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Heyyy 🙂 I’m back with another lovely surprise…

Tucked in the north-eastern corner of India…one of the best-kept secrets of the country… the “clean and green” state capital of Tripura… Agartala 🙂

For my non-Indian readers, the amazing Northeast region of India comprises of eight beautiful states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Six of them have already been covered in my earlier posts. My next post will feature Mizoram. In case you have missed out on my earlier posts on the Northeast Indian States, here are the links: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim

I hope you have enjoyed reading my previous post: Discovering Kolkata

It was from Kolkata that I boarded the Air India flight to Agartala on the 21st of December 2015. The flight was supposed to leave in the morning. But unfortunately for me, the flight was rescheduled to late evening. A nine-hour delay! I had planned to explore Agartala and the surrounding areas in two days before flying back to Kolkata early in the morning on the third day i.e. the 23rd. But thanks to the airline, my entire first day got wasted as I arrived in Agartala late around 7:30pm. I had only one day to look around. But I did get to visit a few interesting places in that one day.

So, here’s my piece… enjoy 🙂

 

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Tripura is bordered by Bangladesh in the south, west, and north. To the northeast and east, it is bordered by the states of Assam and Mizoram respectively.

Tripura was a princely state ruled by the Manikya dynasty from the 15th century until 1949, when the kingdom merged with India. Right from the 15th century, Bengali language and culture was liberally patronized by the rulers belonging to the Tripuri tribe. Though the culture, attitude and behaviour of locals are influenced by Bengali culture, Tripura has an identity of its own because of a fine blend of diverse cultures which include 19 ethnic tribes. The main language in the state is Bengali and Kok Borok, the tribal language of the native Tripuris.

Tripura became a Union Territory in 1956. Then in 1972, it gained statehood and Agartala became the state capital. At the time of Indian Independence in 1947, Tripura’s population was mostly tribal (around 70%), largely dominated by the Tripuris, who trace their origins to western China. Today, they are a minority (around 30%), and socio-economically disadvantaged in comparison to the majority population of Bengalis. The current ethnic setup is a consequence of the Partition of India in 1947, which gave birth to Pakistan and East Pakistan (which seceded from Pakistan in 1971 to form Bangladesh). When the Indian territories of Bengal and Tripura were split from what is now Bangladesh, there was a massive migration of Hindus from those regions. The economy of Tripura was badly affected as its links with Calcutta (now Kolkata), with whom it had developed a strong connection over the years, were cut off. Everything changed overnight when the distance between the two jumped from 350 km to 1650 km.

Agartala is the capital as well as the largest city of Tripura, and also is the second largest city in the North East after Guwahati (in Assam), both in area and population (522,613 in 2015). It sits right on the India- Bangladesh international border, which is just 2 km from the city centre.

A few years ago, Tripura achieved a remarkable feat: it became the highest literate state in the country.

Tripura is famous for pineapples which grow all over the State. In the northern region, high-quality oranges grow in abundance. Tripura is the bowl for bamboo and cane handicrafts, while handloom is the oldest industry. Tripura Handloom represents a unique harmonious blend of three traditions- Tribal, Bengali and Manipuri weaving.

 

Monday, 21 December 2015

 

My Air India flight lands at Agartala Airport around 7:30pm. It’s a small place, hence no pre-paid taxi service. But taxis and auto-rickshaws are available within the main gate. I’m greeted by “Taxi, Madam?”, “Rickshaw, Madam?” They charge around 300 rupees and 150 rupees respectively for my hotel, which is just 15-20 minutes away on the Airport Road (or VIP Road). Thinking that I might get a cheaper fare outside the main gate, I walk on. The road is deserted with no signs of any vehicles, so I turn back to take one of the waiting taxis.

The airport is 12km from city centre. One of the best places to stay in Agartala is at Ginger, the Tata-owned brand of budget business hotels. It is located 5km from the city centre on the Airport Road amidst serene surroundings. The room tariff including buffet breakfast is 2168 rupees plus taxes. But thanks to MakeMyTrip.com offer, I have a pre-paid booking at 37% discount.  It’s dinner time and the dining hall near the reception is brimming with yuppies and middle-aged businessmen. Tired, I settle for chicken soup and vegetable noodles in my nice and comfortable room. Through the window, I get a good view of the main road, deserted at this hour. By 10pm, I’m off to bed.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

 

Getting up at 5am, I spend some time taking in the beautiful morning scene from my window. The room is equipped with an electric kettle, so I enjoy the scene while sipping a cup of steaming hot tea.

