In My Hands Today…

Aimless in Banaras: Wanderings in India’s Holiest City – Bishwanath Ghosh

While cremating his mother at the famed Manikarnika Ghat, Bishwanath Ghosh pretended he was a writer collecting material for a future book rather than a grieving son—his way of dealing with the last rites. A few years later, he returns to Banaras to write that book.

Plunging into its timeless aura, he roams its ghats and galis, sails through the cool breeze of the Ganga, walks through the heat of funeral pyres. One moment he is observing a sadhu show off his penile strength, in the next he is on a boat with a young woman who has been prophesied to marry seven times; one moment he is in conversation with the celebrated writer Kashinath Singh, who is an atheist, and in the next he is having tea with a globe- trotting priest and a god-fearing doctor … Ghosh finds a story in every bend as he engages with quintessential Banarasis—their paan-stuffed mouths spouting expletives and wisdom with equal flair—and discovers why they are among the happiest people on earth.

Then one evening at Manikarnika, as he emerges from a temple, wearing ash from the cremation ground on his forehead, he finds a bit of Banaras in himself.

Aimless in Banaras is not only a sensuous portrait of India’s holiest city but also a meditation on life—and death.

Travel Bucket List: India – Tripura Part 2

Agartala

Tripura’s capital city and one of the largest cities of northeast India, Agartala is the seat of the Government of Tripura. It is located on the banks of the Haora River, near the Bangladesh border.

Agartala is a derivative of two words, namely agar, a valuable perfume and incense tree of genus Aquilaria, and the suffix tala, meaning underneath, a reference to the density of agarwood trees in the region. The agar tree is historically referred to in the story of King Raghu who tied up his elephant’s feet to an agar tree on the banks of River Lauhitya.

The ancient capital of the then princely state of Swadhin Tripura was at Rangamati in present-day Udaipur in South Tripura by the bank of the River Gomati. In 1760 it was shifted by Maharaja Krishna Chandra Manikya Bahadur of the Manikya dynasty to present old Agartala by the bank of the River Haora or Saidra and was named Haveli. Due to frequent invasions of the Kukis and also to keep easy communication with the British and the Bengalis, Maharaja Krishna Chandra Manikya started the process of shifting the capital from Old Haveli to New Haveli which is present-day Agartala in 1849.

Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarman is called the founder of the planned city of Agartala. He had gone on a tour to the United Kingdom and was so impressed at the architecture that he started planning a similar township in Agartala. During the 1940s the town was re-organised in a planned manner with new roads and a market building. 1981 saw Agartala expanding and increasing its connectivity as well as businesses in various fields, The Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore visited the city multiple times and built a house that still exists.

The Ujjayanta Palace used to be the palace of the Kings of Tripura that was converted into the state legislative assembly and today is a museum, situated in the area of the Palace Compound. The palace also served as the meeting place of the Tripura Legislative Assembly until 2011. Tours are conducted by the Tripura Tourism Department. The name Ujjayanta Palace was given by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who visited the state many times. Maharaja Bir Bikram was the last king of Tripura and the last king who stayed in the palace. It has now been transformed into a museum named Ujjayanta Museum.

Built in 1901, the palace has magnificent tiled floors, carved wooden ceilings and lovely doors. The palace includes the Public halls, a throned room, a Durbar Hall, a Library, the Chinese Room and the Reception Hall. The Palace stands on the banks of a small lake surrounded by the lush greenery of Mughal gardens. Spread over an expanse of 28 hectares of parkland, this exotic palace has several Hindu temples dedicated to the deities, Lakshmi Narayan, Uma-Maheshwari, Kali and Jagannath.

Also known as Nuyungma in the Tripuri language, the palace was constructed between 1899 and 1901 by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya Debbarma and stands on the banks of two lakes surrounded by gardens inspired by the European style. Upon the merger of the Kingdom of Tripura with India in 1949, the royal properties were nationalised. The main building along with the area around the palace was purchased from the royal family by the Tripura government in 1972–73 and housed the Tripura Legislative Assembly until July 2011 when the assembly moved to a new location 6 km north of Agartala.

