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Rock-cut Sculptures and Reliefs of the Unakoti, Unakoti Range, Unakoti District

Date of Submission: 13/12/2022
Criteria: (i)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Tripura State, Unakoti District
Coordinates: N24 19 0 E92 4 1
Ref.: 6628

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The site of Unakoti is located in the northeastern part of Tripura, about 8 km from Kailasahar and 185 km from the State capital Agartala. The vertical surface of the Unakoti hills was used by the ancient people to carve various mythological scenes such as the different iconographic forms of Siva, Ganesha, Uma-Maheshwara, etc. Unakoti is famous for its colossal rock cut panels depicting Hindu deities. Unakoti provides evidence of ancient Saiva worship in Tripura from 8th-9th centuries CE.

The site of Unakoti is known to the people as an ancient holy place associated with Saiva worship. The bas relief sculptures at Unakoti are on stylistic grounds ascribed to 8th to 9thcentury CE, to the period of Pre-Manikya rule. The rock art may have been patronised by the ‘Deb’ generation of Sri Bhumi.The earliest literary reference found of Unakoti as a place of lord Siva is in the works of A. K.Cahudhuri (1910-11) and the writings of Captain Williams (1914) the then British political agent to the Tripura. The Archaeological Survey of India has also published an authoritative account on Unakoti in its Annual Report (1921-22).

Etymologically Unakoti stands for ‘Una’ meaning one less and ‘koti’ meaning crore in Bengali, hence the name of the site ‘Unakoti’ literally translates as “one less than a crore”. According to a legend, Unakoti was the meeting place of Gods and Goddesses where they assembled on the Shukla Ashtami (8th day of lunar fortnight of the Chaitra month) with the intention of creating another Vrindavan near Mathura. Lord Shiva instructed his fellow companions to wake up before sunrise in order to resume their journey. In the morning no one could get up except Shiva himself. So, he cursed them to turn into stones. Legends though only attribute to the prevalent beliefs.

The rock carvings at Unakoti are west facing and are located in a beautiful landscape with lush green vegetation and a stream flowing in the central part of the hillock, downwards in east-west direction. The streamlet forms three kundas at the bottom. These kundas were sacred to religious practices under Brahmanical Hinduism and are a big part of the annual Ashokashtomi Mela (fair) held at Unakoti.

The images found at Unakoti can be classified into two categories: a) Majestic rock-cut images on the vertical surface of the hill and fallen boulders and b) loose sculptures of smaller and medium sizes scattered on the hill. The most central and conspicuous figure at the site is known as Unkotiswara Kala Bhairav. The colossal rock-cut image of Shiva is about 30 feet in height, portrayed with the third eye vertically on the forehead and the other two eyes indicated with double incised lines without any pupils. The nose straight with the mouth depicted as a narrow slit with vertical lines representing teeth. Above the mouth is an incised line culminating in a loop that depicts a moustache. The headgear and ear ornaments show influence of tribal art. The figure has seen some wear and tear, probably due to the heavy rainfall in the area and frequent earthquakes. On the left of this image at some distance a Trident has been carved. Close to the image of the Shiva, three depictions of the Nandi (Mount of Shiva) and on the rock surface above the Shiva image two female figures can be seen. The figure on left is standing on a lion and is identified as Goddess Durga.

Another Colossal rock-cut image of Shiva as Gangadhara, is located at the right side of the approach-way. The image shows the head and bust of Shiva. Shiva is portrayed having two normal eyes and the third one on his forehead. The image is shown with jatabharas on either side, falling down in rope-like design. A tiara-like ornament is carved on his forehead. Two circular kundalas (Earrings) adorn the lower part of his ears. Next to the Gangadhara Shiva, at a distance of about 2 m further north, one more Shiva image is carved on the vertical surface. The face is portrayed having three eyes, a mouth bearing a row of teeth and a tiara-like ornament on the forehead.

Upon crossing the stream on the opposite bank, of the same hillock, one more Shiva image is carved, having similar iconographic features such as the jatamukuta, crown, three eyes, thin incised bow-shaped eyebrows, wide open mouth, a long neck with long ears adorned with a circular floral, kundala. On the extreme left side of the crown, Goddess Durga is depicted standing on a tiger and towards the right; River Ganga is depicted, standing on a crocodile. They are shown in the attitude of penance. Further north of this Shiva image, on the lower slope of a boulder, a male figure holding a bow and arrow is carved. He is depicted to be in a gentle movement with his left leg stretching forward and accompanied by a female figure, shown standing behind him. These images have been identified as Shiva and Parvati in the disguised from Kirata and Kirati. Above the Kirata figures, on the upper part of the hill’s surface two male figures have been carved. The image with jata (locks of hair) and the third eye on the forehead has been identified as that of Shiva. Just above his shoulder, the second human figure is shown, with an arrow posed towards Shiva. This scene depicts as the ‘Kamadahana’ episode which refers to the incineration of Kama by Shiva in mythology. It shows Shiva destroying Kama, the Hindu god of love for disturbing him in his meditation. One image of Hari-Hara or the fused iconographic depiction of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara) is also carved towards further west of the cliff.

