Hidden amidst the lush green forests of the Jampui Hills in the northeastern state of Tripura, India, lies a mesmerizing treasure. Unakoti, famously referred to as the 'Angkor Wat of the North-East', is a sculptural marvel that boasts ancient rock carvings that harmoniously blend history, travel, iconography, and folklore, making it a unique destination for explorers and history enthusiasts alike. Unakoti's history dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries and stands as an ancient testament to devotion and craftsmanship. This remote pilgrimage site was once a thriving center of worship. As the brimming brooks and rivulets flowed by the foothills and the heady scent of incense filled the air, scores of pilgrims assembled at this bustling Shaivite pilgrimage site.
Unakoti's name itself is steeped in legend. It translates to "one less than one crore" in Bengali, signifying the multitude of stone carvings that call this place home. It is also known as the 'Lost Hill of Faces'. The most captivating myth revolves around Lord Shiva's visit to Unakoti. Accompanied by 99,99,999 gods and goddesses, one fewer than a crore, Lord Shiva was on one of his pilgrimages to Kashi. He decided to rest at Unakoti and all the other gods and goddesses were expected to awaken from their slumber before dawn and continue their journey. However, at the break of dawn, Lord Shiva was the only one to awaken. In a fit of rage, the Great Destroyer put a curse on them, turning them into images etched in stone, which still dot the landscape today.
The heart of Unakoti is its intricate rock carvings and stone images. Among the remarkable figures, the central Shiva head, also known as ‘Unakotiswara Kal Bhairava, stands tall at 30 feet, crowned with a 10-foot-high head-dress. Flanking Shiva are two full-sized female figures — Durga, standing regally on a lion and another mysterious female figure. Enormous images of Nandi Bull are also found, partially buried in the ground, guarding the sanctity of the place. Faces of Ganesha, Ravana, Hanumana and other deities from Hindu mythology are also meticulously sculpted.
Another local legend tells of Kallu Kumhar, a devoted artisan of goddess Parvati. Eager to accompany Shiva and Parvati to Mount Kailash, Parvati tasked Kallu with creating one crore idols of Shiva overnight to appease the lord. Being immensely skilled, the artisan came close, but he fell short by one. While Unakoti became a prominent Hindu pilgrimage site during the reign of the Pala dynasty in Bengal (750–1161 CE), there are some archaeological accounts that suggest that it might have also been a Buddhist site for meditation.
Unakoti is not just a relic of the past; it's a living testament to India's rich cultural heritage. Every April, the Ashokastami Mela breathes life into this ancient pilgrimage site, attracting thousands of pilgrims and tourists alike. A smaller festival also takes place in January, adding to the site's vibrancy. For those eager to embark on a journey to Unakoti, it's located 178 kilometers northeast of Agartala, which is where the closest airport is. Kailashahar, the district headquarters, is just 8 kilometres away. The nearest railway station is Dharmanagar, which is a 30-40-minute car ride from the site. Traveling from Agartala has become more accessible, with trains connecting the capital town and Dharmanagar.
Unakoti's enduring beauty has suffered centuries of neglect, leading to degradation and the loss of many precious carvings. Thankfully, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has adopted the site as a heritage site, taking steps to protect and preserve its rich history. The Indian government recently granted Rs 12 crore to the state to develop Unakoti into a prominent tourist destination. Unakoti's compelling history and unparalleled artistry have not gone unnoticed on the global stage. In December 2022, it was added to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a recognition that could elevate its status as a cultural wonder of the world.
Unakoti, with its enigmatic stone sculptures, mythical legends, and timeless beauty is a gem for those seeking a spiritual journey through India's vibrant mythical past. As travellers wander through this sacred landscape, they can't help but be transported to a bygone era, when gods walked among men, curses turned souls into stone, and the fog of myths colluded seamlessly with lived realities.