The Hall of Faces atop Tripura’s Unakoti Hill

The giant bas-reliefs of Unakoti are an enigma shrouded in the mists of time.  
At first glance, the main bas-relief of Unakoti looks like that of Buddha, with elongated earlobes. However, this cynosure of the site is actually a rendition of Shiva. Photo by: Timothy Allen/axiom photographic agency/Getty Images
At first glance, the main bas-relief of Unakoti looks like that of Buddha, with elongated earlobes. However, this cynosure of the site is actually a rendition of Shiva. Photo by: Timothy Allen/axiom photographic agency/Getty Images

The town of Kailashahar in north Tripura is a typical, Bengali settlement. Large ponds punctuate the landscape, while small shops and shacks, as well as a public library or two line the main roads. There are plenty of fields to play cricket and football in, and the most popular hangouts are the low-priced restaurants, where the men gather in the afternoon for fish meals, a game of carrom and some political debate.

What makes it different from an average small town is the long barbed wire fence running along the fields at its outskirts. On the other side is Bangladesh. However, this physical border doesn’t seem to be much of an obstacle to communication. From my rest house window, I could see men and women living on either side of the fence using it to hang their laundry out to dry. They’d gather at dusk and chat with people from the other side, clay cups of tea in hand. Divided by an international border but forever united by culture and language, there was something extremely touching about this interaction.

A living reminder of this ancient cultural connection can be found a few kilometres outside town to the east. Here rear up the thickly forested Jampui Hills, whose ranges snake like fingers over the plains of north Tripura. Bound by the Manu River to its west, one finger of the Jampui Hills holds one of the most stunning heritage sites in South Asia—the giant bas-relief sculptures of Unakoti.

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Day trippers from the neighbouring town of Kailashahar walk past the first of the giant faces. Photo by: Bibek Bhattacharya

Day trippers from the neighbouring town of Kailashahar walk past the first of the giant faces. Photo by: Bibek Bhattacharya

I visited the place on a humid Sunday in July, with dense black clouds hovering over the incredible greens of Kailashahar’s farms and Jampui’s forests. A short way into the hills, our car stopped near a signboard that said, ‘Shivadham.’ A ramp led into a valley in the fold of the forest, and suddenly the air was alive with the crashing sound of a waterfall. A few steps in, and the first of the giant faces hove into view, grinning at me from a granite cliff. The entire cliff was carved like a face, about 30 feet high. At first, I thought it was a huge Buddha face, with elongated earlobes. But then I saw that this Buddha wasn’t smiling, it was grinning, teeth and all. Huge earrings the size of wheels adorned the ears. The head wore a small crown, in the shape of a circlet. It had a flowing, dreadlocked do, like flames radiating outwards. A bejewelled necklace, overgrown with moss, hung below the chin. On its forehead, a third eye. This was Shiva.

Just below it, slightly to its left, was another face, a close twin of the former. I walked further down the ramp as it zigzagged to a deep cleft of a valley formed by the swollen mountain stream called the Dhaluchhora. The forest canopy parted and an incredible view opened up.

Some hundred feet below lay more sculptures. One of these, which perhaps was part of the gallery by the waterfall, was broken and lying like a giant pedestal, grinning at the sky. The other one, still upright, and as massive as the rest, took up pride of place beside a small pool formed at the base of the cascade. Families from nearby areas milled around its base, while a priest wearing a red robe and holding an umbrella over his head, had set up a temporary altar, and was blessing devotees.

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Unakoti has been a site of Saiva pilgrimage for about a thousand years now. Not much is known about its history or about the people who carved these incredible bas-reliefs, so myths have proliferated. I’d found the most popular of these stories ad nauseam in every piece of available tourist literature. Popularised by the Rajamala, the official history of the Manikya kings of Tripura, this story reworks a Puranic myth of a crore Hindu deities who encamped here on the way to Varanasi. Shiva wanted to get a move on before dawn, but the other gods were feeling lazy. So he cursed them and went on his way. Come sunrise, the sleeping deities were turned into stone: Hence the name ‘Una,’ or one less, than ‘koti,’ a crore. Interesting as the myth may be, the reality of tribal art and worship is much more fascinating.

