blog, History

Grand Trunk Road

I have heard a story somewhere that there was once an emperor who had ordered his ministers to build a road that connects his kingdom to far-off places. The ministers thought the emperor is going mad as the kingdom was going through a financial crisis. But the emperor insisted that the road should be built. So the work began and the road was built.

Within a few years, the coffers of the kingdom were full. It was a thriving center for trade as well as knowledge. People visited the kingdom from far-off places through that road to trade and brought with them different cultures and it, in turn, lead to the growth of the kingdom. And all this was possible because of the road that the emperor built. Now the citizens understood that the king was truly a remarkable man because he could gauge the importance of the roadways.

This story illustrates that good roads are very important for any country to progress. Roads are called the lifeline of any country and all the governments spend a huge amount of money to keep the roads in good condition. Governments all over the world make thousands of kilometers of roads every year so that movement of people and goods can happen smoothly round the year.

Our ancestors too understood the value of roads and built all-weather roads which are still in operation. One such road, which is said to be one of the oldest and longest in Asia, is the Grand Trunk Road. The road connects four countries in the Indian subcontinent and has seen many eras. It has seen war, peace, prosperity, poverty, destruction, and abundance and has stood the test of time. It is not only a mere spectator but a part and parcel of the upheavals of the history of the subcontinent.

The precursor of the modern-day Grand Trunk Road was called the Uttarpath or the Northern Road, which has been mentioned in epics such as Mahabharata as well as in the Buddhist literature. In the 3rd century BCE, when Mauryan Empire was at its zenith and trade was flourishing, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya built a road connecting Patliputra (modern day Patna) to Takshashila. The road was constructed in eight phases and Chandragupta had an army of officials overseeing the maintenance of this road. This route was built over the ancient Uttarpath. During the reign of Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, trees were planted and wells built along this road which were recorded in his edicts. Another great emperor Kanishka is also known to have controlled this road.

In 16th century, Sher Shah Suri began developing this road. He extended the road from Chittagong (present day Bangladesh) in the east to Kabul (present day Afghanistan) in the west. He also renovated the road. More trees were planted and at every 2 kos, a Sarai (inns) was built. There were milestones too in the road called the Kos-Minars to mark every Kos. Beautification of the road was also done by building gardens alongside the road. The road was called ‘Sadak-e-Azam‘ during Sher Shah Suri’s time. The road also connected to the famous ‘Silk Route‘ paving the way for spread of knowledge, religion and trade.

Under the patronage of Mughals, the road was further upgraded. Emperor Jehangir planted broad-leaved trees in the stretch between Lahore and Agra and built bridges over the water bodies situated along the highway. The road was known as ‘Badshahi Sadak’ in the Mughal era.

During colonial times, the name Grand Trunk Road came into being. The East India Company started metalled road construction and the Grand Trunk Road was rebuilt at a cost of £1000/mile. The road connected huge parts of undivided India and made administration and travel easier for the common people.

The present day road which covers a distance of 1,500 miles (2,500km), connects the four countries in the subcontinent namely Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is used for trasportation and trade in modern times and is part of the national highways of the four countries.

The road connects people, places and is one aspect of history that is constantly evolving with changing times. The great empires that built this road cease to exist today but travelling through the vast expense of this road connects the traveller to millions of unknown, unnamed men and women who walked on this road in different periods of time.

No one can describe this historical road better than Rudyard Kipling. In his novel Kim, which is set mostly along the Grand Trunk Road, he writes

And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles—such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world. They looked at the green-arched, shade-flecked length of it, the white breadth speckled with slow-pacing folk…