Today it is one of the largest museums in Northeast India, covering an area of over 800 acres of land, it depicts the lifestyle, art, culture, tradition and utility crafts, besides the customs and practices of various communities residing in northeast India. The two-storied palace has three large domes, the largest of which is 86 ft high, and which rests atop a four-storied central tower. The architecture shows a mix of influences – Mughal, Roman and British. There are two large artificial ponds on either side of the garden which is decorated with pools and fountains. Several Hindu temples occupy plots adjacent to Ujjayanta Palace, dedicated to Lakshmi Narayan, Uma-Maheshwari, Durga and Jagannath. Newer attractions in the compound include the musical fountain installed in front of the main entrance and the night-time floodlights. The grounds are laid out as formal Mughal gardens adorned with fountains. The palace and musem is closed on Mondays and other days is open between 10 am to 5 pm and has an entry fee of INR 10 per person.

The Kunjaban Palace was constructed by King Birendra Kishore Manikya in 1917 and is today the official residence of the Governor of Tripura. The intricate carvings and magnificent structures built here, along with the magnificent adjoining gardens make it a marvellous monument as a whole.

The Jagannath temple was built by the Maharaja of Tripura of the Manikya Dynasty in the 19th century and is located in the Ujjayanta Palace grounds and is dedicated to Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra. While the Islamic style of architecture is predominant in the exterior of this temple, the interiors are decorated with Hindu splendour. It is widely believed that the Neelmadhav idol that is consecrated at Puri was donated from the Jagganath Bari Mandir of Tripura. The base of the Jagannath temple is an octagon in shape with brightly coloured orange walls. Pyramidal conic structures adorn the pillars of the temple. The impression of the pradhkshin patha that is around the sanctum deserves special mention. The Nitya Puja, Bhoga offerings and distribution, along with the evening Aarti, are the main rituals that are followed here. The Aartis are especially a must-attend event to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the temple and to be lost in the devotion of the Almighty. The Ratha Yatra, also known as Maha Ratha Yatra is the annual festival of the temple that takes place in June, is an important festival that is attended by hundreds of devotees each year.

Located within the Ujjayanta palace grounds, the Ummaneshwar Temple is a saffron-coloured temple influenced by West Bengali culture.

The Tripura Sundari Temple is a beautiful temple situated in Udaipur, around 55 km away from Agartala. This ancient, 500-year-old temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas and is where the toe of the right foot of Sati fell. The temple is that it is in the shape of a tortoise and is also known as the Kurma Peeth. Dedicated to Goddess Kali, built in 1501, is where a steady stream of pilgrims make almost endless animal sacrifices that leave the grounds as bloody as the temple’s vivid-red shikhara. The temple is also known as Matabari and is served by priests in red robes who minister to the Tripura Sundari.

King Dhanya Manikya who was the ruler of Tripura in the 15th century had a dream asking him to install the idol of Goddess Tripura Sundari in the temple present on the hilltop. However, this temple was already dedicated to Lord Vishnu which is why the king could not decide how to install another idol in the temple which was already devoted to Lord Vishnu. However, the repetition of this message by the oracle made the king decide to follow its command and thus the Tripura Sundar Temple came into existence.

The temple is small and measures 24 square feet at the base and 75 feet at the top where Goddess Parvati is worshipped with the names Tripurasundari, Tripureshwari, and Soroshi. The temple’s structure is similar to that of a tortoise with the roof in the shape of the humped back of the tortoise. This is why the shrine is also known as Kurma Peetha since Kurma means tortoise. There is a square sanctum in the temple having a conical dome. This was constructed in 1501 by Maharaja Dhanya Manikya Debbarma. Inside the glorious temple, two exact images of the same deity are present. These have been given the names Tripura Sundari which is 5 feet high and Chhotima which is 2 feet high. The idol is built from Kasti stone which is reddish-black and it is said that this idol of Chhotima was carried on the battlefield by the king.

