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How Tripura Became a Land of the Tripuris (Review)

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Gautam Kumar Bera. 2017.
A Cultural and Religious History of Tripura
Guwahati, India: Spectrum Publications
ISBN 9788184330854

Tripura, the erstwhile princely state, nestles in the sub-tropical deciduous forest and sub montane region of northeastern India stemming from the splendour of its natural setting and its dazzling heritage. Criss-crossed by six principal hill ranges none punctuating the skies, this Land of Fourteen Gods (Gautam Kumar Bera, The Land of the Fourteen Gods: Ethno-cultural Profile of Tripura, New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2010) is buttressed by a number of rivers and rivulets for which the place got its name: tui (water) and pra (near). The verdant expanses and rich forestlands have been the central concern to people down the centuries to enjoy the plethora of delightful attractions in its cavalcade of historic palaces, rock-cut carvings, stone sculptures, Hindu and Buddhist shrines, wildlife sanctuaries and colourful tribal people of immense variability who blend into the hills and valleys inhabiting the villages that are a tapestry of rich ethnic traditions. While making a passage through the sovereign portal one finds that over the centuries the land has been encapsulated in its erstwhile feudal affiliation with a social commitment in the culturally rooted traditional customs, culture, and heritage as a gift of sovereignty that is still adhered to while performing rites, rituals, and religious performances.

Tripura is one of the oldest feudal principalities in north eastern India witnessing a unique survival of cultural practices that died out in other parts of the region a hundred years ago. It is also a jewel of bamboo art, a hotbed of communist revolution achieved through democracy, a paradigm of blended sovereignty, a case study in bungled Western intervention, and an environmental transfiguration. Trapped in a medieval time warp, Tripura’s rapid modernization is an extreme version of what is happening in many traditional societies.

This book on Tripura follows the author’s story through an experience of two decades in the state, and unravels the state history through successive reinventions of itself. Erudite, entertaining, and accessible, it is the fascinating chronicle of a unique state. The Prologue (pp. vii–x) is self-explanatory with a personal memorabilia of the author who holds a doctorate degree in social and cultural anthropology and is a professional anthropologist for over three and a half decade with a credit of 35 authored and edited books, 125 scientific research papers and about 25 book reviews, all being acclaimed in academic circles. All these en masse have brought him an array of awards and honours including the Meritorious Services Medal and Citation of Honour from the Honourable President of India.

The Introduction to the book (pp. xi–xxiv) is an ethnographic account of the social, cultural, religious, literary and sovereign history of this land with a detailing of each and every aspect of the state’s bearing. This part is appended with 16 illustratory plates depicting the various facets of state’s rich heritage, both past and present. This is followed by the chapter The Sovereign Patronage (pp. 1–10) with accounts of state formation of Tripura which ran over 184 generations till its annexation to the Union of India in October 1949, two years after the achievement of the national independence of the country. During this long phase of six centuries the kings came under the shadow of Sanskritization and a massive social transformation resulted in the princely state that still bears its legacy even after the State has been assumed as a geopolitical state of the country. What is interesting here is that the social and cultural matrix have not changed over this long passage of time despite there were both endogenous and exogenous pressures.

The tutelary deity of Tripureswari (pp. 11–22) got recast under the growing social processes of universalization and secularization with pounding in of syncretic elements in it over this long frame of time. The role of the polity was an important dimension to shape the guardian deity with varying undercurrents of elements of the whole process of social evolution. Over the tenure of six centuries the land remained as the storehouse of 14 gods (pp. 23–29) where tribal priesthood transcended to Brahminic order under the behest of the kings under the growing Sanskritic influence of the royal family. However, the hierarchy of tribal ascendance to religious authority has not waned out. There had also been a strong feeling of subnationalism in Tripura as has been seen through two important festivals, namely Kharchi and Ker (pp. 30–35), at the precinct of the 14 gods during monsoon followed by the delineation of the description of temples, fairs and festivals (pp. 36–44), both sacred and secular, that are being perpetuated over a long range of historical time frame.

While reading through the pages one envisages that how the passage through the sovereign portal has been embedded in the mind of the author who was not only involved in the work but also belonged to it. He has wonderfully collated the image of his mind with the picture he has experienced over a long period of his longitudinal research. One can also understand that there is a tendency or effort to reconcile and unite various systems of philosophy or religious opinion on the basis of tenets common to all and against a common opponent. This fusion of two or more inflectional forms, which were originally different as of two cases of religion, has taken a root under the canopy of syncretism. The form of syncrecy as is seen in different parts of Tripura is an attempt for blending, harmonizing or messing of different or antagonistic elements, which were clearly understandable in terms of the peopling of this land, habitational pattern, composition of folk songs, belief in saints (particularly Muslim saints), myths and legends that are current among people professing different religions, practicing varied occupational pursuits and from the pattern of immigration to this soil. The cults and deities; temples and shrines; fairs and festivals have been understood here as an integral part of the whole process of social evolution rather than as self-congruent, self-contained domains that generate non-assimilative meaning.

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