• Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

An abode of Shiva ‘Unakoti’- an ancient wonder

Tripura, one of India’s seven sisters, has a small geographical area but many attractions for tourists, including the magnificent palaces Ujjayanta Palace and Kunjaban Palace in Agartala and Neermahal Lake Palace in Melaghar, splendid rock-cut carvings and stone images, Unakoti near Kailashahar, and many more. This article offers a glimpse into the wonders of Unakoti.

It is the most popular tourist destination in Unakoti District, Kailashahar Subdivision, north-eastern Indian state of Tripura, around 8 kilometers from Kailasahar and 185 kilometers from the state capital, Agartala. The ancient people employed the vertical surface of the Unakoti hills to carve many mythical scenarios, including the various iconographic forms of Siva, Ganesha, Uma-Maheshwara, and so on. Unakoti is known for its massive rock-cut panels representing Hindu deities. It reveals indications of ancient Saiva worship in Tripura during the 8th and 9th centuries CE.

Unakoti, also known as Angkor Wat of the North-East, is a sculptural emblem and ancient Shaivite pilgrimage site . The breathtaking rock carvings, murals with their primal beauty, and waterfalls are not to be missed. Unakoti means “one less than a crore,” and it has been reported that there are numerous rock-cut engravings accessible here.


In the local Kokborok language, it is called Subrai Khung. It was added to the tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site List in 2022. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple is named after its sculptures, which were carved on a hill in Tripura’s Raghunandan highlands. It is estimated that there are ninety-nine lakh, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine (99, 99, 999) idols here.

In Bengali, ‘Una’ means one less and ‘koti’ means crore; hence, the name of the site ‘Unakoti’ literally translates as “one less than a crore”. According to tradition, Unakoti was the gathering location of gods and goddesses who gathered on the Shukla Ashtami (8th day of the lunar fortnight of the Chaitra month) with the goal of establishing another Vrindavan near Mathura. Lord Shiva told his companions to wake up before daylight in order to continue their trek. Only Shiva was able to get up in the next morning. So he cursed them to become stones. However, they only represent prevalent beliefs.

Local tribes, on the other hand, think that Kallu Gurjar created these idols. He was a devotee of Parvati and wished to follow Shiva and Parvati to their home on Mount Kailash. As per Parvati’s desire, Shiva reluctantly agreed to take Kallu to Kailash on the condition that he must have to create one crore Shiva statues in one night. Kallu approached that project with the utmost professionalism. However, when dawn broke, the idols were less than one crore (or unakoti). That is why Shiva abandoned Kallu and his idols in Unakoti, and to get rid of him.

The existence of 99,99,999 idols in Unakoti (according to folklore) appears to be the source of the village’s name.
The rock sculptures at Unakoti face west and are set in a lovely location with lush green flora and a stream flowing down the hillock’s center in an east-west orientation. The streamlet divides into three kundas at the bottom. These kundas were sacred to Brahmanical Hindu religious activities and are an important feature of the yearly ‘Ashokashtomi Mela’ (fair) conducted in Unakoti.

The images seen at Unakoti can be divided into two categories: a) majestic rock-cut images on the hill’s vertical surface and fallen boulders, and b) loose sculptures of smaller and medium sizes strewn throughout the hill. The most prominent figure at the site is Unkotiswara Kala Bhairav. The massive rock-cut image of Shiva stands approximately 30 feet tall, including a 10-foot-high embroidered headpiece. Two full-size female images flank the central Shiva headpiece—one of Durga standing on a lion and the other on the opposite side. The third eye is positioned vertically on the forehead, while the other two are portrayed as double-incised lines without pupils. A straight nose and a narrow mouth depicted as a slot with vertical lines denoting teeth characterize the facial features. An incised line above the mouth forms a loop resembling a mustache. Tribal art influences the headpiece and ear earrings.

The figure has seen some wear and tear, most likely because of the area’s intense rainfall and frequent earthquakes. A trident has been carved on the left side of this image, some distance away. Three sculptures of the Nandi (Mount of Shiva) are visible near the Shiva figure. There are numerous other stone and rock-cut images in Unakoti.

Another massive rock-cut figure of Shiva, known as Gangadhara, lies on the right side of the approach road. This artwork shows Shiva’s head and bust, with two normal eyes and a third eye on his forehead. Jatabharas stream down either side, creating a rope-like motif. His forehead features a wonderfully carved tiara-like ornament, and two circular kundalas adorn the lower portion of his ears. Just 2 meters north of the Gangadhara Shiva, another Shiva figure is engraved on the vertical surface. This image depicts a face with three eyes, a mouth with a row of teeth, and a tiara-style decoration on the forehead.