Room with a view…

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Greenery and laidback charm are the features of all the North East states. And Tripura has oodles of it. The small travel booklet from the hotel desk features some lovely looking places like Jampui Hills (233 km), Dumboor Lake (125 km), Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary (29 km), Tepania Eco-Park (45 km), Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary (110 km),  Kalapania Nature Park (126 km), Baramura Eco-Park (39 km) and Khumulwng Eco-Park (26 km). Unfortunately, there is no time to visit even the few nearest ones.

Unlike the Christian-dominated states like Mizoram and Nagaland, Hinduism is the dominant religion here. So there are many temples in and around the city. The renowned ones include the venerated 11th century Tripurasundari Temple (55 km), Bhubaneswari Temple (53 km), the 15th century Kasba Kali Temple (32 km) and Chaturdash Devata Temple (9 km). For archaeology lovers, there are a few renowned places for rock cut carvings and stone images dating from 7th to 16th centuries AD. The rock-cut carving in Unakoti (173 km) is the largest bas-relief sculpture in India. The site dates back to 7th-9th centuries. Pilak (114 km) is a treasure house of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures from 8th-9th centuries. Chabimura or Devtamura (87 km) is famous for its panels of rock carvings from 15th-16th centuries. And there are Buddhist shrines too, like the Buddha Stupa in Baxanagar (38 km) and Mahamuni Pagoda (134 km).

As per my travel information downloaded from the Internet, there are three royal palaces, two of them in the city: Ujjayanta Palace and Kunjaban Palace. The third, Neermahal Palace, is located in the midst of Rudrasagar Lake, 55 km away in Melagarh. Built as a summer resort for the last king of Tripura, Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya in 1930, it is the only lake palace in Eastern India.

The Ujjayanta Palace is the main attraction of Agartala. And that is going to be my first stop. After a light breakfast downstairs, I’m ready to start my sightseeing tour. Last evening, on the way to my hotel, I acquired quite a lot of information about the city from the taxi driver. Based on it, my plans for the day include lunch at Shankar Hotel in Netaji Chowmuhani, and a visit to the India-Bangladesh Border, just 2 km away from the city centre, for the lowering of flags ceremony performed by Border Security Force (BSF) of India and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB). The ceremony takes place at 4:30pm in winter as the sun sets early during this season.

It is 9:15am when I step outside and breathe in the pollution-free air. I’m already loving the city. There is a rickshaw stand near the hotel but I prefer taking a bus. The bus stop is just opposite the road. A short while later, a minibus comes along and I climb in. The ticket up to the palace, which is located in the city centre, costs five rupees. With each passing minute, I feel like I’m in a totally different world. Having travelled through six states of the North East, I didn’t know what to expect from this small state till my arrival. Perhaps, nothing much to write about. Now I realize how wrong I was in thinking so. Agartala is surprisingly clean with a charming, laidback aura. Everything looks new and freshly painted, even small houses. No litter, no open drains, no pot-holed roads, no run-down buildings… Wow!!!

The bus stops right opposite the palace gate. A part of the erstwhile palace of the Tripura kings today houses the Tripura State Museum and is the only section open to public.

The entrance gate of Ujjayanta Palace…

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Watch my video: Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala

The magnificent Indo-Saracenic style palace built in 1901, is set in large Mughal-style gardens flanked by two large ponds. At night, the beauty of the palace is enhanced by fountains and flood lighting. Right now, soft traditional music accompanies me as I walk the distance to the former royal palace…

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Maharaja Bir Bikram Manikya was the last king of Tripura who ruled the state and was also the last king who stayed in his house in the palace. His son, Maharaja Kirit Bikram Kishore was king for two years till the state’s accession to India in 1949. But he did not rule, as he was a minor.

The gleaming white Ujjayanta Palace…

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Watch my video: Close view of Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala

The museum tour starts with an introduction to the state and its history, the native tribes and their culture, traditional clothing, arts and crafts, etc. and then moves on to ancient coins and archaeological artefacts.  I’m slowly gaining quite a bit of knowledge about Tripura, its districts and tourist attractions. A relief map helps me understand it better. I would have liked visiting Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary and Neermahal Palace but I’m discovering so much more within the museum.

Agartala was founded by Maharaja Krishna Kishore Manikya Bahadur of Manikya Dynasty in 1849, as capital of his empire. In the 1940s, Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya Bahadur restructured the town with new roads, markets and buildings. He was the founder of the modern, planned city of Agartala.

A section of the museum is dedicated to the life of Nobel-laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore and his work. Tagore had a close relationship with the princely state of Tripura and its four successive rulers starting from King Bir Chandra Manikya in 1886. There are plenty of old photographs, very interesting and informative. And some paintings as well, depicting his works. Besides poetry and novels, he wrote dramas…he directed and acted in a few of them too.

