Sunday, 13 January 2013

The forgotten state of Tripura: a whiff of Bengal in the north-east

An account of a short first trip to Agartala and its neighbouring areas in December 2012

When we decided to go to Tripura for a short holiday, neither my husband nor I knew what to expect.  Our combined knowledge of Tripura was negligible. Of course, I knew we were not the only ones with such an abysmal level of ignorance of the state -- I was sure many main-land Indians have never even heard of it. But we were keen to find out more. Moreover, a trip to Tripura seemed easy to arrange; we also knew at least one person there; so we decided to go.
Our friend in Agartala had encouraged us to come and had told us that he would take care of everything. But we did not want to bother him too much, so we decided to book a flight-plus-hotel holiday with makemytrip. That was not such a great idea as we were to find out, but about that another time. Ginger Hotel, we had been told, is one of the best hotels in town.

Our first impression of the airport and the roads were very positive – very good roads, hardly any traffic, everything seemed in order. But it was a Sunday afternoon. Maybe Monday would be different.  Our friend had arranged for a travel agent to organise a sightseeing itinerary for us for the two days we had in hand. The food at Ginger that night was nothing to write home about, but the hotel itself was nice, clean and comfortable. We could not have asked for more.

As we set out on Monday morning for our long sightseeing trip, we first went past some sights in the city itself.  Agartala is busy and crowded on weekdays like any other Indian city, but ever so often we would go past a building or a house that really seemed like from another world and time. First the magnificent Ujjayanta Palace in the middle of the city, which till the other day had functioned as the State Assembly but is now being renovated to house the State Museum, is to be seen to be believed. It is a dream in white, constructed in 1901 and named by Rabindranath Tagore, with beautifully symmetrically laid out gardens and water-bodies in front.  This was Tripura’s very own Rashtrapati Bhawan, I told myself.  To have such a grand building right in the city was as if the palace at Versailles had moved to the heart of Paris, or as if the Sanssouci in Potsdam had moved into Berlin. 

Then we saw some very beautiful buildings in red built by the Maharaja which nowadays house the State Library and the school called the Umakanta Academy next to the stadium. The king of Tripura was not only incredibly rich, he was also benevolent, and had built many stately buildings for public use – schools, colleges, stadia,.... My first impression of Agartala was that it had a very Bengali feel to it, but not just that, it also carried a sense of being somewhat old-time, regal and laid-back, so much so that it was almost as if I was back in Calcutta as I remember it from my childhood. 

Soon we were out of the city and speeding towards Udaipur (56 kms away) and beyond. The Tripura University buildings in the outskirts of Agartala were also very impressive – recently painted again all in white. The roads were excellent, the countryside looked green and peaceful, and lakes and small ponds alternated with dense forests for most of the way.  Not surprising, I told myself, since the name Tripura is supposed to be derived from two Kokborok words tui and pra where tui stands for water, pra means near. The Forest department was very visible everywhere, which is not surprising given that more than 60% of Tripura’s land area is under forest cover. We found out later that they were also a very pro-active and innovative department and have had many successes in the past with introducing the production of rubber, coffee and such new cash crops to the traditional repertoire. Whenever we came into a small town or village we saw red flags and banners fluttering everywhere – elections were coming up in March next year and the present CPI(M) Chief Minister  Manik Sarkar was sure to win a third term. None of the others had a chance, we were told. 

When we finally got there Pilak, where there were supposedly some Buddhist ruins of the 8thor 9th century, had not much to show.  In fact it would have been not worth the long 113 km drive if it were not for the views of the countryside that we got along the way. We next did a round of the sights at Udaipur – the first at the Tripureswari Temple (with the large Kalyansagar lake in front of it with large fish), which seemed to be very much like a typical Hindu temple -- full of devotees, flower sellers and priests.  Small wonder because it is supposed to be one of the 51 Shaktipeeths in the country.  

We found out only later that Udaipur was the former capital of the kingdom of Tripura (when it was called Rangamati) of which there were the ruins (and also the Bhairabeswari temple) on the other side of the river, which we should have visited. Well, so far no big luck with sightseeing, we told ourselves!  But at lunch we finally got to taste the famous rasgullas and misti-doi that are to be found only in the Udaipur area, and they were really good. And in the following days we also discovered places where authentic Bengali delicacies were served, which are so hard to find in Guwahati.

