Hotels in India » The Lifestyle of India » Tripuris – Weaving a Magic of Legend and Lore

Tripuris – Weaving a Magic of Legend and Lore

The people of Tripura live simple lives. Music, dance and artistic pursuits occupy them and festivals mark the passage of time.

Many years ago, as a child, I cam across one of the oldest thrones in India. Preparations were on in the Ujjayanta Palace in Tripura for the marriage of the Maharaja Kirit Bikram Manikya. Some careless attendant had left a door to the Durbar hall unlocked and unnoticed I slipped in and, there, standing in the centre was the strangest piece of furniture I had ever seen. It was a circular platform raised on carved legs with a step-ladder leading to the seat. Around its base were embedded black stones (shaligrams). I was intrigued and could not resist climbing up the ladder and sitting on it.

Little did I realize at the time that I was sitting on ‘history’. If the throne had been magic, I would have been transported back to the time of its origin, the Mahabharat, as the legend goes. The rulers of Tripura are of the lunar dynasty” – Chandra Vanshis – an unbroken line of 179 kings for years of recorded history and beyond that into the mists of myths and legends. They trace their lineage to Duryu, the son of Emperor Yajati and Sharmishta, who was banished from his father’s kingdom. He came to the north-east to establish another kingdom in a little known, verdant, undulating land which came to be called Tripura. The throne of Tripura, it is said, was a gift from another of Yajati’s descendants – Yudhistir of the Mahabharat.

As one flies into Agartala, the capital of Tripura, one can see the Ujjayanta Palace from the air. This palace was built in 1901 by Martin Burn & Co. for Radhakishore Manikya, because the old ‘Rajbari’ had been destroyed during an earthquake. The Maharajas of Tripura were better known as patrons of art and culture than for their opulent lifestyle. They were addressed as ‘Dharma avtar’ (incarnation of Dharma) and ‘Bobagra’ or ‘fa’ which means father in ‘Kokborok’, the language of the people.

According to some, the name Tripura is derived from the goddess, ‘Tripura Sundari.’ Her temple stands in the sub-division of Udaipur and ranks as the second important shrine in this part of India. It was built in 1501 AD and repaired from time to time and is dedicated to Triureswari, the mistress of three worlds. Hundreds of pilgrims flock here to pray and ask for favours and protection. The royal family offer, to Triura Sundari for her protection. During the first year of our lives we were taken to the temple for our first haircut – a complete shave! We always looked forward to a visit to ‘Ma Bari’ (mother’s house) as the temple was fondly called, for the Bhog (offerings), Aarti (puja) and to feed the turtles and fish in the temple pond which is teeming with them.

We loved to hear how the ancient turtles climbed the ghat steps when their days were over, to die peacefully in front of the Goddess. The temple kitchen served an ‘out of the world’ mutton, mixed vegetables, daal and rice – a non-vegetarian fare, surprising to many. Sacrifice was once a part of the temple rituals till Gobinda Manikya put a stop to it during his reign. Tagore wrote his famous play ‘Visharjan’ based on this ancient. But I was curious to know the reason behind this cruel practice and was told that it was to show man that he had no power over life. Life was taken in front of the Goddess to remind him that though he had to kill to survive all creatures belonged only to the Creator.

Although the religion of the majority of the tribal people is termed as Hinduism it is a curious mixture of Hinduism and Animism. The Old Gods have not been ousted but are worshipped along with the Hindu deities. The elements such as water, fire, forests and earth are revered. A dual arrangement is in vogue. The Kshatriya Chantais have for centuries ministered to the old gods and Brahmins to the Hindu ones. One of the most important shrines of Tripura is in Old Agartala. That of the Chaturdas Devtas – the fourteen Gods. It was built in the middle of the 18th century by Krishna Manikya. And according to local legend these gods were established in Tripura by King Trilochana a contemporary of Yudhishtir.