Another Shiva picture, with similar iconographic features, is carved on the opposite bank of the same hillock after crossing the creek. These include the jatamukuta (matted hair), crown, three eyes, narrow incised bow-shaped brows, wide-open lips, and a long neck with long ears decorated with a circular flowery kundala (earring). Furthermore, Goddess Durga is shown on the far left side of the crown, standing on a tiger, while River Ganga is depicted on the right, standing on a crocodile.

A masculine figure with a bow and the lower slope of a boulder bears a carved arrow north of this Shiva artwork. The depiction shows him in a fluid motion, his left leg extended forward, and a feminine figure stands behind him. These pictures depict Shiva and Parvati in disguise as Kirata and Kirati. Two male figures have been carved on the hill’s upper surface, positioned above the Kirata figures.

The image of a deity with jata and Shiva is the name given to the third eye on the forehead. The second human figure appears just above his shoulder, with an arrow pointing at Shiva. This image illustrates the mythological ‘Kamadahana’ episode, in which Shiva incinerates Kama. It depicts Shiva slaying Kama, the Hindu god of love, for disturbing him during his meditation. One Hari-Hara figure, or a fused iconographic depiction of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara), can be seen etched to the west of the rock.

When someone ascend the stairs, he will notice a succession of rock-cut male and female figures, together with smaller-scale carvings of a Shivalinga and Shiva’s head. Some scholars refer to a picture of an animal with a female face as kamadhenu. To the west, further downstream, the artists carved a panel with three massive Ganesha sculptures, each with its own distinct set of characteristics. The group consists of a seated Ganesha (7 meters or 22 feet tall) on the cliff’s far left and two additional elephant-headed sculptures to his right.
The standing elephant-headed figures are ichnographically different from the seated Ganesha depiction. Their depiction shows them standing with slender waists, three or four tusks, and six or eight hands, respectively. The seated Ganesha depiction depicts a bloated abdomen, one tusk, and four hands. According to some academics, the image of the two standing elephant-headed deities reflects the influence of Tantric Buddhism. On the far right, a depiction shows Vishnu holding four ayudhas. About 100 meters from the Ganesh panel, the stream swings south and meets another river on the southeastern side. Just near this confluence, on a lower elevation, artisans have carved a massive, enormous picture of Uma-Maheswar, also known as Hirimba, a character from the Mahabharata.

The researchers discovered several scattered stone carvings on and around the peak. Some of these sculptures, which include images of Vishnu, Hara Gauri, Harihara, Narasimha, Ganesha, Hanuman, Kalyanasundaramurty, and the Hindu Trinity, are kept in a shed on top of a hill and may be stylistically dated to the 11th–12th century CE. The early medieval relics include two chaturmukhalingas and one Eka-mukalinga (lingas with four and one face, respectively). Two of Shiva’s four faces on the linga are finely preserved, exhibiting the sculptor’s skill in depicting Shiva’s contemplative appearance. These loose sculptures have a higher level of style, symbolism, and craftsmanship than the figures etched into the mountainside.

The one and only inscription at Unakoti, found on the other Chaturmukhalinga figure, contains a few entries in Bengali characters dating back to the 11th–12th century CE.

The influence of Buddhism is also evident in the sculptures of the region. There are various depictions of Boddhisattavas, Buddhas, and Buddhist motifs. Many images found in this area also suggest the presence of religious sects such as Sakta, Tantric, Bajrayanis, and Nathayogis.

Every year during the Chaitra month of the Hindu Calendar (April–May), thousands of pilgrims visit Unakoti to participate in the ‘Ashokastami Mela’ a large fair held at the site.There is also a minor celebration in January.

In my compilation, I opt to say that Unakoti is a unique artificial wonder of ancient India, adorned with a variety of magnificent rock sculptures. As is well known, Lord Shiva is a deity steeped in numerous mythologies and folktales, with Lord Nataraja epitomizing the cosmic dance. Moreover, it is part of a national biodiversity park of the same name on a range of hills called the Unakoti Hills in Tripura State.

However, the distinctive portrayal of Shiva at Unakoti, Tripura, takes the form of a tribal lord, a depiction unparalleled elsewhere.

(The article is opined on the author’s studies and personal experience and not in any way connected to any organisation or any political party.)

Madhumita Dutta

Writer is MCA Professional Web Developer Guwahati, Assam. Email: mrdinfotechnology@gmail.com

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