Udaipur with its many large lakes reminded me very much of Tezpur.  But none of those lakes were as large as the Rudrasagar lake in Melaghar with the Neermahal palace in its middle.  Our guide to the palace was a very well-informed Reang gentleman and I took it as my one chance to find out a bit more about the ethnic communities living in Tripura. There are about 6-7 lakh people belonging to these groups in Tripura. The community to which the former kings belonged is called Dev Burmans and they form even now the largest amongst the ethnic groups, followed by the Reangs, Jomatia, Koloi, Uchir, Mura Singh, Tripuris etc. Most of the tribal groups are now Christian (mostly Baptists) although the earliest missionaries came to that area only in the early eighties. Mr. Reang and his siblings converted about 20 years back but their parents had not converted.  Becoming Christian has not come in the way of preserving their cultural traditions and they still sing and dance their traditional songs and dances, he told me.

All these groups now have a common language Kokborok (which is written using the Bengali script) which is closest to the language of the Dev Burmans. The languages of the other ethnic groups are similar but not the same, but they understand each other. The anthropologist in me found it hard to  accept the fact that the many diverse tribal groups had come to accept one single language as their own – surely some arm-twisting must have gone on there to achieve this. As if reading my thoughts, Mr. Reang told us that they still spoke their own language and not Kokborok at home. One can study Kokborok also in college, he told me, although there are no Kokborok medium schools in the state. Hence almost everybody in Tripura today can speak, read and write in Bengali.  

It was hard for me to be happy about the evident total linguistic and cultural domination of the Bengali speaking population in the state, at the expense (and consequent marginalisation) of everyone else.  Wondering whether they made up for this in other ways I asked Mr. Reang if the descendants of the former kings at least were still very rich. He told us that a few still were and lived in Kolkata and London, while for the rest of the Dev Burmans, they were no better or no worse off than the rest of the people in the state.  And one could quickly think of a good example -- the famous composer Sachin Dev Burman’s father was the son of a king of Tripura (while his mother was a Manipuri princess), but not many remember that fact today. Both S D Burman and his even more successful son R D Burman are remembered by most to be from Bengal.

The kingdom of Tripura had joined the Indian Union only in 1949, and it was soon after that that Partition caused a fresh and large wave of Bengali Hindus to come in from Bangladesh.  Of course lots of Bengali Hindus had already been settled in Tripura much earlier than that by the Tripura kings as teachers, priests, officers and accountants. In any case, now Bengali Hindus form a huge majority in the population of about 40 lakhs. Given this, Tripura is perhaps the only state in India where the later day Bengali settlers have completely outnumbered the older so-called Bhumi-putras and have forced them to move to second place. I was not sure whether this was entirely good, and I would have liked to hear some other points of view too. But I could discover nothing more about that from the few people, mostly Bengali, we got a chance to talk to in the time we were there.  

The kings of Tripura were not only affluent, they were also well connected to the kings in Rajasthan, and through them got British masons to come to build the Neermahal. Neermahal, built as recently as the 1930s by the last king of Tripura as a summer palace for recreation, is huge and very interesting in its lay out and seems to attract a lot of visitors on a regular basis. The minarets, the intricate filigree and inlay work reminded me of the Red Fort, the well-laid out and beautifully conceived gardens of the Mughal gardens; hence there was a somewhat Islamic feel to the whole thing which I couldn’t really pin down. But these kings were also very progressive and modern -- there was a well and a generator rooms at the far end with well laid out drains for cooling pipes, bath-tubs in the bathing area and even a ball room with a spectacular view over the lake, but nothing of the past splendour remained, the palace had been stripped bare, only the concrete walls remained. 

