In France, when a friend or a neighbour returns from a vacation, the first question he is asked is: “Tu as bien mangé?” (“Did you eat well?”). This is yet another indication of the French love of good food, and how important it is, especially during a holiday.

I’m afraid I fall into this school myself: when we are planning a trip, my first question about our destination is whether it has a decent Internet connection. The second relates to food: does it have good restaurants and good markets? And does the place we are staying in have a well-equipped kitchen?

One of my favourite foodie celebrities is Anthony Bourdain, author of the bestselling ‘Kitchen Confidential’. This was an expose of what actually goes on behind the scenes in famous restaurants, and was a real eye-opener. He followed this up with a popular TV show named after his second book ‘A Cook’s Tour’ (or is it the other way around?). Here, Bourdain embarks on a series of trips to explore remote culinary byways.

Some of Bourdain’s experiments with extreme gastronomy would test the strongest stomach. In one chapter on Vietnam, he describes how it feels to eat a live, beating cobra heart:

“And the heart, a Chiclet-like oyster-like organ, still beating, is placed gently into the small white cup and offered to me. It’s still pumping, a tiny white-and-pink object, moving up and down, up and down, at a regular pace in a small pool of blood at the bottom of the cup. I bring it to my lips, tilt my head back, and swallow. It’s a bit like a little Olympia oyster — a hyperactive one. I give it a little chew, but the heart still beats … beats … and beats. All the way down. The taste? Not much of one…”

But ‘A Cook’s Tour’ is more than just a series of exotic meals: Bourdain introduces us to the etiquette of a formal kaiseki meal in Japan, as well as the politics and economics of producing TV food shows. And after a meal of barbecued lamb in the desert in Morocco with a band of Tuaregs, he falls asleep on a sand dune under the brilliant stars in the Sahara.

I learned from Bourdain that Ho Chi Minh, the guiding light of modern Vietnam, was an excellent cook. During his years in Paris before he founded the Vietnam Communist Party, Minh worked as an assistant to the great Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel. He then went on to cook on a transatlantic liner before getting a job as a pastry chef in Boston.

Still in Vietnam, Bourdain describes the joy of eating pho, a spicy noodle soup: “Is there anything better on this planet than a properly made bowl of pho? I don’t know. Precious few things can approach it. It’s got it all. A bowl of clear hot liquid, loaded with shreds of fresh, white and pink crabmeat, and noodles is handed to me, garnished with bean sprouts and chopped fresh cilantro [dhania]. A little plate of condiments comes next…”

I’m sure you get the idea. We are planning a trip to Vietnam later this year, and the first thing I plan to do is go into a bazaar and order a dish of pho.

On his travels, Bourdain doesn’t hold back from commenting on the history and society of the lands he visits. While describing the terrible suffering of the Cambodian people from the American bombings during the Vietnam War, and the subsequent bloodbath inflicted on that country by Pol Pot, he writes:

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands… Witness what Henry did in Cambodia … and you will not understand why he is not sitting on the dock at The Hague next to Milosevic…”

Just outside Phnom Penh, Bourdain visits the Gun Club where the drinks are free, and you pay for the ammunition you fire. You can pull the trigger on everything from an AK 47 to an M16. You can even throw a hand grenade if you are so inclined. Given that many of the guests are pretty drunk, I think I’ll give the club a miss if I ever get to Cambodia. Bourdain, by the way, was very pleased that he completely shredded his targets. The waiter paid him the compliment of saying he could be a killer.

But Bourdain remains somebody passionate about life and all its many pleasures. He writes with an enviably direct, natural style peppered with earthy, evocative language. Bourdain is an engaging travel companion, and I plan to take his book to Vietnam to act as a culinary guide.

Irfan Husain is a senior columnist.

This week we start

a fortnightly column asking some passionate travellers to write about their favourite travel tale from whatever source.






