Tripura: Ancient Seat of Vaisnavism



Lord Shiva and Ganesh at Unakoti, Tripura,
Shaiva pilgrimage site dating from 7th - 9th Century 

A two-part exploration of the ancient city of Tripura, a northern outpost of Vaisnavism and the Bhakti Cult.

Tripura is a state in North East India. The third-smallest state in the country, it is bordered by Bangladesh to the north, south, and west, with Assam and Mizoram to its east. Tripura is mentioned in many Vedic texts, including the Mahabharata and Puranas. It's also mentioned in the Edicts of Ashoka, stone pillar inscriptions from the 3rd Century B.C. In ancient times, Tripura was known as Kirat Desh ("The land of Kirat"), no doubt a reference to the Kirata Kingdoms.

The Twipra Kingdom ruled the region for centuries, but the start of the kingdom is not documented. The Rajmala, a chronicle of Tripuri kings originating in the 15th Century, provides a list of 179 kings, from antiquity up to Krishna Kishore Manikya (1830–1850). The boundaries of the kingdom changed over the centuries. At various points in time, the borders reached south to the jungles of the Sundarbans, on the Bay of Bengal; east to Burma; and north to the boundary of the Kamarupa kingdom in Assam.

A reliable history of the kingdom, or the residents of Tripura, is being reconstructed with some difficulty, due to the absence of documentation and other evidence. But as we continue, we'll see that scholarly efforts are ongoing to document Tripura's place in the history of Vedic Culture.

There were several Muslim invasions of the region from the 13th century onwards, culminating in the Mughal's dominance of the plains of Tripura in 1733, although their rule never extended into the hill regions. Tripura became a princely state during the British Raj, the kings being headquartered in Tippera district or Chakla Roshnabad, now the Comilla district of Bangladesh.

The origin of the name Tripura is the subject of many theories. Tripura appears to be a Sanskritised version of tipra, one name for the indigenous people inhabiting the area. Some suggest that the word 'Tripura' may have originated from Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the Tripura Sundari Temple at Udaipur, one of the 51 Shakti Peethas or pilgrimage centres of Shaktism. Others attribute the origin of the name to the legendary tyrant king Tripur, who reigned in the region. Tripur was the 39th descendant of Druhyu, who belonged to the lineage of Yayati, a king of the Lunar Dynasty. The Lunar Dynasty (Somavansha, Chandravansha), also known as Ailas, is one of the three principal houses of the Kshatriya varna. Descended from Chandra, the moon god, the Lunar Dynasty was centered at Pratisthana.

Scholar and author Rabindranath Das Shastri recently published an exposition on Tripura's literary legacy, for 'Kriti Rakshana' magazine, entitled "Social History as Revealed in the Manuscripts of Tripura". He writes:

"Govt. of Tripura entrusted me with the study of manuscripts, paleography, epigraphy, numismatics and iconography of the available exhibits in the Tripura Govt. Museum in the year 1973-74. I deciphered the colophon and post-colophon of the manuscripts available there and realized that the manuscripts available in Tripura are the treasure-house for investigation into various elements of social history of the State and for visualizing the social environment of the bygone days. What is needed is extensive research work following the correct methodology of manuscript studies."

On the 'Composite nature of the society' he writes:

"In Tripura, the royal leaders and the ruled had great intellectual acumen, the marks of which can be traced in the manuscripts available on multifarious subjects. Regarding the antiquity of intellectual tradition one can consider the example of Rajmala. Rajmala, Vol. 1 (1st Lahara ), the historical chronicle of the kings of Tripura, which was compiled in the first half of the 15th century AD is perhaps the first known manuscript of the State. The manuscript of Rajmala was prepared by the royal priests to delineate the history of the Lunar dynasty of Tripura monarchs to its subjects. Rev. James Long said, "We may consider this as the most ancient work in Bengali that has come down to us, as the Chaitanya Charitamrita was not written before 1557, and Kirtibasa translated the Ramayana at a later period." (Analysis of the Rajmala, p.4).

Manuscripts available in the State are mostly written in Bengali and Sanskrit. We could however trace the evidences of manuscripts written in tribal languages of the State. One such manuscript written in Kok-Borok, a tribal language, is Surchya Pujar Khanaimani of Durga Prasad Narayan. It was copied by Shri Krishna Ballav Debsharma during the reign of Maharaja Mahendra Manikya in 1621 C.E. or 1699 A.D. (as mentioned in the manuscript 'etisenga 16 21// tang//28//Bhadra'). Bengali script was used in this Kok-Borok manuscript, which is a testimony of the long drawn heritage of socio-cultural blending between tribals and non-tribals. Although ruled by the tribal monarchs, Tripura has been always with the mainstream Indian thoughts and trends. People, irrespective of caste, creed, credence, religion and mothertongue were free and had faith in co-existence. Not only brahmins but also vaisyas, kayasthas, kapalis, vaisnavis, muslims, professionals, military personnels, dwellers in hermitage and sannyasins were among the copyists (scribes) of manuscripts.

