Travels in tiny Tripura (1) – Agartarla

Tripura is a tiny state and it represents India in miniature. Nestled in a corner of the North East of the country, it is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh. A former princely state, Tripura is lush and green but away from the tourist brochure description, it is also an incredibly difficult state to travel around, partly due to the severed links with what is now Bangladesh but also as the state department seems to treat tourists as some sort of bother rather than the obvious cash cow that we normally are. Tripura is a fascinating place, but it is also a truly difficult part of India in which to travel around. Due to local insurgencies travel is made even more arduous, with circuitous routes round the state being the norm. As a result, almost every road in Tripura has to pass through the state capital, Agartarla, nestled in the far west of the state. So, as almost every person visiting Tripura will have to visit the seat of the local legislature at some point, why don’t I introduce you to the city of Agartarla itself!

(The hype for Agartarla begins far beyond the city’s limits)

Agartala is easy enough to walk on foot and for those in a lazy mood, there are plenty of rickshaws plying their trade, both of the auto form and the cycled form. The city is dominated by two large pieces of history. The first is the Ujjayanta Palace or Tripura’s state assembly. It is a gorgeous building set amongst two huge ceremonial lakes. It is currently off limits to most visitors, but you can never get lost in the city, as long a you know where ‘Palace Compound’ is, you will always be able to find your way. I actually stayed at a hotel in the Palace Compound (which is a cluster of buildings surrounding Ujjayanta) and this is one of the few times I will recommend place to stay, so impressed I was by the quality of the rooms and service recieved. The ‘Palace Inn’, at just under Rs700 a night (less than a tenner) gives clean, well furnished rooms, well maintained toilets, a balcony (make sure you ask for the balcony room) and if you feel like the cold, an Air Con unit (ugh). The staff are knowledgeable and their fantastic command of English makes a mockery of my attempts of Bengali.

(The Ujjayanta Palace from the south east corner, in the rain)

The second feature that dominates the city is Bangladesh. Agartala is not just the capital of Tripura but is also a border town. Like all border towns, there is a funky feel to the air. Languages and business collide with impunity, there is a rush in the air that is quite unmatched in much of the North East, but at the same time the city’s small size, plus the friendly relations between India and Bangladesh means that there is little tension here in the city that comes with many other border crossings. Plus around 80% of the city is Bengali, so in essence it feels more like a family get-together, than the ‘edge of the world’ feeling that I have had at other border posts.

(Lines in the Silt – a local leaving India with style)

Agartala is a weird place in many ways. The morning paper arrives in the afternoon, on the flight from Calcutta. Everything is slightly more expensive due to the enforced isolation of the city from the rest of the world. People like to eat Chow Mein, and infact, it is a great dish to sample while in the city. Some of the best street food can be had along Central Avenue (to the South of the palace’s South Gate) on a Sunday evening. Surprising for such a small city. And there is bamboo everywhere, even the bridges are made of the stuff!

I am no anthropologist, nor have I extensively travelled in India or South East Asia to gain a true picture of the area. My knowledge of local history is minimal. But, there is definitely an element of fusion in the air when walking down the streets of Agartala. Although the city is overwhelmingly Bengali, there are many things which seem very ‘un-Bengali’. Yes, highbrow culture is here (the amount of bookstores in Agartala is simply astonishing) a huge piece of evidence of the Bengali influence in the state. But the food, the dress, the people, the buildings seem distinctly mixed up. As if Thailand took a wrong tuning, or a piece of Sichuan floated by. I am not saying that this region is a melting pot, but more like a freshly tossed salad. Dominated by greens, but with elements of something else, a little more funky in the flavour. There is even a little bit of the UK influence in some of the buildings from colonial times. Doubtless there are people who are far more knowledgeable that myself, but for now, until someone can point me in the right direction, I will continue to mumble along in my descriptions of this fascinating state, tiny Tripura…

(Evening falls on Tripura, and the hunt for dinner begins…)

Getting there and away:

In a word, don’t. You need time and patience to get to Agartala. And the local tourist board will not be of any use to you. Thankfully, the local people will more than make up for the official incompetence that you will encounter.

Ironically, the easiest way to reach Agartala (and Tripura itself) is via Bangladesh. The border is a 3-4km walk from the centre of town. Alternatively, plenty of rickshaws line up to give you (and your wallet) a ride:

There is a train line from just across the border that runs to Dhaka. There are also plenty of buses to Bangladesh’s capital on the Bengali side. If you need a Bangladesh visa, then you can pick one up at the consulate in town (the only diplomatic representation in North East India).

If coming in from India, it is slightly more difficult. The most common way to come is via a hellish bus ride from Guwahati or Shillong. Or there is the possibility of a train from Guwahati (change at Lumding), and while it may take longer, it would be infinitely more pleasurable, if the service ran. It is subject to cancellation due to insurgencies in the southern part of Assam, so, like all good bits of advice, check before you travel. Tripura is not an easy state to wander around 😉


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Filed under asia, india, places, tomfoolery, travel

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