Kalyan Sagar is a lake is situated on the eastern side of the Tripura Sundari Temple and is spread over 5 acres of land with a length of 224 yards and a width of 160 yards. 124 years after the Tripura Sundari Temple was set up, the Kalyan Sagar Lake was founded which can be traced back to the rule of Maharaja Kalian Manikya in 1501. Different varieties of aqua species can be found in the lake including huge tortoises. The devotees who visit the temple feed biscuits and puffed rice to the fish. The lake is considered sacred by the devotees and has a fountain in the centre which makes it appear even more beautiful. The temple opens between 5 am and 9 pm during the summer months and between 5:30 am and 8:30 pm during the winter months.

The Bhubaneswari Temple is located in Udaipur about 55 km from Agartala by the bank of the River Gomati. The temple built by Maharaja Govinda Manikya is now under the control and supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India. While approaching the Bhubaneswari Temple one also finds the ruins of the palace of Govinda Manikya.

The Chaturdash Devta Temple is located in Old Agartala and is also known as the Temple of Fourteen Gods. Before 1770 AD, the images of fourteen Gods were in Udaipur in two temples beside the Tripureswar Bhairab Temple, but in 1770 A.D after Maharaja Krishna Kishore Manikya was defeated by Shamsher Gaze, he shifted his capital from Udaipur to Old Agartala and the images of the Fourteen Gods were also taken to the capital and installed in a new temple. The capital was shifted to resent-day Agartala in 1840 AD, but the images of Fourteen Gods remained in the same temple. On the occasion of the special puja of the Fourteen Gods known as Kharchi Puja, a grand fair is held for 7 days in and around the old palace. The worship of the Fourteen Gods has an old history and legend associated with it. During the time of Mahabharata, Trilochana, a contemporary of Yudhisthira, was the king of Tripura who used to worship these Fourteen Gods as Royal deities. The tradition continued with all the subsequent Kings of Tripura. Animal sacrifices offered by the devotees are an integral feature of Kharchi puja. Inside the temple, the images of the Fourteen Gods do not consist of a full body with only the images of the heads of the Gods present.

The Kasba Kali Temple is a Shakti shrine about 31 away from Agartala and is located beside the Indo-Bangladesh international border. The serene lake in front of the temple adds to the charm of the  place. Although Maharaja Kaliyan Manikya started construction, it was Maharaja Dhanya Manikya who finished building the temple in the late 15th century. The deity installed inside the temple dedicated to Goddess Durga but as the base platform has an image of Lord Shiva , the ten-handed Durga fighting the buffalo demon Mahisasur is worshipped as Goddess Kali. The area where the temple is located is also known as a kasba which is a Persian word meaning town. The ancient name of the place was Kamalagarh or Koilagarh. After defeating Surja, the then-ruler of Bengal, Maharaja Kalyan Manikya built this fort to further secure the princely kingdom of Tripura. A township gradually developed around the fort and the name Koilagarh was replaced by the name Kasba. Maharaja Dhanya Manikya dug a large water body in front of the temple and named it Kamalasagar to honour his wife, Kamaladevi. Today there is an Indo-Bangla Border Hut which is also a special attraction. Every year a big fair is held near the temple in April and thousands of devotees the temple.

Buddhist Temples in Tripura support the fact that Buddhism is quite prevalent in the state. Archaeological evidence suggest that Buddhists have inhabited the region since ancient times with several Buddhist rulers ruling the state who left permanent influences on the culture of the state. In the 16th century, Buddhism was almost eliminated from this region owing to the defeat of Buddhist rulers, but its revival in Tripura began in the 17th century. The Buddha Temple is an important religious site and was constructed in 1946. It houses two idols of Buddha and Bodhisattva, believed to be having a Burmese origin. The surrounding gardens enhance the beauty of the temple premises.

The Gedu Mia’s Maszid is an imposing mosque located in the Shibnagar area of Agartala. Built of imported white marble stones, this exquisite mosque is endowed with a large number of minarets, towers and artworks on doors, fronted by a sprawling green space for religious congregations including weekly Jumma Namaz.

Parks in Agartala include Heritage Park which is the most visited of all the parks in the city. The most notable features are the miniature models of various monuments of the state, the Ayurvedic herb garden and the fountain. Rabindra Kanan is a park in the vicinity of the Pushpavanta Palace, the former Raj Bhavan of Tripura and the Malancha Nivas. This park, close to the Heritage Park, annually holds the birth anniversary ceremony of Rabindranath Tagore after whom the park is named. The Vivek Uddyan is adjacent to the Ujjayanta Palace and the Children’s Park and annually holds the birth anniversary ceremony of Swami Vivekananda, after whom the park is named.