It’s a wonderful museum. What interests me the most is the section on the glorious history of the state and the other north-eastern states. I spend an hour here. There are royal and cultural memorabilia, paintings, artefacts and more… When I walked in, there were just a few visitors around. But now, it’s getting crowded. The place is buzzing with busloads of uniformed school children. It’s around 1:00pm when I exit the palace gate.

The roads are traffic-free. Fewer private vehicles, but plenty of cycle-rickshaws, e-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws…

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Sanskrit chants over loudspeakers bring me to the nearby Lakshmi Narayan Temple where a puja ceremony is going on. It’s a century-old temple constructed by the then king of Tripura. Inside, there is a steady flow of devotees.

The colourfully decorated puja pandal  with smoke from the burning incense billowing upwards…

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Further down the road, I see a sweets shop and step in to check the local goodies. Besides the typical Bengali sweets which are available in my home city of Mumbai too, there are some new ones which I’m tempted to try. Jaggery-based sweets are prepared only during winter. So I select gur bhapa, made of jaggery. Tastes nice…

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The rossogollas are bigger in size. And they have jaggery-based rossogollas too. Gur Rosha Golla.  I try one piece of the soft and spongy sweet. Mmmm…delicious!

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Kheer Towa is one of their specialties…

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It’s very tempting but having milk-based sweets one after another isn’t a good idea while travelling. I might end up with diarrhoea and that would spoil my trip.

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Watch my video: Agartala sweets

They have savouries too. A packet of baby samosas is inviting and I buy it. To burn off the calories piled on by the two sweet temptations, I decide to proceed on foot. My destination is Kunjaban Palace. On the bus ride, I had seen the name “Kunjaban” at the entrance gate in a particular area with a couple of nice-looking government buildings in the vicinity.  So I assume the palace to be nearby. It’s a long walk and when I reach the place, I realize that it’s a Buddhist shrine, located in the Kunjaban area. And it’s closed right now. I make a few enquiries but nobody has heard of any Kunjaban Palace. That’s when I remember that the palace is now the official residence of the Governor of Tripura. It’s on the way to my hotel. The walk is a bit long, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Kunjaban Palace was built in 1927-1917 as a recreation place for the king of Tripura. Now it is Raj Bhawan, the official residence of Governor of Tripura.

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From here, my hotel is just a short distance away. Perched on a hill opposite my hotel is the beautiful Geetanjali Tourism Guest House set amidst sprawling landscaped gardens. I would have booked a room here if I had known that it was so good! Maybe next time…

When I reach my hotel, it is 2:15pm. I rest for about half an hour before starting out for lunch. I’m hungry, so I take an auto-rickshaw this time. The young driver doesn’t look like a local, more like a Punjabi. And he certainly doesn’t act like one… he readily agrees to my fare of 60 rupees which is half of what he was charging. When I ask him whether he is from somewhere else, he nervously stammers that he’s from this city. Poor fellow, I must have scared him… He doesn’t know Ujjayanta Palace. But he knows Shankar Hotel at Netaji Chowmuhani. The hotel is well-known. There are a number of Chowmuhanis in the city. In local language “Chowmuhani” is an intersection of three or four roads.

To my surprise, Shankar Hotel turns out to be a small place. They serve the famous hilsa from Bangladesh, which is why I’m here, eagerly waiting to savour it. Tripura cuisine is heavily influenced by Bengali cuisine, so mustard is one of its prime ingredients. I choose fish curry with steamed rice. Twenty minutes later, my order arrives at the table…

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I put a forkful of fish meat in my mouth and…WOW!!! The fish tastes absolutely DELICIOUS!!! No wonder Bangladeshi hilsa is high in demand! It’s all about the water in which it dwells, otherwise the fish is the same as in India. Bangladeshi hilsa costs 1000-1200 rupees a kilo due to short supply, says the guy at the counter. Next, I have a large fried prawn. Yum…Wanting to try something sweet, I ask for rossogollas. The cook-cum-attendant immediately rushes out and returns a short while later with a small plate. The white balls dunked in sugary syrup have been warmed. It tastes great this way, I’m told. Yes, it does… The lunch bill comes to 800 rupees. Well, hilsa is expensive and more so, when it’s from Bangladesh. The sumptuous meal has got me energized. I could eat this fish every day and not get bored. Mmmmmmm…..

It’s nearing 4pm. My next destination is the Indo-Bangladesh Border. Cycle-rickshaws and e-rickshaws are cheaper than auto-rickshaws, but they take a longer time. I love the cycle-rickshaw rides and I’m not in a hurry. The Akhaura border-crossing is just 10 minutes away. Akhaura is the town on the Bangladesh side of the border. It’s a lovely open-air ride on the clean city roads and I sight a few city landmarks on the way. Then, I’m at the border. The ride costs 40 rupees, inflated for me!