Gigantic in size and girth, the Ganesha panel carved along the pathway leading to the Dhaluchhora valley is one of the more intimidating sculptures at Unakoti. Photo by: Rupak Debnath/shutterstock

Gigantic in size and girth, the Ganesha panel carved along the pathway leading to the Dhaluchhora valley is one of the more intimidating sculptures at Unakoti. Photo by: Rupak Debnath/shutterstock

The gigantic gallery of Unakoti is indeed home to many more panels of bas-reliefs, and freestanding sculptures. Just above the head of the main Shiva face rises an immense crown, and on two sides of the crown are two warrior-like women, who’re usually identified as Ganga and Yamuna. Further up the hill, there’s a little grinning archer, wearing a crown of bird feathers. Near this panel lay a number of scattered boulders, each with its own sculptures. A few archers here, a small head there. They all had the same, slightly manic grin. Yet further uphill, on an overhanging cliff face, were two huge sculptures of women. One of them was swaying to one side as if faced with a strong gale, her hair flying in the wind, while the other squatted; both figures looked like they were dancing.

It’s been established that the site had been used by generations of artists between roughly the 8th and the 13th centuries A.D. The huge faces and the figures on the upper hill terraces above the waterfall are the oldest of the lot. At the time, today’s northern Tripura was a part of Srihatta, an area roughly the size of the modern district of Sylhet in Bangladesh, just across the border. Renowned as a major seat of Buddhist and Hindu tantrism, Srihatta was a part of the kingdom of Harikela, which at the time included most of western Bangladesh as well as Tripura. Ruled by the Buddhist Khadga and Deva dynasties, and later by the Hindu Chandras and Varmans, this area was a crucial staging point of overland trade routes that ran from eastern India to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Apart from the sea route via Myanmar, these land routes transmitted the two main Indian traditions of Buddhism and Brahmanism to Southeast Asia. The newly ascendant tribal polities of the area were of the same Khasi, Mon and Khmer stock that established Sanskritised kingdoms in Cambodia and Thailand, alternating between Buddhist and Saivite ruling families.

Although no land grants or inscriptions regarding Unakoti have been discovered yet—much still lies hidden amidst the forests and overgrown hills—it is now considered that Unakoti was a memorial to the legendary chieftain Subrai, who, much like the Varman kings of Bayon in Cambodia, was identified with his chosen deity, Shiva.

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The panels aren’t all there is to this site. There are many small trails and ramps that lead away from the stream. I traversed one that followed the Dhaluchhora stream further down the valley. A few hundred feet below lay another huge cliff face, with another waterfall creating a pool much bigger than the one above. Looming above it were three humongous, scary Ganeshas, and to their side, a small, demure Vishnu.

The waterfall formed by the Dhaluchhora stream is ideal to scrub away all feelings of lassitude. Photo by: Bibek Bhattacharya

The waterfall formed by the Dhaluchhora stream is ideal to scrub away all feelings of lassitude. Photo by: Bibek Bhattacharya

The Ganesha reliefs are thought to be of a later date, probably from the 12th or 13th centuries A.D., and the Vishnu even later. These were no cute elephant-headed gods. Gigantic in size and awe-inspiring in their girth, they were, if anything, even more impressive than the faces up the valley. Each of the menacing figures had multiple arms and massive tusks. Brandishing trishuls and little hand drums, they were more akin to perilous tantric depictions of the deity that one comes across in the Buddhist tantras.

It was late afternoon, and Unakoti was buzzing with day-tripping families and school groups from the nearby towns. The day had turned even more humid. I waited until the crowds had somewhat cleared, and dived into the pool. The cold water immediately scrubbed away all feelings of lassitude and the roar of the waterfall filled the world. The green of the forest became more vivid and little rainbows danced in the spray. The Ganeshas towered above and the sense of mystery around Unakoti deepened. Up amongst the trees, a tiny face grinned.

Essentials

Kailashahar, which lies about 18 km from Unakoti, is in north Tripura, 180 km from capital Agartala along NH-44. To get there, it’s best to book a car and a driver for a couple of days. Start the journey around 8 a.m., which is when the forest gate of Baramura, about 30 km from Agartala, opens for vehicular traffic. Tripura has a basic but good network of rest houses that you can book in advance. They offer clean and comfortable rooms and great Bengali thalis. For more information on accommodation, visit tripuratourism.gov.in.

  • Bibek Bhattacharya lives in Delhi with his cats and is a writer and editor at Mint Lounge. He's currently working on a travelogue set in eastern India.

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