Several evidences of the high status of women and female education can also be followed. The copying of the Narottam Das' Premabhakti Chandrika in 1244 T.E. (1834 A.D.) by Subhadra Vaisnavi, not only testifies the preparation of manuscript by a woman but also the popularity of Vaisnavism, at least 255 years ago."

And on the historical evidence of Tripura's religions and faiths, he writes:

"The manuscripts, their subject matter as well as colophon or post-colophon therein — are correlated to the prevalent religion and faiths of the people. In 1726 A.D., Kriyāyogasāra, a fragment of Padmapurāņa copied by Mukunda Brahmana reflects his faith in the recipe for success:

Shri Hari sharanah satatam mama 
Shri Radha-Krishnah sharanam satatam mama 
Shri guru sharanam 
Shri Saraswati charane mama bhaktirastu 
Shri Hari, Shri Ramah, Shri Krishnah

Several manuscripts belonging to the Bhakti cult were prepared by their copyists viz., Bhaktishastra (1849 A.D.) by Badandas, Chaitanya-Mangal (1805 A.D.) by Lochandas, Gitagovindam (1831 A.D.) by Rasamoy, Naradiya-Puranam (1827 A.D.) by Rudreswar Debsharma and so on. The presence of these manuscripts authenticates the influence of Vaishnavism in the State. One of the monarchs, Maharaja Birchandra Manikya (1862–96 A.D.) embraced Vaisnavism and and thus Vaishnavism got the impetus. Vaishnavism is still prevalent among the tribal population of the State.

Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great epics were copied in manuscript form in Tripura by many a copyists. Kirti Sarman copied a portion of the Mahabharata 203 years back wherein he prayed to the Almighty to save his country from 'dharmasankaţāt'.

Ashuddha haile pad shuddha kare diva Balaker aparadhsakal kshamiba 
Ramachandra pade ami riktahaiya magi Laiya Ramer nam antakale mari"

The copyist undoubtedly a staunch devotee of Shri Rama was none other than Gangagovinda Das of Maniy and who copied Valmiki Ramayana in 1796 T.E. The colophon of Ramayana, the manuscript copied by Shri Haragovinda Das Vairagi in 1222 B.S. relates the wish of the copyist as:

Ramah Ramah Ramah 
Ram nam balo bhai sabe badana bhari 
Haragovinda bole Rama Ramalaiya mari"

The Kok-Barak manuscript belonging to the chief priest Shri Durga Prasad Narayan delineates the worship of deities like Sangrama, Kamashri, Naka, Chaturdash Devata besides Surchya the Sun god, among the tribal population of Tripura. The very first shloka of the forty slokas in the manuscript mentions their faith in the worship of the bamboo (oanaonamananih). Vedic origin of worship is also traced in the bamboo worship where majority of the tribal people bow their heads at the feet of this tree-god. (Ref. A peep into the foundation of tribal culture in Tripura, Lecture on Indology, Dr. R.N. Das Shastri, p/118)."


Rituals and practices of ancient Tripura spiritual society

In his article, Social History as Revealed in the Manuscripts of Tripura, author Rabindranath Das Shastri further describes the extant literature that helps to place ancient Tripuri as a center of Vaisnava faith and the Bhakti Cult, along with other religious/social practices of the day. He writes: "Gopinath Sharma copied a manuscript titled Vājasaneyi Upanayana Paddhati in 1577 S.E. The upanayana is a ritualistic ceremony of the Hindu Brahmins as mentioned in Smriti Shastra.

In this context we may also cite a manuscript titled Śrāddha-Tattvam of Raghunath Bhattacharya copied by Shri Dwija Rammohan. Astrological practices were very much in vogue in Tripura. Reference can be given of the two manuscripts Dwadashbhava Phala copied by Umakantacharya (1768 A.D.) and Bhairava Stavarajir Punthi copied by Kailashchandracharya (1894 A.D.) which are related to the practice of astrology. Recovery of the manuscript titled Rajmala Punthi from Vangiya Sahitya Parishad Granthasala in 1949 revealed that the manuscript was copied by Ram Narayan Deb. The Horoscope of Maharaja Kalyan Manikya (1625–1660 A.D.) was casted in this manuscript as,

Bhadramase diva dui prahar samay Avijit muhurta take jyotisheke kay Tahate janmile raja Kalyan Manik Lagne o shuthir Debaguru Brihaspati

In this very manuscript the benevolent practice of grant of land to the Brahmins is mentioned. It appears that in 1380 S.E. Maharaja Dharma Manikya donated –

Namna Shri Dharma Manikya bhupadatavyeyah kriyanidhi 

Practice of traditional medicine can be traced from the manuscript titled Bhasaktousadhapustika wherein the copyist took pains to mention the remedy for several common ailments as per Ayurveda. Another manuscript on traditional medical practice reveals the treatment of diabetes (Helanchigacha sameta prate kichu siddha kalimarich diyakhaile bahumutra khande). It was a practice to warn the thieves with a view to protect the manuscript from robbery.