Yours truly near the border…

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Check my video : India-Bangladesh Border scene

The border is heavily-fenced but the border gates are very simple like any other crossing gate. I see a few men carrying plastic bags, showing their passports and walking past the barriers to the other side. With a visa, one can live in one land and shop in another. People cross the border on foot to visit their relatives living nearby on the opposite side. Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is 3-4 hours’ drive from Agartala. A daily direct bus service operates between Agartala and Kolkata via Dhaka. This cuts short the distance between the two Indian cities.

Several people have gathered on both sides of the border. The Indian side has more visitors.

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With ten minutes left for the ceremony, we are allowed to come a bit close to the gate. Some plastic chairs for senior citizens are quickly placed on one side of the road. There’s a mad rush for a seat from middle-aged women. The BSF guys have to repeatedly tell some of the excited women taking pictures and videos to move away from the path of the soon-to-be marching guards. I hear two women arguing with each other over a seat or something while the ceremony is in progress. Ugh, women…

Watch my video: Waiting for the flag-lowering ceremony

It’s a simple and sombre lowering of flag ceremony with no shoe-thumping drama as seen at Wagah border between India and Pakistan.

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Amidst the sound from the bugles blown together from both sides, the respective flags are lowered…

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Watch my video: The flag-lowering ceremony at India-Bangladesh Border 

The lowered flags are removed, folded and carried in a synchronized manner on both sides.

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After the end of the 15-minute ceremony, it’s okay to walk up to the border gate.

Signboard at the border gate…

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Yours truly at the border gate…

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Cross-border interaction…

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The hectic photo-taking goes on for a while till the crowd on both sides disperses.

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Walking away some distance, I find an e-rickshaw on shared basis. It’s convenient as the ride is going to cost me 20 rupees only. My co-passengers are two women, one with two tiny tots. The e-rickshaw travels across the city offering me a glimpse of the places that I haven’t seen yet.

Watch my video: E-rickshaw ride in Agartala

And then, I’m the only passenger left. The driver has mistaken my destination with some other place, hence the cheap fare. Forget about Ginger Hotel, he doesn’t even know the way to the airport. Having walked past the area in the afternoon, the surroundings are familiar to me. My ego is puffed up as I give him the directions. Wooh…I’m actually guiding a local rickshaw driver, who has spent his entire 30-40 years in this city! And then, my ego gets a punch.  The driver insists that we are in a wrong place. Sure, the surroundings suddenly look unfamiliar to me. Damn! In the dark, I have missed a lane! We turn back. On the way, I get to see the Swami Vivekananda Stadium, a multi-purpose stadium used for football and cricket matches and political rallies. The entire country is crazy for cricket, but the North East is a hotbed for football. And Tripura is not an exception. Meanwhile, the driver is confused. I tell him to take me to Raj Bhawan. After all, my hotel is just a few minutes down the road. Fortunately, he knows where Raj Bhawan is, so I no longer have to guide him. He stops outside the place, and I tell him to ride ahead further. When I show him the rickshaw stand and Ginger Hotel, he goes: Oh! So, this is the place. Even though it’s a shared rickshaw, during the long ride from the border there were no passengers picked up on the way. Without his asking for it, I hand him 70 rupees. This road goes straight to the airport, I tell him. Haha, a location tip from someone who has hardly spent 24 hours in the city.

When I walk into the hotel, it’s close to 6:00pm…too early to retire to my room. So I spend some time at the hotel’s small business centre. Around 8:45pm, I have a light dinner of chicken soup in my room. My laundry was supposed to be delivered by 7:30pm but there’s still no sign of it, even by 9:30pm. It’s past my bedtime and I have to remind housekeeping for the third time. A little past ten, a flustered chap hands me the package, with profuse apologies for the delay. Finally!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

 

Around 8am, half an hour after breakfast, I check out from the hotel. The hotel security finds me an auto-rickshaw and I’m off on my way to the airport. It takes around 30 minutes by auto-rickshaw.  Lush greenery greets my eye on both sides of the deserted road.

Unlike the other state capitals of North East, which are hilly (excepting that of Assam), Agartala is located in the plains. Two days would have been enough to cover a few surrounding places. But Air India’s nine-hour flight delay did away with my first day’s travel in the city.  Because of the airlines, I missed out on visiting some beautiful places with flourishing greenery like Sepahijala Sanctuary, which is not far away. There are so many lovely places in the state and yet, it attracts fewer tourists.

Being a border town, security check at the small airport is rigid. My IndiGo flight for Kolkata is scheduled to depart at 10:15 am… and it does, on time.

Soon, I’m flying above Agartala, catching a final glimpse of the small, planned, clean and green city before the clouds take over…

 

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