Journeying on the highway from Chashma to Dera Ismail Khan would have been kind of monotonous and boring if it were not for three things; The towering Khasor Range lying astride the road, the numerous date groves and the reedy swamps following the contours of the Chashma Right Bank Canal and, of course, the ruins of South Kafir Kot, perched atop a plateau branching off the Khasor Mountains. Not only for the casual traveller do these monuments create a splendid liveliness in the scenery, even the regular traveller possessing a keen eye finds enough to enliven his time spent here.

The ruins of South Kafir Kot (henceforth Bilot) are a timeless relic, conspicuously visible, just as one passes through this wondrous country. Visible on the highway from as far north as Bilot, a few ruinous temples stand amidst a maze of neatly scattered debris, towering over the surrounding landscape, paling all in comparison.

The serenity of this scene gives an impression as if they are standing in some kind of a peaceful slumber, watching over the environs for miles on end. But this tranquillity and calm is just a façade, maybe even a farce, for behind the curtains of time, nature is waging a war to establish what is probably the only fact of life. Nothing is forever, least of all, anything man has made with his own hands. And so these temples are slowly giving way to what was the natural order before man ever set foot here.

The origin of this fort and the temples in it dates to the Hindu Shahi period between the 8th and the 11th centuries AD. Presently, in quite a decrepit condition, the temples are nevertheless showing brilliant resilience in the face of odds brought onto them by nature’s erosive powers. It is now over one thousand years since they were built, and yet they stand aloft.

As any student of Indian history could tell, the period between the 8th and 11th centuries AD was the time of the Rajput kingdoms of India, with various clans of Rajputs governing over India.

Similarly, from Kabul, another dynasty, the Hindu Shahi was ruling over most of what is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa now. The Kafir Kot forts as well as many of the Salt Range temples are remnants of this Hindu Shahi dynasty.

Sitting just a few meters above remnants of a flood plain now infested with reeds, mosquitoes and the occasional date grove, evidence exists that the valley just below the temples was once cradled by the Indus River, presently flowing over 15 kilometres away to the East. With ample water, good air and an excellent vantage point for defence, this plateau-based settlement was one of the better sites on the western extremity of the then Punjab to garrison a force and establish a base.

Many writers have tried to analyse the temples from their construction style, and it is pretty obvious that the material used as the basic building block was alien to the land. It is believed that the rock used for making the bricks constituting the temples, was specifically imported from as far north as Khushalgarh on the Indus River. This idea is bolstered by the features of the bricks, which are of a honey-combed drab colour, a colour that local rocks of the Khasor Range perfectly lack and is matched by rocks from Khushalgarh.

Some writers argue that the construction style, the engraved figurines as well as ornamentation on the temples correspond to the 11th Century AD. Others suggest an earlier date of settlement, moving as far back as the 8th Century AD. Since no written evidence exists, ascertaining the exact age of Bilot is not the easiest task at hand. However, one thing is fairly confirmed, and that is the fact that Bilot predates any significant Muslim influence on that region. Islam had either not come there by then, or had little influence on the Hindus of the region, for such a strong Hindu bastion in the midst of extensive Muslim dominance would be a far-fetched idea.

And so, as times passed, the subcontinent was conquered by Muslim invaders from the West leading to Muslim rule and dominance in the region. However, the Hindu kingdoms never regained the glory they had conceded to the advancing Muslims, particularly not in this belt. And thus the settlement of Bilot, along with many other such sites in the Salt Range soon fell to disuse.

While nearly complete Bilot fort is in debris now, rare reminders such as the occasional outer walls, broad outlines of houses and these temples themselves remind visitors of the fort’s lively past. Neglect has greatly damaged whatever survives, and for most practical purposes, that neglect has hardly been taken care of even now, much less made up for.

Since the history of the Bilot Fort is not written and no fabulous tales survive to tell the story of a last but epic battle between two fierce adversaries, what caused the eventual fall of the settlement can hardly be discovered.

Did it take invading armies years of sieges to force the garrison to surrender? Or was it the advent of disease that killed the inhabitants? Or still else, was it a lack of tangible trade and livelihood opportunities that brought ruin to Bilot? And what was life like in Bilot that lived, with the temple bells sounding prayer meets while women and children attended to chores and play? The answers to these questions we might never get to know.


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