The ground was closing in real fast; the blocks of earth became less defined, you could now see cows grazing in them, dots of concrete had grown to full-fledged Lego blocks. We flew over a particularly sturdy looking fencing and within a couple of seconds, the screech of the tires broke the monotony. I had no clue that I was flying over international air before the fence jump we just did.
Kolkata was sweltering at around 40 degrees and I was bracing myself for the same as people for some inconceivable reason started rummaging through to the doors. It’s an Indian affliction; we need to be the first to get out of close spaces. When you live in a country of over a billion people, I guess a starvation for open spaces engulfs you.
Out on the tarmac, the experience was not what I had expected. The app on the phone was talking of rain in the region for the past few days. But the 3G did not work too well either so the news was more motivational than accurate. In an Indian summer, you take what you get. The temperature was a good ten degrees less than what it was only forty five minutes ago.
I had landed in Agartala, the capital of the princely state of Tripura. Now if you are not from the country, or if you are one of those who did not take their history lessons too seriously, when we say ‘a princely state’ in this part of the world, we mean that one of the ruling monarchies had managed to strike a deal with Her Majesty’s men on horses and remained autonomous but subsequently decided to be a part of the independent republic anyway.
After asking around and a considerable amount of discussion with the cabbie who gave me the insight of just how far the state had developed in the last few years, I figured it did rain here “a lot” but “not so wet now”. The city is an incredibly small one. Although technically the “city limits” are much farther, if we go by the official definitions, we will uncannily be reminded of “Into the Wild”.
The place however has done a remarkable job of retaining much of it’s forest cover. Perhaps because it is only recently that the state came out of a terror regime. But I would like to believe the reason is more than just that. The Eco-enthusiast will find himself at a very peculiar position here – there’s green all around, you do not need to travel for more than half an hour to find yourself among dense foliage on either sides of narrow but very well maintained roads. However, an extensive search for homestays, eco-resorts, camps, government jungle lodges or just forest official lodges (you can usually bunk with the forest officials if you pay a small legitimate amount in other parts of the country) revealed nothing.
Now why visit Agartala? Who should and who should not? These are somethings I tried to answer on this trip. First off, it’s certainly a break from the regular image that North East India presents. For one, people in general picture the snow capped mountains of Arunachal and Sikkim when they think of this part of the country. The better read envisions flamboyant society, bitter cold winters and torrential rainfall. But there is a middle-path. A place which does not shine in any particular way but in it’s own glow, gives a traveler the respite from the performance anxiety that a seasoned traveler often feels, to do justice to a destination.
If you ask what’s there to see in the city or its vicinity, it would be a very difficult question to answer. While the number of attractions are not too low for a city of such a small geographical area, the “sight-seeing” opportunities are pretty limited. Then again, if you travel for the love it and dig deeper, even at first glance, it does have a number of things on offer.
The Last Eaterie on Indian Soil
Borders have always had a fascination with travelers. Maybe it is the corny concept of pushing the “boundaries”. Nonetheless. When travelers to India talk about the “border”, they usually visualize groups of platoons doing some really wacky parade while throngs of opposing nationalities cheer on (and sometimes exchange unparliamentary pleasantries). Or some remote and featureless desert landscape. Or jagged peaks with Buddhist prayer flags. There is a compulsion to photograph, memorize, write about these environs.
Not so here at the last Eaterie on Indian soil. Here, you write, photograph or talk about it, if you want to. And you usually do. It does not take long – about a 30 minute drive from the city-center and you are sitting at the edge of the fencing, trying out some rice and mutton, green all around, the mandatory temple in the backdrop. What’s not expected is the immense green. And the chugging Bangladeshi meter gauge train not too far away.
The place is called Kasbah or ‘Kashbah’ and houses an important Hindu temple for the locals. But thankfully, it’s not just a religious hotspot. The locale has managed to remain low-key like much of everything else, and is as much of a delicate nature/societal attraction, as it is religious. The street walls leading up to the temple has some intuitive carvings, or rather rock and concrete forms that are quite interesting. They represent episodes of the royal times. The flowering trees above lend in to the colours generously.
It is the only border fencing in the country that I can think of (I do hope someone proves me wrong) where I can go close enough to aerate my limbs with “international air” without losing them or being shot at. And where I can have panoramic views without having gun barrels spoiling the view. The food was not bad, it was hot, wholesome, and quite full of peace. If one of you reading this do decide to go wandering to these parts, do try out the ‘peda‘; a sweet-dish that seems to predominate the desert scene here.
The Neer Mahal (the water palace)
Rabindranath Tagore, the poet of Noble finesse named the palace so. Can’t say he was at his creative best. Either way, what remains of this island palace gives a pretty good impression of two things – first that the king was a patron of creative architecture, and that he did not attach a lot of importance to opulent use of space. Made by the erstwhile monarchy, it served as the summer palace for the royalty. You need to take a ferry across, or you can hop onto the row-boats. I would advice against it; they did not look very sturdy and rocked ominously. The excuse for a pier was rather a ‘cute’ one. One flimsy strip of wood, lots of water hyacinth and public ferries that took on twenty men at a time.
The palace turned out to be not entirely well maintained, but better when compared to the other palaces around the country. It was built in 1930 and is only the second of its kind, after the lake palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
I had read about the rather dramatic usage of flood lights for the light and sound show that supposedly happened every evening but the officials at the ticket counter had no clue about it, and the flood lights did not look like they had been used in some time. Nonetheless, the facade is not as bleak as I make it sound like.
It’s made of quality marble, and once I was able to lose my way from the very inquisitive fellow travelers showing incredible interest in my camera, I did find peace. Quite literally. Finding the way to the upper levels was not easy without any markings but the view was pretty nice and the breeze really lovely.
The Rural Night
Sometime during my visit, I took on a drive to the border village of Ishanpur. Why did I do it is beyond the scope of the blog. But I did at the end of it. The place is so small, it does not feature on Google Maps. That’s not really a big indicative, agreed. The village has about three hundred people living in it and is a world of it’s own. Bridges made at the time of the Second World War, little girls hopping along to school, tea gardens, and surprisingly good road quality. Looking over across the border (we drove right along it), and it brought things into perspective. We are not faring too badly after all.
The village stay provides for the perfect intensive-travel opportunity. Here the mobile phone network does not work, the electricity is pretty flimsy with low voltage and frequent cuts. But the water is delightfully cold, the greenery is mesmerizing, the folks more hospitable than most. The food was still cooked in earthen ovens, the milk came straight from the cowshed, and I was hoping to hear the jackal howl too. It’s supposed to, according to what I was told. The loo system though is a little primitive. Not entirely, but a little. What still amazes me is the seemingly limitless land, all green, all cultivated in sustainable patches that did not spoil the environment and gave it enough time to be in harmony with humans. The rubber plantation seemed to be done in a delicately maintained balance. Trying to talk to the man who was hanging out the rubber sheets only brought back a wide toothless grin.