The Chaturdas Devtas are heads without figures, made of an alloy of eight metals. These deities have both tribal and hindu names. The tribal ones are kept secret, known only to the Chantais, so they are popularly called Hara, Uma, Hari, Ma, Bani, Kumar, Ganapati, Bidhu, Ka, Abadhi, Ganga, Sikhi, Kama and Himadri. Throughout the year only three : Hara, Uma and Hari are worshipped the others are kept in a wooden box to be taken out once a year in the month of July for the ’Kharchi puja’. This puja goes on for a week when goats and doves are sacrificed at the altar of the gods. Guarding this temple is the ‘Bura Devta’, to whom the first offering has to be made. He is the ancient one and his form is very primitive almost like a child’s drawing of a stick figure man.

The people of Tripura consist of 19 tribes who have no generic term by which their race may be distinguished. If you ask a man of what race he is he will give you the name of his clan, but if he is speaking in Bengali he will use the term Tipra. Thee people live very simple lives. Most are farmers following the shift method of cultivation. They love dancing, and music and are very artistic. They weave their own cloth and make ingenious bamboo articles. As a child, I remember being presented with a bamboo gun which the hill people actually used for hunting. Even their houses are made completely of bamboo. These houses, called ‘tang ghar’, are built on platforms raise don bamboo poles. One of my fondest memories has been of the night we spent in a tang ghar. The tang ghar assigned to us was a large one; just one central room divided into the sleeping area and hearth, it was under a large tree raised so high above the ground that it seemed built on the branches. Pigs, poultry and livestock were kept under the house. First there was dancing with the audience being served a rice beer called ‘pachak’. The feast followed with a delicious fare of fragrant, sticky rice wrapped in plantain leaves, cooked over a charcoal fire. With this, we were served pork with tender bamboo shoot, fish, freshly caught from a nearby stream, another dish of herbs and tubers found in the forest and a paste of chillies, garlic and a special spice made of fish called ‘shidol’, to which all Tripuris are addicted. After such a splendid meal it was lovely to fall off to sleep lulled by sounds of the forest and the domestic animals below.

Though the tribal society of Tripura is a patriarchal one, the women play in important role. Daughters are precious as a result of which a prospective groom has to serve in the house of his would be father-in-law for three years. If he is found suitable he is accepted, otherwise he is sent packing with some compensation for his work to try his luck elsewhere. The women of Tripura have played a major role in the palace and the village – they have left their mark. They are the survivors, the upholders of tradition.

While the women in the palace ruled beside their husband, went to battle, aced as regents for minor sons, the women in the hills worked beside their menfolk as equals.

There has always been, in the past, a special bond between the palace and the simple people of the hills. The Reangs (one of the tribes) have preserved to this day a relic of this bond- a stone bowl, which made them the sons of the king. The king was Govinda Manikya and the stone bowl dates back to the 17th century when the Reangs rose in revolt. The rebellion was suppressed and the leaders arrested and sentenced to death. Gobinda Manikya’s wife, Gunawati Devi intervened, stood guarantee for their loyalty and set them free. She visited the Reans in prison and gave them milk in the stone bowl and made them her sons. Awed by her presence they thought her to be a celestial being and called her ‘Mai Debta’ meaning Mother Goddess and became her sons. Ever since Maharanis have been addressed as ‘Mai Debta’ by all.

In Tripura, festivals seem to mark the passing of time. Holi, the festival of colour, in the spring with its dancing and singing ‘Gang Puja’ in March to ward off epidemics. A bamboo hut is built in the middle of rivers for the puja Garia Puja is in April when fowl are sacrificed for prosperity. Autumn brings the Harvest festival – Maikatal – the festival of new paddy. Autumn is also the for Durga Puja the worship of Devi the destroyer of evil. December heralds the festival held in honour of the new wine which is made from the winter crop. But the most important festival is Kharchi Puja celebrated in July in honour of the Chaturdas Devtas. This is followed by Kher Puja. During the puja a special boundary is marked within which no one is allowed to come or go for two days. The sick, aged and pregnant women are removed to homes outside the boundary as even deaths and births are considered inauspicious. Others within the limits are housebound and spend their time making paper lanterns and various pastries to celebrate the ending of the curfew when the cannon is fired from the palace. This boundary was usually made around the town where the Maharaja resided but over the years its limits have shrunk to the annexe of the Ujjayanta Palace where the erstwhile Maharaja now lives.