The Lake Palace of Tripura or the Neermahal is the largest palace of its kind in the subcontinent. This architectural beauty derives its name from its location, the middle of the Rudrasagar Lake. One of India’s two water palaces, the former royal palace was the royal summer palace. The palace is the result of Maharaja Bir Bikram Manikya Bahadur’s idea of constructing a summer residence in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake which took nine years to construct. The palace is a beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim architecture and looks more enchanting during the nighttime when the lights are switched on, and its reflection is made in the water. Sandstone and Marble have been extensively used in the construction and the palace has a profusion of balconies, pillars, rooms, ornated walls, bridges, and pavilions.  It is divided into two parts, the Andar Mahal and an open-air theatre. Where the former lies in the west, the latter occupies the eastern part of the palace. The Andar Mahal was formed as the royal family’s private area. It has 24 rooms and 2 stairways built in such a way that they land onto the Rudrasagar Lake. Back then boats were used as transportation mode between the palace and other parts of the land. There is a sound and light show in the evenings and the premises also include water sports activities. The palace is also famous for the three-day-long Neermahal Water Festival which takes place annually in August and December. Boat races and swimming competitions are observed alongside small cultural programmes. The palace is open from 9 am to 5 pm and has an entry fee of INR 5 per person while children below the age of 5 pay INR 3. There is also a camera fee of INR 10 per camera.

The Gondacherra Wildlife Sanctuary is home to multiple species of flora and fauna. Mammals like tigers, bison, wild horses, aquatic life as well as migratory birds can be seen here. The Raima Valley is also known as the Mother of the Tribals of Tripura. This lush green valley, decorated with gardens and plantations has become a preferred tourist spot.

The Akhaura Integrated Check Post was inaugurated on 17 November 2013 and is the second largest trading centre with Bangladesh after Benapole and Petrapole in West Bengal. People travel to the border to witness the flag-lowering ceremony in a mutually coordinated performance. The check post includes a mini-stadium which hosts the Beating of Retreat ceremony like that at the Wagah border with Pakistan.

Travel Bucket List: India – Tripura Part 1

India’s third-smallest state, Tripura lies in northeast India and is bordered by Bangladesh to the north, south, and west, and Assam and Mizoram to the east. Tripura is located in an isolated hilly region of the country, with various indigenous peoples, or tribes, accounting for a significant portion of the population. The area of modern Tripura which was ruled for several centuries by the Manikya Dynasty was part of an independent princely state under the protectorate of the British Empire. The independent Tripuri Kingdom, also known as Hill Tippera joined the newly independent India in 1949.

Tripura lies in a geographically isolated location in India, as only one major highway, the National Highway 8, connects it with the rest of the country. Five mountain ranges — Boromura, Atharamura, Longtharai, Shakhan and Jampui Hills — run north to south, with intervening valleys. Agartala, the capital, is located on a plain to the west. The state has a tropical savanna climate and receives seasonal heavy rains from the southwest monsoon.

Forests cover more than half of Tripura, in which bamboo and cane tracts are common. Tripura has the highest number of primate species found in any Indian state. Due to its geographical isolation, economic progress in the state is hindered with poverty and unemployment continuing to plague the state, which has a limited infrastructure. Most residents are involved in agriculture and allied activities, although the service sector is the largest contributor to the state’s gross domestic product. According to the 2011 census, Tripura is one of the most literate states in India, with a literacy rate of 87.75%.

The origin of Tripura’s name is still a matter of controversy among historians and researchers. According to the Rajmala, Tripura’s celebrated court chronicle, an ancient king named Tripur ruled over the territorial domain known as Tripura and the name of the kingdom was derived from his name. Many researchers explain the name Tripura from its etymological origin: the word is a compound of two separate words, tui which means water and pra which means near which in totality means near water. The geographical location of the state with its proximity to the vast water resources of eastern Bengal coupled with the generic identity of the state’s original inhabitants as Tipra or Twipra justify this explanation of the state’s name.