Going upward on the staircase, a series of rock-cut male and female figures are seen, along with depictions of a Shivalinga and the head of Shiva carved in comparatively smaller scales. Also depicted is an image of an animal having the face of a female, identified by some scholars as kamadhenu. A little down the stream, towards west, is a panel carved with a group of three colossal Ganesha images of unusual characteristics. The group consists of a seated Ganesha (7 m or 22 feet height) on the extreme left of the cliff and to his right are two more elephant headed deities. The standing elephant headed images are ichnographically different to that of the seated Ganesha image. They are depicted standing and have attenuated waists, three-four tusks and six and eight hands respectively. The seated Ganesha image is shown with a distended abdomen, one tusk and four hands. According to some scholars the depiction of the two standing elephant headed deities show influence of Tantric Buddhism. On the extreme right is an image of Vishnu having four holding ayudhas. About 100 meters from the Ganesh panel, the stream turns south and meets another rivulet from the southeastern side. Just near this confluence, on a comparatively lower height is carved a huge, colossal image of Uma-Maheswar, popularly known as Hirimba of the Mahabharata fame.

Several loose stone sculptures have also been found scattered in and around the hill. Some of the sculptures are placed in a shed on the top of hill which include images of Vishnu, Hara Gauri, Harihara, Narasimha, Ganesha, Hanuman, kalyanasundaramurty and Hindu Trinity, they may be stylistically dated to the 11th-12thCentury CE. Two chaturmukhalinga and one Eka-mukalinga (lingas with four and one face respectively) has also been found there of early medieval art. Two of the four faces of Shiva depicted on the linga are well preserved, testifying to the skill of the sculptor in delineating the contemplating form of Shiva. The style, iconography and quality of craftsmanship of these loose sculptures are superior to that of the images carved on the hill slopes.

The only inscription at Unakoti is on the other Chaturmukhalinga image, consisting of a couple of records in Bengali Characters of the 11th-12thcentury CE, which mentions one SriJayadeva, probably a pilgrim.

The influence of Buddhism is also seen in the sculptures of the region. There are various depictions of Boddhisattavas, Buddha 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 a big fair, popularly known as ‘Ashokastami Mela’ is held at Unakoti in the Chaitra month of Hindu Calendar (April-May), which is visited by thousands of pilgrims.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Huge bas-reliefs of Unakoti are set within a landscape of high cliffs and lush green forests. The total protected area of Unakoti is 150 acres. The site is renowned for the presence of a large concentration of massive rock-cut images of Hindu divinity such as Shiva, Parvati, Ganga, Ganesha and Uma-Maheshwar (locally known as Hirimba), etc. Besides the gigantic figures, miniature forms of Shiva heads, tortoises, lingas, etc are also found carved on the rock surface. Several loose stone sculptures of Vishnu, Hara-Gauri, Hari-Hara, Narasimha, Ganesha, and Hanuman etc are also found scattered in and around the site.

A unique aspect of the carvings in Unakoti is treatment of the anatomical features of the different parts of the body of the deity. These are treated only in their broadest aspect, without any attempt to create harmony with the whole. The design of the ornaments shows influence of local tribes; hence the bas reliefs show the depiction of deities of the Hindu pantheon in the local craft tradition. Not only are the marvelous rock carvings set among lush greenery, streams and rivulet making the monument more beautiful and unique, but the landscape also reflects human ingenuity in the use of natural geology for carving different Brahmanical deities and transforming the place into a sacred cultural and landscape that continues to serve as a source of spiritual experiences even today.  Every year a big fair popularly known as ‘Ashokastami Mela’ is held in the Hindu month of Chaitra (April-May) which is visited by thousands of pilgrims.

Colossal Bas Reliefs of Hindu deities carved in a similar style are also found on the hills of the Gomati River in Devtamura (Peak of the Gods) in Southern Tripura, but these date to a much later period. At Devtamura, a colossal rock-cut image (13 m height) of Mahisasurmardini is found carved on the Kalajhari hill.  In the later centuries, the place was ruled by the Manikya Kings and many temples for Hindu deities were built in this region. The Manikya rulers were the followers of Hinduism who built their temples in a new form of architecture with char chala roof (4-sided hut like roofs) with a stupa superstructure or stupa shirsha. 

