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Connecting with Meena Jamatia and Unakoti hills

By: Rimli Bhattacharya


It is during my visit to Unakoti hills of Tripura that I got the opportunity of meeting Meena. Wearing a Rignai covering the lower half of her body and Risa and Rikutu covering the upper half of her torso,  Meena welcomes me with a warm, endearing smile.

I was new in that town and was introduced to Meena by Nilotpal, my co worker,  to understand the folklore of Unakoti and get to know the culture of the Jamatia tribes of Tripura. My visit to the Unakoti hills happens in the month of April, during which I had to perform a dance recital for the upcoming fair known as Ashokastami Mela.

“Do you know to communicate in Kokborok?” Meena asks me in broken Bengali.

“No, I don’t. Let us communicate only in my mother tongue, Bangla. Tell me more about the Jamatia clique”, was my reply to Meena.

“Kokborok is the language of our Jamatia clan. Jamatia is a combination of two Kokborok terms – Jama meaning ‘tax’ and twiya meaning ‘no need to pay’. We aren’t scared of rulers and we do not pay tax.

We Jamatia clan are the third largest tribe in Tripura after the Tripuris (Debbarma) and Reangs. Jamatia also derives its roots from the word jamat meaning union of people,  which in the modern times got renamed to Jamatia. We believe in congruence and reside in harmony.” Meena explained.

I look at Meena. She had mongoloid features much like the others of her community.

We decide to sit on the ground of her bamboo house or ‘ua’ in Kokborok. The house is erected six feet above the ground to save them from the attack of wild animals. These houses are known as ‘Tong’. Meena takes me for a tour of her house but prohibits from entering the kitchen. Meena explains that they belong to Kashyap Gotra and that they follow Vaishnavism. They are superior from any other community and hence they do not allow people from other community to enter their kitchen. As an extension of their religious beliefs,  Meena and her folks had once stopped drinking wine, several meats and also rearing of live stocks. They used to adorn chandan tilak on their forehead until recently where they had discarded such traditions and have become more liberal.

Unakoti means one less than a koti, a crore. What makes you plan a dance recital here in our area, as I see that you are an urban woman?” Meena probes me.

“Well, I was born in North Bengal in a city called Jalpaiguri which is located near the foothills of the Himalayas and banks of Teesta River and was raised in Agartala, the capital city of Tripura that makes me a part of your clan, Meena. And dance runs in my blood;  I want to perform a Tandava dance symbolizing Lord Shiva. Unakoti is a Shiva pilgrimage spot and I will be dancing to appease the Gods carved in the stones. Can you elaborate me on the history of Unakoti?” I urge Meena.

Meena explains that as per the Hindu doctrine, Lord Shiva was on his way for a pilgrimage to Kashi along with one crore other Gods when he decided to make a night halt in this hilly terrain. All the Gods were asked to wake up before sunrise to proceed to Kashi but next morning it was only Shiva who could make it before sunrise. He left alone for Kashi cursing the others to become effigies. So all the Gods and Goddesses turned into stone carvings except Shiva. Hence the word Unakoti.  The hilly region dates back to the 7th – 9th century AD.

Another legend says that Unakoti is a result of Kalu Kumar who was a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva and Parvati. When Shiva and Parvati were on their way to Mount Meru, Kalu wanted to join them in their heavenly abode. Lord Shiva agreed with the condition that Kalu  needed to build effigies of one crore deities before the day break. Fate willed otherwise, Kalu sculpted all the effigies barring one hence was prohibited entry with the Gods to their heavenly abode.  So this is another theory justifying Unakoti – one less than a crore.

Unakoti is famous for its spectacular murals and natural beauty including mountainous landscape and waterfalls. The hilly territory of Uankoti is picturesque and a search for vacation ends when one wanders in the forested area with an opulent flora, fauna and natural breeze. The overflowing beauty of Unakoti is the kind I always have dreamed of as a perfect setting to write my poetry and practice my dance, in serenity, amidst nature’s abundance and beauty, while simultaneously being one with the divine powers of the Almighty. Though Unakoti has several undiscovered murals of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses the 30 feet long statuette of Shiva’s head known as Unakotishwara Kal Bhairav is the most prized possession of the Unakoti hills.

Meena describes Unakoti as a place of pilgrimage dedicated to Lord Shiva and it has always been my dream to perform the Tandava dance to placate the Almighty.

Meena and her tribes are also devotees of Lord Shiva. Their sub tribal group worships Gorai mwtai – Goddess Parvati or Durga with lot of reverence. They also worship ‘Shiva – The Mahadev’ or Mwtai Kotor, Tripura Sundari, Twima – or Goddess of water that is the Ganges and the Choddo debota or deity of ‘fourteen Gods’.

Explaining their marriage system,  Meena says Kaglaimani and Hanjuk Kailamani are the two different marriage practices of the Jamatia tribes. It is endogamic and no one can marry within the same pedigree. Polygamy prevails in their marriage custom. Widow re-marriages too exist. A divorced person can re-marry.

Meena further elucidates that they have their own house of justice for social law and order. The three tier administrative structure consists of Luko Panchayat (Village council), Moyal Panchayat (Regional council) and Hoda (Supreme council).

The Hoda is headed by the Okra who is the supreme of the clan. Like in a  general election, the Hoda Okra is selected concordantly by village chokdiris and moyal panchais once in every five years. Their duties include performing social occasions and worships, protection of the community as per their internal rules and regulations, settlement of disputes and conflicts and many more.

The functions of Moyal and Luku are somewhat similar to the Hoda and they too are selected by chokdiris and panchais.

Due to constant mingling with the Bengalis, Meena and her tribes have embraced certain Hindu customs. Jamatia people are fair, brawny, brave and beautiful. Their once powerful leader Porikshit Jamatia rebelled against the prejudiced oppression of the rulers (kings).

Meena teaches me certain dance steps from her Goria dance which they perform during Goria Puja and also Jhum dance which they perform during the harvest season. Surprisingly, I find no more the need to perform the Tandava Rasa. I feel the peace and serenity through Meena sitting in the hills of Unakoti. It was the Jamatia tribes who jettisoned the shifting cultivation ‘huk chamani’ and opted for the more advanced form of agriculture. Today her tribes are more knowledgeable and are financially more equipped than the other tribes of Tripura.

I borrow Meena’s Rignai and Rikutu for her dance recital and leave for my practice sessions back in the guest house. In exchange of the dresses I ask Meena the rent I need to pay for using her dresses. Meena nods in disagreement and does not charge a penny. She walks away as it is time for her prayers.

I was flabbergasted at the tranquility on Meena’s face as she spoke. I magnetized myself with Meena’s inner spiritual soul. That’s how I got connected with Meena, her Jamatia clan and Unakoti hills. I learned about them all sitting with Meena in the hilly terrain of the North eastern part of Tripura, Unakoti – one less than a crore.


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