The early history of the kingdom of Tripura is a complex blend of history and mythology. According to the Rajmala, Tripura’s royal house trace their origin to the lunar dynasty, following in the footsteps of their counterparts in the Hindu royal houses of the rest of India who claim to have originated from the lunar or solar dynasties. The name Tripura is linked to the Hindu goddess Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the Tripura Sundari Temple at Udaipur, one of the 51 shakti peethas and to the legendary tyrant king Tripur, who reigned in the region. Tripur was the 39th descendant of Druhyu, who belonged to the lineage of Yayati, a king of the Lunar Dynasty.

The Indian epic, the Mahabharata; ancient religious texts, the Puranas; and the Edicts of Ashoka which are stone pillar inscriptions of the emperor Ashoka dating from the third century BCE, all mention Tripura. The Rajmala, a chronicle of Tripuri kings which was first written in the 15th century, provides a list of 179 kings, from antiquity up to Krishna Kishore Manikya who ruled between 1830 and 1850.

Tripura became a princely state during British rule in India. The Tripura kings had an estate in British India, known as the Tippera district or Chakla Roshnabad, now the Comilla district of Bangladesh, in addition to the independent area known as Hill Tippera, roughly corresponding to the present-day Tripura state. Udaipur, in south Tripura, was the capital of the kingdom, until King Krishna Manikya moved the capital to Old Agartala in the 18th century. It was moved to the new city of Agartala in the 19th century. Bir Chandra Manikya who ruled between 1862 and 1896 modelled his administration on the pattern of British India, and enacted reforms including the formation of the Agartala Municipal Corporation. Following India’s independence in 1947, Tippera district, the estate in the plains of British India, became the Comilla district of East Pakistan, and Hill Tippera remained under a regency council until 1949. The Maharani Regent of Tripura signed the Tripura Merger Agreement on 9 September 1949, making Tripura a Part C state of India. It became a Union Territory, without a legislature, in November 1956 and an elected ministry was installed in July 1963. It was conferred full statehood in 1971 by the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act, 1971. The geographic partition that coincided with the independence of India resulted in major economic and infrastructural setbacks for the state, as road transport between the state and the major cities of the newly-independent India had to follow a more circuitous route, around East Pakistan. The road distance between Kolkata and Agartala before the partition was less than 350 km or 220 miles, and increased to 1,700 km or 1,100 miles, as the route now avoided East Pakistan. The geopolitical isolation was aggravated by an absence of rail transport.  

After the partition, many Bengali Hindus migrated to Tripura as refugees fleeing religious persecution in Muslim-majority East Pakistan, especially after 1949. Parts of the state were shelled by the Pakistan Army during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Following the war, the Indian government reorganised the North East region to ensure effective control of the international borders with three new states coming into existence on 21 January 1972 – Meghalaya, Manipur, and Tripura. Pre-independence, most of Tripura’s population was indigenous, but the migrations by Bengali Hindus led to scattered violence, and an insurgency spanning decades, including occasional massacres such as the 1980 Mandai massacre. This gradually abated following the establishment of a tribal autonomous district council and the use of strategic counter-insurgency operations.

Tripura is characterised by hill ranges, valleys and plains. The state has five anticlinal ranges of hills running north to south, from Boromura in the west, through Atharamura, Longtharai and Shakhan, to the Jampui Hills in the east. At an altitude of 939 m, Betling Shib in the Jampui range is the state’s highest point. The small isolated hillocks interspersed throughout the state are known as tillas, and the narrow fertile alluvial valleys, mostly present in the west, are called Doóng or lungas. Several rivers originate in the hills of Tripura and flow into Bangladesh with the Khowai, Dhalai, Manu, Juri and Longai flowing towards the north; the Gumti to the west; and the Muhuri and Feni to the south-west. Tripura is predominantly rural with the highest densities of the rural population found in the state’s most fertile agricultural lands, located in the western plain and the Gumti, Dharmanagar, and Khowai valleys. Rice is the major crop in Tripura and accounts for 91 percent of the land under cultivation. Towns are concentrated on the western plain and the state capital of Agartala is the largest city. Most of the population, adhering to Hinduism and speaking Bengali, shares the broader cultural traditions of India, while the Muslim minority is closer in culture to Bangladesh. The traditions of the tribal peoples also are important elements of Tripura’s cultural life, with each community possessing its festivals, folklore, music, and dance. Pisciculture has made significant advances in the state and Rubber and tea are important cash crops. Tripura ranks second to Kerala in the production of natural rubber in the country. The state is known for its handicraft, particularly hand-woven cotton fabric, wood carvings, and bamboo products.