Criterion (i): Unakoti illustrates unique experimentation in sculptural relief art. Setting of hills, forest and streams forms a perfect backdrop as well as canvas for carving the low relief images of Hindu deities. Slopes of hills, rocky outcrops have been effectively used to carve these larger-than-life images of Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from mythology. The depiction of deities, their facial features, ornaments, clothing, etc. show influence of local tribal culture. Large number of rock cut relief images and loose sculptures also hints towards experimenting with scale and style of relief work. The whole ensemble represents exceptional artistic achievement through designing with nature, sophisticated execution, technological skills, larger-than-life scale, vast number of reliefs works and unique style. This has not attempted anywhere else at this scale or details. The site is massive gallery set amongst the forest displaying number of towering low relief images in unique style, making it a masterpiece of human creative genius.

Criterion (iv): The depiction of Unakoti bas reliefs is one of the tallest bas reliefs in India and are a unique testament to the depiction of Saivism of the Hindu Pantheon in a style highly infused with local folk art. As the streamlet flows down from the hilltop, it forms kundas (pools). These kundas add further importance to the site and were probably associated with religious rites under Brahmanical Hinduism. This reflects the deep understanding of the landscape by the sculptors. Unakoti presents evidence of Saiva Worship in the Northeast as early as 8th - 9th Century CE and depiction of some noteworthy mythological stories which are somewhat different from the mainstream depiction of the Hindu Pantheon of Indian art. The figures have an exotic character representing the artistic efflorescence of cosmopolitan Brahmanical Hinduism.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity of the site can be traced back to the age of the cliff of the Unakoti range against which the relief images have been sculpted out. As the natural context itself has been used to execute these sculptures, the location and setting of the site retain its originality. Rocky outcrops of the hills and surfaces of cliffs are the canvases as well as building materials for the relief sculptures. The low relief technique of sculpting is uniform among all images and apart from natural erosion the sculptures are intact in form. As the site is located amongst the forest, access is limited, the site is best preserved. Style of representation of deities is not only exceptional but also maintains its authenticity as the site has undergone minimal restoration interventions.

The site of Unakoti comprises of low relief images carved against the natural surface of cliff, as well as loose low relief sculptures scattered around the hill. The site is set amongst a forest, amidst streams and is of around 150 acres area. The area encompasses all the low relief images representing the unique style, large number, exceptional scale, innovation in design, artistic achievement in technique and natural elements supporting and protecting these sculptures. Remote location and limited access of the site has helped in protecting the site from incompatible development.  

Comparison with other similar properties

Low reliefs of Hindu deities at Devtamura in Kalajhari hills in Southern Tripura in India are similar to those of Unakoti. There are about 37 relief panels at Devtamura, believed to have been carved in 14th -15th century. The style and representation of deities, technology of sculpting relief is more sophisticated as compared to Unakoti. The forms and figures are more sanctified unlike those at Unakoti which show bold experimentation as well as tribal influence.

Based on the typology of sculpting, reliefs at Unakoti can be compared to low reliefs of Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta caves, relief panel of Arjuna’s Penance at Mahabalipuram, relief panels of Jataka tales at Borobudur Temple, Ramayana tales depicted in relief panels at Prambanan temple and Banteay Srei, low relief panels of Samudra manthan scene in Angkor, etc. However, these sculpted relief panels are most refined and are minutely detailed. They are part of larger temple complexes belonging to various time periods and architectural styles. On the other hand, Unakoti stands out as an ensemble of larger-than-life low relief sculptures carved on rocky outcrops and slopes of the hills amongst the forest. The experimentation and tribal influence in representing deities makes the site exceptional.

Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka is a 12th century rock temple consisting of 4 rock relief statues of Buddha carved in granite rock face. The scale of standing and reclining Buddha images is similar to that of Unakoti. However, representation of Buddha in sculpted form in is very different from Hindu deities depicted at Unakoti. The tribal influence in the style, composure, facial expressions, etc. makes relief images at Unakoti stand out. The setting of both the sites is also of completely different nature. While Gal vihara complex seems planned, Unakoti effortlessly incorporates nature in its design.

Rock Sanctuary of Yazılıkaya in Turkiye is an ensemble of Hittite rock reliefs. Rock reliefs of the sanctuary portray the gods of the Hittite civilization. One chamber of the site contains rock-cut relief of 64 deities in procession. Other chamber has larger reliefs which may have served as a mortuary mausoleum or memorial for the Hittite king. While the setting of this rock sanctuary is similar to that of Unakoti, the scale, style and sheer number of relief works at Unakoti proves its exceptional value.