Monday, December 31, 2012

Trip to Agartala-Unakoti : December 2011

Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala seen through the gate
After the completion of our Nagaland trip, we were to proceed to Imphal by road and then to Mizoram before arriving at Agartala for my return journey as I got the cheapest hopping flight from Agartala to Mumbai via Kolkatta. The continuation of road blockades in Manipur compelled us to drop Manipur from our itinerary. This meant that we were to take a detour via Silchar to visit Mizoram. But having lost 2 days in this process, we were not having sufficient days to explore Mizoram before proceeding to Agartala. So I decided to drop Mizoram as well from my itinerary in favour of exploring Tripura in detail.  KS decided to visit Mizoram and Meghalaya after the end of our Tripura trip. So what was intended to be a transit trip to Agartala became almost like a full-fledge trip to Tripura. At the end of Tripura trip, we both were happy that our extended stay in Agartala gave us opportunity to visit some exotic places in Tripura.

Since we have dropped our visit to Mizoram, we could have directly travelled to Agartala from Lumding-Agartala Express. But being a night train, we would have missed scenic route from Lumding to Badarpur. So  we travelled  by a day train, Barak Valley Express to Silchar (  Barak Valley Express - A Scenic Train Journey ). After spending a night at Silchar,  we boarded Silchar-Agartala Passenger train for Agartala, the next day. The train was scheduled to depart at 10.45 a.m. but left at 11.45 a.m. We were told by regular passengers that this train had no fix timing and ran late almost every day. A train attendant later told me that most of the meter gauge trains in Lumding Division run late due to old coaches, non-availability of running and maintenance staff, non-availability of spare parts and the topography of the routes. We had booked in AC Chair Car as all other coaches were general compartments in  which I was not keen to travel. Being an old type of AC coach, the AC worked only when train was in motion. Not that it mattered much as the weather was pleasant.   The train reached Agartala at 10.45 p.m. as against the schedule time of 8.00 p.m. One of the passengers told us that we were lucky today as a day before, this train had reached Agartala at 1.00 a.m.! Agartala railway station with its palace like building looked great.

There were plenty of auto rickshaws available outside Agartala railway station. However, we were approached by a Omni driver who offered  to drop us at Ginger Hotel (12 kms from railway station) where we had reservation, for Rs.200/- which we gladly accepted. Probably, he was keen to return to his base in the city centre after dropping some passengers at the railway station. We checked in the Hotel by which time, its restaurant was closed. Luckily, KS had some stock of thepla ( thin dry parathas made up of  fenugreek leaves mashed in wheat and  gram flours mix) which we ate in lieu of dinner and   retired to the bed.
Karimganj Jn is on the Lumding/Silchar-Agartala meter gauge railway line and the railway station is close to Bangladesh border.

Agartala railway station

Day-1 : For Tripura trip, we had not planned any schedule for visiting tourist places. So after breakfast at Ginger’s restaurant (Rs.150/- for buffet breakfast), we consulted the hotel’s travel desk about planning sightseeing trips in around Agartala. Mr Biswas who was actually outsourced by Ginger Hotel to manage their travel desk, suggested to do Sipahijela Zoo- Neer Mahal-Udaipur and end with visits to a couple of temples in Agartala. After some negotiation, he agreed for Rs.1800/- ( all inclusive) for full day trip.

We started from hotel at 10.00 a.m for Sepahijala Zoo located inside the wildlife sanctruary which was 35 kms south of Agartala off NH44. The road was in excellent condition. Our intention was only to take a leisure walk in the forest of the sanctuary to see the Zoo which had clouded Leopard, spectacle monkeys among other animals. The zoo was well maintained and I was happy to see that most of the wild animals had enough moving spaces within the enclosures, some of whom had open enclosures.  The sanctuary has botanical park which we did not visit for want of time. There is a food stall at the gate of the Zoo serving tea/coffee and some snacks.

Road inside Sephaijal Wildlife Sanctuary, 25 kms from Agartala

Clouded leopard in Sephaijal Zoo.

Spectacle monkeys in Sephaijal Zoo.

Our next destination was Neer Mahal one of the most visited tourist places in Tripura. Our car dropped us at the jetty on the Rudrasagar lake in Melaghar for taking a boat to Neer Mahal which is located in the midst of the lake.  Since it was the lunch time for the boatmen of normal ferry, we had to hire a full boat for two of us for Rs.180/- including the return ferry. It took about 20 minutes to reach the Neer Mahal jetty. The Rudrasagar lake is very vast and attracts a lot of migratory birds.

Neer Mahal was constructed by  Maharaja Birbikram Kishoe Manikya Bahadur in 1930 as a summer palace on the lines of Jal Mahal in Udaipur (Rajsathan). There are two wings in the palace – the western wing is exclusively for the royal family, while the eastern wing was meant for the cultural events and also the residence for the employees and securities guards. Going by the structure of the domes, the red and white coloured palace is built on Indo-Islamic style of architecture. In the western wing, there is a well maintained garden. Presently, none of the members of the erstwhile royal family stays here. There is a proposal to convert this palace into a museum depicting the royal history of Tripura.  After spending about 40 minutes, we boarded the same boat to return to Melaghar. 