In the post-colophon of the manuscript of Mahabharata, the copyist Gangagobinda Das remarked in corrupt Sanskrit:

"Jatnena likhitam shastra ja Choreyati pustika Sakati tasya mata Pita tasya gardhava"

The voice of warning was also raised in the Sannyāsakaraņa Vidhi manuscript of Tripura which also mentions fear from fools:

"Murkha haste nadatavyam Evam badati pustakam".

The materials used for preparing the manuscripts were locally made from bark of trees (balkal), pulp of cotton (tulat), covering of betel nut tree (khal), palm-leaf, birch bark (bhurjyapatra), all being the eco-friendly alternative for paper. These materials were pressed into sheets by conch-shell and stone. Wood, leather, cloth, cotton wrapper (kantha) were used to make the covers of the manuscripts.

Paint brush (tuli), shalaka, peacock feather were used as pen. Ink of different hues – red, black, brown — made of natural ingredients – juices of plants, haritaki (myrobalan) and animal bone were used. In the Sanskrit drama Malati Madhav, shalaka is mentioned as writing material. M.M. Gaurishankar Ojha also reported the use of such materials in his book in 1918.

Temple of Tripura Sundari 
Tripura State


While one of the Ph.D. students was undergoing her research works under my guidance, we have come across one fascinating manuscript preserved in the Shri Shri Shri NilakantamaniJiur Mandir of Shri Shri Prabhu Badi, Shri Pat, Agartala. The Manuscript of Shrimad Bhagavat prepared during the reign of Maharaj Birachandra (1862–1896) was found to be wrapped up with a cotton wrapper (kantha). It was far more fascinating to note that the kantha has a whole long poem copied on it with needle and red thread by one Muktamala Roy. The poem was lucidly composed by Maharaj Birchandra:

"Ahe Radheshyam aji kisukher din Jhulan mangal he bhava makha saraca Hani jugal adhare hasi shri ange pulak Natha mana saha jhulana dolani Radha

Puna Vrindavane jabo jugalrup heriba sukhe Birchandra Manomohini puro bancha Shri Radharani"

The writing on the kantha is unique and far surpasses the social importance of kantha gleaned in the famous 'Nakshi Kathar Matha' – a Bengali lyrical poetical work by Jasim Uddin of East Bengal (presently Bangladesh).

Last but not the least, I would like to highlight the paintings on the manuscripts of Tripura which bears testimony to the social appeal of the people towards such activities.

Maharajkumar Nabadwip Chandra Debbarman, the son of Maharaj Birchandra Manikya in his book 'Abarjanar Jhuri' mentions that during the period of his father and grandfather, there was one designated painter Alam Karigar, Muslim by religion in the king's realm whose works correspond to Mughal art, the school of art that was widespread in the provinces of India. Vipra Shiveswara copied Padakalpataru in 1802 A.D. which has 13 paintings by Alam Karigar relating to Radha-Krishna Leela. These paintings depict and uphold the devotion of the people of the then period towards Shri Radha-Krishna.

In the manuscript of a part of Ramayana copied by Gangagovinda Das (1207 B.S.), a painting bears the continuity of Indian tradition of rejoicing the victorious Rama against the evil forces of the society.

To conclude here, it is beyond our admittance and expectation that the manuscripts of Tripura are sufficiently equipped to be the source materials of the history of the State. Not only the manuscripts like Champakvijaya by Sheikh Mahaddi, the Gaji Nama by Manohar Sheikh, Krishnamala by Ramganga Sharma and Jyanta Chantai, Shrenimala by Durgamani Ujir, but also each and every one of the available manuscripts in Tripura can unfurl the social scenario of the Princely State of Tripura, if in-depth studies are undertaken. However, let us first of all save, protect and preserve these endangered treasures of source materials then only our young generation of researchers can reckon with."

Rabindranath Das Shastri is former Principal, Tripura Government Sanskrit College, Agartala


Sources: 'Kriti Rakshana', National Mission for Manuscripts, Wikipedia.