It looked pretty run down and badly in need of repair. This was surprising given the fact that every other historical building that we had seen so far in Tripura looked so well cared for. There was litigation going on between the kings’ descendents and the state over the ownership of the palace, and till that is sorted out, the palace would be left to crumble slowly into ruins. What a pity! Even the Lake Palace in Udaipur would have met the same fate I imagine had it not been converted into a grand and exclusive luxury hotel -- and that is both good and bad – good because it has been restored, and bad because no one except for the ultra-rich who can afford to stay in the hotel are allowed to visit the place. 

There is a Tourist Guest House called Sagarmahal on the banks of the Rudrasagar lake with a great view of the palace and a new building is coming up which would be able to house many more people.  Every year in the summer there is a very popular and well-attended boat race held in the lake, we were told. We went on to Bishramgarh and then on to the Kasba Kali Temple and the Kamalasagar lake just on the Bangladesh border.  It had got dark by then. The border fence, a train whistling past somewhere in B’desh, the large Hindu temple right on the border, seemed like a strange and eerie configuration, but then, at least there were far fewer devotees at the temple at that time of the day and we could offer our prayers in peace to the mother Goddess before returning to Agartala.

Hindu temples they are in plenty in and around Tripura. But the Chaturdosh Devata Mandir in Khayerpur (Old Haveli)  only 7 kms away from the city that we visited the next morning was special because it is a temple with mixed Hindu and tribal traditions. It was established in 1770 when the capital of the kingdom had moved from Udaipur to the area near the temple and the annual week-long festival and mela called Kharchi held there is supposedly the most important festival for the ethnic communities of the state. As the name suggests, the temple has 14 deities, represented by 14 heads, and although the priests who did the actual pooja inside the temple where Brahmins, the ones who played the gongs, the cymbals and the drums seemed to be all tribal people: a remarkable example of peaceful co-existence, or another illustration of the immense capacity of Hinduism to include diverse tribal traditions into its fold. Reminded me suddenly of the Koti-Chennaya tradition which I had witnessed in a village near Udupi in South India many years back. There it was almost the same story – the Brahmin priests inside the temple, the non-Brahmin dancers and musicians in the temple courtyard and the untouchable drummers just outside the temple precincts. It would make a fascinating comparison.

The Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary advertises the clouded leopard and the bespectacled monkey as the two star attractions of the place. They were nice to see, but the cages and enclosures looked rather run down and dilapidated, the animals inside looked sad and bored. More impressive were the ancient and huge trees that were to be seen everywhere. The Sanctuary covers a huge area and we were told that there is an open breeding area in the middle where animals are allowed to roam free, but which is out of bounds for visitors.

Back in Agartala, the Maharaja Bikram Bir College up the hill was another splendid building, and seems to be doing growing even bigger. We next drove past the Nazrul Kalashetra next to which a huge and modern new building of the National School of Drama had recently been built. Music, dance, drama and the arts seem to be flourishing, but that was no surprise given that the people were all Bengali. The tiny but ornate Gedumiyar Masjid tucked away in some small alley was worth looking for. There were lots of illegal Bengali Muslim immigrants from B’desh also in Tripura, much like in Assam, our friend told us. And it was even harder to detect them there as everyone spoke Bengali. The Rajbhawan, the High Court building, the new State Assembly and Secretariat Buildings also followed the same architectural scheme – all in white, elaborate, pristine... The train station in Agartala was a sight in itself – again in white and built in the same style as the Palace. I have never seen anything as splendid anywhere in India except perhaps the Victoria Terminus station in Mumbai.

Agartala is a terminus for trains in India, there was nowhere further one could go from there, and there was no train link with B’desh. But the road link to Bangladesh was open and we went to see the Indo-Bangladesh border post just outside the city, but could not get to the gate itself as there were hundreds of trucks carrying goods waiting for clearance on the approach road. Serious efforts were on to open the train link to Kolkata from Agartala through Bangladesh, our friend told us. And that made sound sense, since Tripura seemed to be mentally connected, not so much with the rest of the north-east, but with the Bengali-speaking neighbours in Bangladesh and West Bengal. However, given its location, if one wanted to travel from Kolkata to Agartala by road or train today, one would have to go almost all the way around Bangladesh once. And given that the roads in Assam (on which one would have to travel most of the time) are almost non-existent  in certain long stretches, and also given that the train connectivity is also very bad (with at least two changes in Guwahati and Lumding on the way) neither of these options would make any sense. The only way to do it would be to fly and that seemed rather unnecessary. 