Road to Melghat for Neer Mahal

A street scene with compound walls made of bamboos and canes on way to Melghat.

Rudra Sagar lake with Neer Mahal in the background

A panorama of Neer Mahal with its reflection on Rudra Sagar lake.

The entrance gate to Neer Mahal

Inside Royal wing of Neer Mahal

View of  Security and Servants' wing from Royal wing of Neer Mahal

View of boat jetty of  Neer Mahal from Royal wing.

Boats ferrying visitors to Neer Mahal. In the background is Tripura Tourism's Sagar Mahal Tourist Lodge.
Our next stop was at Tripura Sundari Devi temple also known as Maa Tripureshwari which is located about 3 kms from Udaipur town and around 55 kms from Agartala.  This temple is regarded as one among 51 pithasthanas (shakhti peeths) in India. This temple was built by Maharaja Dhanya Manikya at the beginning of 16th Century AD. The temple has been constructed in the shape of a typical Bengali hut with a conical dome on the top of the temple. In front of the temple complex across the road is a lake known as Kalyan Sagar which is full of fishes and tortoises as fishing is prohibited in the lake. By the time our return journey started, the sun has already set in. On our way back to hotel, we stopped at Laxmi Narayan temple located at the entrance of Ujjayanta Palace and Jagannath temple in Agartala. The temple is located on the banks of Dighi Lake. The striking features of this temple are the use of muslim architecture style with 3-4 storied shikaras. As the name suggests, Balibadra, Subhadra and Krishna are the main deities. The idols look like a replica of the famous Jagannath temple of Puri. Inside the temple complex  are the colourful sculptures and paintings depicting the life of Lord Krishna.

Tripurasundari (Matabari) temple, near Udaipur

Deity of Tripurasundari in the form of Goddess Durga

Kamalasagar Lake seen from Matabari temple complex.

A Kingfisher with a small fish in its beek at Kamalasagar lake.

Jagannath Temple dome seen through the gate, Agartala

Jaggannath temple deities. Lord Jaggannath is called here as Neelmadhav

Day-2 : Visit to Unakoti
We had almost given up our hope of visiting Unakoti for rock cut carvings and images as a day trip due to Gate system on NH.44 (Agartala-Shillong road). The first gate opens at 8.00 a.m. and the last gate for return journey being at 4.00 p.m. With 178+178 kms of to and fro journey to be covered on a hill road, we were cutting too fine for doing this journey as a day trip  with a handicap of gate system. Generally, car hire package for Unakoti is for two days with an overnight halt at Kumarghat or Kailashahar, the gateways to Unakoti. The gate system has been in force for the last few years as out of 178 kms of journey, about 100 kms of road journey is fraught with the risk of facing highway robbers and ultras especially from late evening to early morning. The topography on both sides of the road devoid of inhabitation with dense forest gives a perfect setting for an ambush.
Mr Biswas of Travel Desk at Ginger Hotel gave us good news when we return from the day trip around Agartala that due to some site visits at the border of Tripura and Meghalaya by the Government officials, they would be getting armed police escorts of Tripura State Rifles in which case the gate system's restrictive timings would not be applicable.  Since the Government officials have hired a car from Mr Biswas for the site visit, the car carrying us can join the escorts to make it a day trip by starting the journey early in the morning. This was indeed a good news for us. We hired Biswas’s Indica car (Rs.3600/-) for a day trip to Unakoti.
We got up at around 5.00 a.m. and were ready in the hotel lobby by 6.00 a.m. to proceed. Our car (Indica) was ready but the Government officials car with escorts reached  near our hotel around 6.30 a.m. when our car joined the escort. The jeep escort of 4 policemen with assault rifles drove just ahead of our cars with another jeep with the same number of policemen with assault rifles in the back. After making the petrol tank full of both the vehicles, our actual journey on NH.44 started around 7.00 a.m. The road was in good condition even though it was a zig zag road on a hilly track. There was not much of traffic as the gate had not yet opened for other vehicles. Since we had started journey without having even a cup of tea and breakfast, we stopped at a dabha after about one hour of journey for breakfast of puri-sabji and samosas.
The road journey is very scenic with dense forest on both sides of the road. Somewhere in the mid point of the journey, one of the tyres of our car punctured. Luckily, we were near some town having a  repair shop for tyre punctures. However, it took about one hour to complete the work as it was noticed that the spare car tyre had also punctured. Once we reached Kumarghat, the police escorts left us and went ahead on the NH.44 while we took a left turn for Unakoti. In any case we were now out of the sensitive area. We reached Unakoti around 12.30 p.m. via Kailashahar, the head quarters of North Tripura district taking about 5 hours 30 minutes as against the usual 4 hours required for travelling here.  A walk of about 200m from the road took us to the gate of Unakoti hills.
According to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the rock cuts and stone images belong sometime between 7th and 9th century AD. It is a Shaivite pilgrim centre. From the entrance, one can see a huge Shiva rock cut with a height of nearly 30 feet. Just after a few steps inside the Unakoti hills, there is one more huge Shiva rock cut out with the rock cut image of Durga on one side and another female image on the other side. Below these rock cut images is a giant rock cut bull. Rest of the minor rock cut images are in the midst of dense forest. In my view, the most outstanding rock cut image is that of Ganesh which has been carved on a rock at the lower end of the stream flowing from a place below the rock cut images of Shiva. I can visualise as to how this Ganesh images may look in rainy season when the stream would gently fall vertically as a waterfall behind which the image of Ganesh is carved. It may perhaps look like as if a kind of ‘abhishek’ is offered to Lord Ganesh.
I am sure, in the rainy season, Unakoti hills may look more beautiful with greenery and numerous waterfalls than other times of the year. There could also be some trekking possibilities as the entire area is a hilly terrain with dense forest. After spending about 45 minutes, we commenced our return journey at 1.15 p.m. At Kumarghat, we took a lunch break and waited for the police escort to join us. Realising that we had sufficient time to cross the last gate at 4.00 p.m., we informed Biswas who was in a car with Government officials that we were proceeding ahead and in case we are not in a position to cross the last gate at 4.00 p.m. we would wait there for the police escort. We did not face this situation as we crossed the gate well before 4.00 p.m. and reached our hotel by 6.30 p.m.
By the way, those tourists coming from Silchar can catch Silchar-Agartala Passenger and alight at Kumarghat railway station in the evening. After staying overnight either at Kumarghat or Kailashahar, next day, sight seeing at Unakoti can be completed before noon for onward journey to Agartala  by road thus saving a day. We realised this only after reaching Agartala

