In August sparse grass provided a veneer of green to the rocky hillside. Otherwise it was barren with nary a tree for shade. But there was silence. Silence, overwhelming and complete that remained undisturbed by the distant sound of traffic. Such is the hill of – that lies outside the village of Bilot some forty kilometres north of Dera Ismail Khan on the highroad to Chashma. Barren and rocky, it would be an unremarkable place but for the group of seven extraordinarily ornate buildings, all Hindu temples, that crown its top.
Here is a flat-topped edifice whose tapering shikhara, or steeple, gave way long ago. It is likely that more than the malevolent hand of man, it was the passage to time that wrought its overthrow. A little way off behind it are two more on a high plinth. One has an angular shikhara whose unique feature are the gaping oblong windows. Barely ten metres across on the same plinth and directly facing this building is another. A couple of hundred metres to the north, across a stretch of ground thickly sprinkled with the detritus of houses whose foundations are all that remain and broken pottery, is a group of four buildings. These too sit atop a raised plinth.
Behind these and a little to the side is the stub of yet another temple. From a visit back in December 1988 I vaguely remember seeing this complete and wonder if it fell to the vengeful hand of believers after the sacrilege in Ayodhya in December 1992. That was when fanatical Sadhus tore down a five-hundred-year old mosque and avenging Pakistanis destroyed temples and baradaris at home. But I could be wrong. If they did indeed come with their hammers and pick axes, why would they spare the rest of the buildings? The ones that stand intact, if their condition permits calling them intact, number seven in all. Around the western and northern rim of the hill, runs a fortification wall interspersed with massive turrets.
It is impossible for even the most blasé of travellers not to be impressed by the extravagance of the construction at Kafir Kot Bilot. The façade’s intricate and repetitive horseshoe patterns or gavaksha (literally Pivot of the Sun), the cogged amlaka (fruit of the amla tree) and the symphonic repetition of pilasters with stylised capitals and bases are reminders of the fullness of the craftsmen’s vocabulary of embellishment.
Obviously whichever king ordered this extraordinary complex to be raised was possessed of a great deal of affluence. From the number of temples it is obvious, too, that this complex of fortified temples was a college for Vedic learning. If anything, the vast ruins of foundations surely mark the rooms and rooms where young students laboured away over ancient religious tomes. Strangely, however, the silence that prevails over this abandoned and ruinous site reaches far back into the annals of history: there is absolutely no mention of this wonderful place in any historical work whether ancient or contemporary. It is strange indeed that a place of such opulence should have escaped the notice of men like Mahmud the Ghaznavide or Timur the Lame – savage men claiming to be charged with iconoclastic fervour.
Interestingly John Wood, the 19th century explorer, who journeyed up the Indus on his way to discover the source of the Oxus River, paused to explore another Kafir Kot. Called Kafir Kot Tilot it lies atop a low hill smack on the Indus about 30 kilometres north of Bilot. Like Bilot it has an encircling rampart but flaunts only three temples besides a ruined double-storeyed house, all apparently contemporaneous with Bilot. Tilot also finds mention is the works of Alexander Burnes and the mysterious Charles Masson, both Wood’s contemporaries. But strangely enough all three fail even to hear of this far grander Kafir Kot at Bilot.
The temples of Bilot (and Tilot as well), among a chain of temples that stretch from Nandna on the eastern extremity of the Salt Range right though the hills to the Indus, are collectively known as the Hindu Shahya temples. Among this number are Ketas Raj and the exquisite beauty of Malot besides a number of others. All these are believed to have been raised by Hindu Shahya kings who ruled over Kashmir and the northern parts of Punjab and NWFP just before the Ghaznavide explosion.
The period following the end of the Mauryan empire (late 3rd century BC) right down to the 6th century AD was one of endless flux and upheaval. But after the White Huns were defeated and dispersed by a Rajput army in AD 528, there followed nearly five hundred years of peace. There were no incursions into the subcontinent from the northwest until the last years of the 10th century when Mahmud the robber king made his first foray. In that period of peace and tranquillity kings possessed of great wealth set to constructing these fortified temple complexes. It is remarkable that of the entire set of Hindu Shahya temples (there being eight, including the two Kafir Kots) only Nandna is clearly mentioned in history.
It is understandable if some smaller and less significant sites remain historically ignored, but it is a niggling mystery when a site as fabulous as Kafir Kot Bilot misses the glare of history. And so in the absence of historical reference, lore invents a Raja Bil who founded this complex while his brother Til founded Tilot long before the advent of Islam. A third brother, Akil, is said to have been the founder of Akilot now marked by the mound of Akra just outside Bannu.
In an age when Rajput princes were named as grandly as Lalitaditya or Yasodharman or Durlabhavardhan, even a poor potter’s son would not have such a silly, meaningless name as Til or Bil. Consequently I do not believe there were rajas called by such ridiculous names. These remain the invention of ignorant local historians attempting to explain the names of Bilot or Tilot.
That does nothing to reduce the significance of the ruins of Kafir Kot, however. Even if there has been no scientific inquiry into its history, we know from the architectural style that the temple complex of Bilot was raised sometime in the 11th century. Other than that, silence pervades the hilltop shrine.