Tourism seem to be actively promoted in Tripura, but when I asked for some material about Tripura and about its kings, the  little material available was all in Bengali.  Clearly Tripura was not expecting the rest of the nation to wake up to its charms – and given the fact that they are so neatly tucked away in the corner about which most Indians have very little idea, they were probably right to not raise their expectations too high. We were encouraged to go to the Government showroom called Purbasha and found at least right people sitting around  chatting in a little showroom, with no interest whatsoever in selling something to the stray tourist who had mistakenly found his way there. There were nice cane furniture on sale but the attitude of the salespersons reminded me of the Pragjyotika and Purbashree showrooms in Guwahati – why is it that so many salesmen are required in government showrooms and why do they collectively manage to sell much less than the private shops run by just one or two people? – Government jobs must cause the same lethargy and indifference in Indians everywhere, I figured.

But despite that, on the whole we had the feeling that Tripura was somehow getting it right – with the right impetus on providing for health, education and creating adequate infrastructure.  The Marxist ideology seems to have had a positive impact on life there, and although shopping malls have arrived, also in Agartala, people did not seem to be as starkly consumerist as in Guwahati .There were other big problems like the complete lack of industries in Tripura and a high level of unemployment amongst the educated youth of the state. There were huge power plants being built there, and we crossed a couple along the way, but the locational disadvanatge of Tripura was perhaps the primary reason why there were essentially no private investors interested  in the state.

But still there were more than a couple of lessons that the rest of India could learn from that tiny back-of-beyond state – first the fact that there is very little corruption there, not because the people there are generally better there than the average Indian but because of higher levels of civic and public awareness and involvement, proof of which is in the fact that there is up to 97% voter turn-out in the elections.  The state also has a very high literacy rate and most citizens are conscious and aware of their rights as citizens and do not hesitate to speak out. A functioning Gram Panchayat system brings in decentralisation and greater accountability for public funds, a vigilant population makes sure the money is used for the purposes for which it was allotted for. As a result much more has been achieved that expected – our friend told us how a Mass Literacy Campaign which had been launched in the mid 90s had made the recent Right to Education Act redundant in Tripura. Now they are planning to make education free right up to Class XII.   

Two full days and a bit were enough for us to get a first impression of Agartala and its surroundings. Of course we did not have time to go to north Tripura to see the spectacular rock cuts at Amarpur and also at Kailashhar. But it was enough to convince us that it is possible even in India to have a reasonable and functioning administration and a government that is pro-active and people-friendly. And that the funds allocated to the states, when used properly and not siphoned off, were enough to bring prosperity to a state, even though it could not generate a lot more resources by itself. And that publicly aware citizens can make many things happen, unlike in Assam, where many of the English-educated  westernised  and exclusively self-serving upper class , can’t be bothered even to go to vote once every five years...

9 comments:

  1. Thanks very much. Would be glad to know more about your interest in tripura

    ReplyDelete
  2. hi
    am tarinee from Thailand.
    I am now in bangalore and intend to visit northeast states. I had visited assam and shillong before.
    I would like to visit the other states.
    Your blog on tripura is helpfull.
    Can you commend on Arunachal pradesh,nagaland,manipur. My plan is for 2 weeks.
    I will be visiting Aizawl as well.

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  3. Hi Tarinee, I am from Assam but I have not been to all these places except for Arunachal. Dont forget to get the permit required to visit these states. In Arunachal visit Tawang. I hope you visited Cherrapunji already.

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  4. Good stuff for the Mainland Indians to get the knowledge of one of the NE states,which they simply don't bother to know.

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  7. Tribals should be protected, this did not happen in Tripura. Migrants ruined their culture, I believe.
    Fortunately, Assamese now trying to send away the illegal immigrants which is good, otherwise, Assam will be like Tripura, sooner rather than later.

    And your writings are divisive, why should you use main-land Indians? Every one is just Indian. You should change that.

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