A short stop over almost half way to Unakoti. The police escort on the left can be seen.

Unakoti is just one km from the diversion to the left.

One of the two giant rock carved statues of Shiva seen from the entrance to Unakoti complex

One more of  Shiva sculpture with Nandi in the foreground (right) seen from a distance.

More rock carved sculptures​. One on the right is that of Shiva

These stone carved deities, including that of Lord Ganesh are at the lower end of the complex.

Day-3 : In Agartala
Today was kept as an extra day to take care of unforeseen eventuality. In the event, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we could see Agartala city in day time.  The morning started with dense fog engulfing the city. Since we had not schedule visits for the day, after breakfast, we first visited the Reliance Service Centre for KS to check out as to whether his Reliance data card would operate in other states in North-East – Mizoram and Meghalaya. The Reliance centre opened at 10.30 a.m. and the outcome of his query was disappointing as his CDMA data card would not work anywhere in north-east states. Agartala railway station was our next destination to try to make reservation for KS in an early morning train to Darma Nagar for his onward journey to Silchar and then to Aizwal in Mizoram. Again the visit was futile as the tickets were wait listed.
From railway station, we decided to revisit Ujjayanta Palace and Jagannath temple as we had seen these places in the night.  These places were worthy of day visit as we could spend about an hour or so to see the Palace as well as the temple. Ujjayanta Palace was under restoration for the last one year and entry inside the Palace was prohibhited. We returned to our hotel for lunch after which we  packed our suitcases and rested for the day as the due to smog and winter months, night sets in Agartala as early as 4.30 p.m.

Entrance to Ujjaynta Palace, Agartala
Ujjayanta Palace seen from the entrance

wooden doors of the main entrance of Ujjayanta Palace.

One of two big lakes by the side of Udayantara Palace (partly hidden by a tree on the right). Some part of Ujjayanta Palace serves as Tripura State Legislativ​e Assembly meeting place.

Tripura Tourism's Geentanjli Hotel, Agartala. The room tarrif is more or less the same as that of Ginger Hotel.

Day-4 : Agartala-Kolkatta-Mumbai

We got up early as KS was to catch 6.45 a.m. train from Agartala railway station for Darma Nagar. In the previous day, he had made an arrangement with an auto rickshaw to pick him from the hotel at 5.30 p.m. Auto driver came in time to pick him from the hotel. Luckily he got a seat in unreserved compartment. The check out time in the hotel was 12 noon but the hotel permitted me to stay up to 2.00 p.m. as my flight was scheduled to depart from Agartala for Kolkatta at 4.30 p.m. I checked out from the hotel at 1.30 p.m. and took an auto rickshaw parked outside the hotel for airport drop (Rs.100/-) which he did it within 15 minutes. Agartala airport is very small and congested. It was a good decision of mine to reach ahead of scheduled reporting time as I could check in within 5 minutes while those who came as per scheduled time had a long wait for check in. The flight left in time and reached Kolkatta at 5.25 p.m. I had enough time to catch Kolkatta-Mumbai flight which was scheduled to depart at 6.30 p.m.


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