The Tripura Hills, by way of the Mizo Hills of Mizoram state on the east, form a low western extension of the Purvachal, a strategically located highland region fronting the border with Myanmar. The region belongs to the Assam-Burma geologic province, an unstable seismic zone crisscrossed by several faults and extending into Myanmar. The hills are a series of parallel north-south folds, decreasing in elevation to the south until they merge into the greater Ganges-Brahmaputra lowlands, also called the Eastern Plains. Each successive ridge of hills to the east rises higher than the one before; the low Deotamura Range is followed by the Artharamura, Langtarai, and Sakhan Tlang ranges. The Jamrai Tlang Mountains, 46 miles (74 km) in length, have the highest peak, Betling Sib (3,280 feet [1,000 metres]).

Two of Tripura’s largest festivals are the Kharchi Puja and the Garia. The Kharchi Puja, also known as the Festival of the 14 Gods, has its origins in tribal tradition but is now a major temple festival celebrated within a predominantly Hindu framework by both tribal and nontribal peoples. It takes place in Agartala every July and honours the deities and the Earth. The Garia celebration is a prominent festival of the indigenous population and is associated particularly with the Tripuri people. Garia is held each April following the planting of the fields to pray for a successful agricultural year.

In My Hands Today…

Hot Tea Across India – Rishad Saam Mehta

On Rishad Saam Mehta’s journeys — and as a travel writer and all-round road-trip junkie, he’s been on many — there’s a particular thing he noticed. There’s not a highway, road or dirt track in India where you can’t find a cup of chai whenever you want it.

And with those cuppas come encounters and incidents that make travelling in India a fascinating adventure. In this riveting book, which includes stories of honey- and saffron-infused tea shared with a shepherd in Kashmir, and a strong brew that revives the author after almost getting lynched by an irate mob in Kerala, Rishad takes you across the length and breadth of India, from Manali to Munnar, from the Rann of Kutch to Khajuraho, with a wonderful combination of wit, sensitivity and insight.

In My Hands Today…

Raya : Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara – Srinivas Reddy

In 1509 Krishnadevaraya, a prince from humble origins, ascended the throne of Vijayanagara. The empire he inherited was weak from two messy dynastic succession, and ambitious enemy kings loomed large on all sides – a haughty king of Orissa in the east, five upstart Deccan Sultans to the North, revolting Tamil rajas in the South and enterprising Portuguese soldiers from the West.

But Krishnadevaraya quickly rose to the challenge, and in the course of his remarkable twenty-year reign, he changed history forever. He won every single battle he fought and unified the whole of South India under his banner. Krishnadevaraya is remembered today as one of India’s greatest kings, not only because of his successes on the battlefield or the dazzling splendour of his empire, but because he was India’s first truly global leader.

He had to confront very modern problems, such as building international alliances and negotiating overseas trade deals, while grappling with the challenges of globalism and multiculturalism. The Deccan of his time was a cosmopolitan place where Hindus and Muslims, North Indians and South Indians, Persians and Portuguese, all intermingled as they made their lives and fortunes. This cultural dynamism also inspired Krishnadevaraya to look back at India’s past and reflect on her histories and traditions.

As a philosopher-king who was also a celebrated poet in his own right, he presided over an Indian Renaissance, when ancient texts and traditions were reinvigorated and infused with a fresh and modern vitality. Five hundred years after krishnadevaraya’s death, he is still remembered and loved as a compassionate and wise king, one who is immortalised in films and folk tales, poems and Ballads.

This fascinating and riveting book is meticulously researched and beautifully written. Based on Portuguese and Persian chronicles, as well as many overlooked Telugu literary sources, Raya is the definitive biography of one of the world’s greatest leaders.