fact can be found suggled bounded by the thick forested Jampui Hills of north Tripura.
Bordered by the meandering Manu River, this region is home to one of the most striking heritage sites in South Asia — the giant bas-relief sculptures of Unakoti.

Located around 178 km from Agartala, Unakoti’s ‘Lost Hill of Faces’ is a centuries-old Shaivite pilgrimage spot, unlike anything you’ll find in India. In fact, enthralled travel bloggers have often called this secret gem India’s version of Macchu Picchu.

The ancient site (whose name means one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — a crore in Bengali is called koti) has enormous sculptures of Hindu deities that have been carved out of the hill and that are believed to date back to between the 8th and 9th centuries. Most of them are about 30 to 40 feet high and have an earthy ineptness that is more similar to the tribal style of art than to the classical Indian style.

The most popular one of them is the Unakotishwara Kal Bhairav, a 30-foot high carving of Shiva’s head. Its most arresting feature is its 10-foot high complex headdress that is edged by a warrior-like Goddess Durga (standing on a lion) on one side and Goddess Ganga (sitting atop Capricornrn) on the other.

Besides these, there are multiple other intensefied detailed sculptures including Ganesh, Hanuman, and Nandi bulls. Interestingly, these sculptures have some fascinating folklore associated with them.

Here are some outstanding revelations:

Caught on by the Rajamala, the official history of the Manikya kings of Tripura, the most popular legend has it that Lord Shiva had once spent a night in the hills of Unakoti en route to his abode at Kailash (there are some who say Kashi). He was accompanied by an entourage of 99,99,999 gods and goddesses. Wanting to reach his home on time, he had asked his followers to wake up before dawn so they could make their way towards Kailash.

However, none awoke on time, except for Lord Shiva himself. Before he set out for Kailash alone, the angry god put a curse on the late sleepers, condemning them to an eternity on Earth and turning them to stone. Its believed that this fossilized escorts is what adorns the hills of Unakoti and what gave the site its name. However, there actually aren’t that many sculptures here today!

According to another frozen version, these rock-cut reliefs were scultped by a talented sculptor called Kalu Kumhar (who was a great devotee of Shiva-Parvati). When the divine couple and their mammoth entourage were passing through this region, he asked permission to accompany them.

Shiva was cautious of accepting this proposition, so Parvati came up with a solution — if the sculptor was able to make 1,00,00,000 images of Shiva and his entourage overnight, he could accompany them. Unfortunately, as the sun rose the next day, Kalu Kumhar fell just one short of a crore and was left behind.

Whatever be the legends behind these carvings, the tale and logistics of how they were made remains shrouded mystery. The Archaeological Survey of India is yet to carry out comprehensive research work in Unakoti, though according to some archaeologists, there may be bas-reliefs and sculptures in the forested hills that are yet to be discovered.

Perhaps one of these still-undiscovered objects may provide us with more information about the history behind Unakoti. Discussion of the ancient site being added to the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites have also been in the news. Perhaps this would stimulate researchers to find new information about these splendid carvings too!

So if you are a person who likes traversing ancient interrelations and unexplored terrain, pack your bags and head to Unakoti soon. It is sure to leave one spellbound!